Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 18, 2019

A Tuba to Cuba; Cuban Food Stories

Filed under: cuba,Film — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

In June 2017, Donald Trump announced a get-tough policy with Cuba that would reverse Barack Obama’s easing of restrictions. In 2018, Cuba was dragged into imperialism’s growing confrontations with the governments of Venezuela and Nicaragua. As the last three states in this hemisphere that refuse to go along with the rightwing Lima Group agenda, they were naturally singled out by John Bolton as his targets in an “axis of evil” speech on November 1, 2018. As the clearest indication that Trump wants to isolate Cuba, he recently attacked an agreement reached by professional baseball and Cuba to allow Cuban players to join American teams without defecting.

Therefore, the arrival of two new documentaries about Cuba are most timely. Like “Buena Vista Social Club”, “A Tuba to Cuba” and “Cuban Food Stories” are less about ideology and much more about allowing American audiences to see the reality of Cuban life. If you’ve seen “Buena Vista Club”, you’ll realize that I am offering high praise when I tell you that they are just as good as Wim Wenders’s 1996 tribute to elderly musicians who tour the USA.

“A Tuba to Cuba” complements Wenders’s film by documenting the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s 2017 Cuban tour. This was a project initiated by Ben Jaffe, a tuba player who is the son of Allan Jaffe, the man who founded Preservation Hall in New Orleans in 1961. Allan Jaffe always dreamed about visiting Cuba since he saw it as a source of the potpourri of music that eventually evolved into jazz in the early 1900s. In addition, Jaffe was also determined to break down Jim Crow in his own way and in the spirit of other early civil rights activists.

Just by coincidence, I heard Jason Berry, the author of a new history of New Orleans, being interviewed on WFAN on Sunday morning a day before I saw “A Tuba to Cuba”. Although this is a sports talk station, Sunday morning between 6 and 8am is devoted to fascinating interviews conducted by Bob Salter, in this instance one that revealed Allan Jaffe’s role. An excerpt from Berry’s book can be read on the Daily Beast:

In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and Preservation Hall featured its first officially integrated band. Al Belletto, as the Playboy Club entertainment manager, was hiring Ellis Marsalis and other black musicians to perform in bands with white musicians. Mixed bands for white tourists were not like street demonstrations for civil rights. The new mayor, Victor Hugo Schiro, abhorred confrontations. The culture forced compromises on the city. A similar breakthrough happened with gays, albeit more slowly. The Krewe of Petronious invited guests in formal attire to a lavish tableau in a rented auditorium, as mainstream Carnival krewes had done for years, thwarting NOPD’s itch to bust-and-arrest. Complaints of police violence by gays and African Americans continued for decades; but as the drag queen beauty pageant became a fixture of Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street and gay Carnival krewes held by-invitation balls, the police attacks on closeted men dropped sharply by the ’80s. So, too, did the bar bribes.

None of this is covered in “A Tuba to Cuba” but suffice it to say that Allan and Ben Jaffe are men of the left and that the film is a posthumous fulfillment of his father’s long-time desire to visit a revolutionary society that destroyed its own Jim Crow system in the same year that Allan Jaffe founded Preservation Hall.

The film was co-directed by T.G Herrington and Danny Clinch. Herrington, who has a background in commercials, clearly had an affinity for Jaffe’s project since he was an executive producer for “The Free State of Jones”, the great abolitionist film. Clinch’s background is as still photographer, specializing in shots of professional musicians like Johnny Cash and Tupac Shakur.

For a scholarly account of the Cuba/New Orleans connection, I recommend Ned Sublette’s 2008 “The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square”. A New York Times review that year stated:

The author of the well-received “Cuba and Its Music,” Sublette here explores Cuba and St. Domingue as crucial influences on New Orleans.

A slave revolt that erupted in 1791 in St. Domingue ended in 1804 as free blacks proclaimed the Republic of Haiti. In 1809-10, approximately 10,000 Domingans (more than a third of them slaves) who had fled to Cuba immigrated to New Orleans, doubling its population. “No aspect of New Orleans culture,” Sublette writes, “remained untouched” by these whites, blacks and mulattoes. He is a passionate chronicler of the Africans’ resilience, of how they revived a cultural memory that gave life to music and enduring folkways — a memory that would, in the timeless words of an 1819 traveler, “rock the city with their Congo dances.” Sublette spotlights a gathering identity that formed in the open-air slave dances — hundreds of people, gyrating in sinuous rings, resurrecting tribal choreographies of a mother culture. “An African-American music was coming into existence,” he writes.

In essence, “A Tuba to Cuba” reunites New Orleans musicians with the men and women who were the roots of the tree upon whose branches they roosted. For those who think of New Orleans jazz in terms of Al Hirt and the Dukes of Dixieland, et al, I must stress that Jaffe’s band is much closer in spirit to Wynton Marsalis and even to the Neville Brothers than old-time jazz. Despite not understanding a word of Spanish, the musicians develop a remarkable affinity for traditional Cuban music as well as engage with (through a translator) Mother Africa spiritually by learning about Santeria and related beliefs. One Preservation Hall Jazz Band member is moved to tears as the head of the Tato Guines drumming school recounts the restrictions put on Africans during slavery that were as onerous as the ones John Bolton would impose if he had his way. For example, they were not permitted to make drums but as a way around the ban, they constructed furniture that could be used for dances by beating on their sides.

That kind of ingenuity continues to exist in Cuba, a country that despite all odds moves forward in the 21st century. As an act of solidarity, I urge my readers to see the film now playing at the Village East Cinema in New York and that will also be available as a DVD on March 15th. Check the film’s website for other screenings, including in S.F., L.A. and New Orleans.

Now available on iTunes, “Cuban Food Stories” was made by Asari Soto, a Cuban émigré who left Cuba during the “special period” but never became an anti-Communist. Indeed, it is obvious from this beautiful film that his implicit goal is to challenge the demonization of the island that will only make the common people, the heroes of his film, suffer.

If Ben Jaffe traveled all around Cuba to sample its music, so did Asari Soto go near and far to meet Cubans who were as talented with a stove and a frying pan as the musicians were with drums or guitar. Soto had vivid memories of the food he enjoyed before the “special period” and was anxious to find out if a return to relative normalcy might have allowed a great cuisine to resurface.

Ben Jaffe’s band members brought a gift of new instruments that they presented to music schools around the island. For his part, Soto has initiated a Culinary Initiative that is intended to allow Cuban chefs to visit the USA and vice versa. This kind of solidarity is essential in this period.

Like the late Anthony Bourdain’s CNN series, Soto’s film provides the same pleasure. You meet both restauranteurs as well as people in their homes making the best of what amounts to truly organic food. Unlike Bourdain, “Cuban Food Stories” puts the Cubans in the foreground. I understood that Bourdain was trying to challenge anti-Communist stereotypes in his show on Cuba but the merit of Soto’s film is to minimize ideological concerns.

The highlight of the film is a visit to a privately owned coffee plantation where the owner and his young son are followed by Soto as they gather ripe beans. Later in this segment, they prepare a roast pig over an open wood fire to herald the New Year. The farmer is a true product of Cuban socialism. Over and over he stresses the importance of quality rather than money. He obviously will not get rich as a small proprietor but being close to nature and having the freedom to grow and eat good food is all he really needs.

We also meet a fisherman who questions the value of being rich. If being rich means having a boat that you can sail across beautiful waters and enjoy first-class food like freshly prepared ceviche, he is already rich (we see him preparing ceviche on his boat.)

The last food expert we meet is a young hipster who owns a trendy restaurant in Havana decorated by his art. He tells Soto that he understands why people left during the “special period” but he decided to stay in Cuba. Now that things are turning around, he expects Cuba to be greater than ever.

Let’s do our best to help him and other Cubans realize their dreams. See both of these films and spread the word. You will wear a smile throughout both and be reminded that another world is possible, something so important in these cataclysmic times.



  1. ¡Qué viva la República de Cuba!

    Comment by Bill Boyd — February 19, 2019 @ 12:02 pm

  2. My son went to medical school in Cuba. We visited him in 2009 (when he started) and in 2015 (when he graduated). The amount of change in that short period of time was astounding. One thing I observed is that people over 40 and people under 25 both tend to be relatively pro-socialist, in the first case because they remember what things were like before the Special Period, and in the second case because they barely remember the Special Period, if at all. Those in the middle, who grew up during the Special Period, tend to be more cynical and bitter, for understandable reasons. This is just based on people we talked to, so I don’t know how generally true it is.

    Comment by Dave Palmer — February 20, 2019 @ 12:50 am

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