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SpanishEnglishHistory - Documentary - "Popular!" - Review

Popular! - a documentary by Jen Pazcuban music, musica cubana
©2006 Paz Media

Every time I hear about a new documentary on Cuban music I brace myself for another cliché filled with romantic visuals of old people in Havana and a soundtrack straight from Buena Vista Social Club. Even documentaries purporting to deal with contemporary music include a surprising amount of hat-tipping to the music of Compay Segundo. Thank you Jen Paz for giving us a documentary that is an honest representation of what is happening in Cuban music today!

Popular does not try to summarize all of Cuban music in 1.5 hours, rather Paz approaches the contemporary music scene through a close look at a single band. I was going to say that the movie follows the band during a very significant period in its history, but since making the move to Timba, La Charanga Habanera has always been at the forefront of Timba, making waves one way or another. So let me just say that, as the title indicates, the focus is on the immense popularity of the band at this particular period: 2003-2005 – when David Calzado y su Charanga Habanera were riding the crest of the Soy Cubano, Soy Popular wave. It is a slice of the life of the Charanga captured on film.

The film follows David Calzado and "the boys" from 2003, beginning with the huge success of the Soy Cubano Soy Popular period, to the departure of Yulién Oviedo and Ebblis "El Boni" Valdivia, through the first appearance of Leo Garrido in 2005. We see scenes of everyday life in Cuba, but they are not contrived or romanticized, but rather everyday events in the life of band members such as Aned Mota getting a haircut, Yulién visiting a school and Junio Romero getting a flat tire on the way to a concert.

Popular contains no narration. Paz let’s the artists speak for themselves and leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions. It is a series of interviews with various band members, other important Cuban artists and even people on the streets of Havana, interspersed with a generous amount of concert footage. The thread of the story is woven through the editing of the disparate parts.

I am pleased to say that the film uses subtitles rather than dubbing, which makes it possible for Spanish-speakers to pick up more of the nuances of meaning in the interviews, while the subtitles make it accessible to the English-speaking audience. Many of the songs are also translated which is a great help to those who don’t speak Spanish or to fans have had trouble with some of the Cubanisms so common to Timba.

Of special interest to fans, we also get to see a cut from the legendary “Suspension Concert” including the footage of Michel Maza “stripping”. Popular takes us to a rehearsal at Fanguito, the poor neighborhood credited by the band itself with contributing to their success by providing Calzado with a live test audience to determine if a song will go home with the fans. We also get to see clips of the band in the studio working on Charanga Light, the follow-up CD to Soy Cubano, Soy Popular. We even are privy to the beginnings of the hit song Esta Es Mi Charanga that was recorded on the most recent CD, El Ciclón de La Habana.

For Timba fans in general and charangueros in particular, Popular brings you closer to the band and helps to explain some of the magic of how the band maintains it’s position in the hearts of the fans from Havana to Tokyo. For those who have no experience with anything beyond Buena Vista Social Club, it will be a surprising new look at Cuban popular dance music today and hopefully inspire them to investigate a little more of what has happened in Cuban music since 1962. Personally, I have had it in my DVD player for days and have watched it several times already.

Click here to visit the official homepage which includes a synopsis, a schedule of upcoming screenings and a trailer.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011, 03:31 AM