SXSW Film Review: A Tuba to Cuba

Preservation Jazz Hall Band doc is filled with life and joy

The highlight of the Wednesday afternoon screening of international music documentary A Tuba to Cuba might not even have been the film itself. Afterward, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band suddenly appeared onstage, and led a “second line” parade out onto Congress Avenue and down Sixth Street. Holy SXSW!

That said, T.G. Herrington and Danny Clinch’s exhilarating record of a journey to Cuba (and so much more) by the PHJB is very likely to become a classic of the music documentary genre, filled with so much energy, elation, and inspiration that not even an endless PBS fundraiser could drain it of its vitality. Prior to the screening, SXSW Director of Film Janet Pierson described it as that rare film about music that draws strength from and is true to both art forms, and from its first moments – a burst of Mardi Gras, natch – she is proven ecstatically correct.

In fact, there is enough just great musical and human material in this film that just pointing-and-shooting would likely have delivered plenty. But the directors take great care to deepen and expand the material into a broader narrative about the history of Afro-Hispanic-Caribbean jazz and the people who created and create it. It is a musical history truism that New Orleans and Cuban music have always been connected by Gulf geography and radio transmissions; this film makes that cross-cultural gumbo come movingly alive, and provides a couple of hours of riveting narrative and syncopated vibration.

A Tuba to Cuba – a bit of doggerel emphasizing the role of the tuba in New Orleans jazz, and a visual connective as band member Ben Jaffe decorates his instrument throughout the film – centers upon on a two-week Cuba tour by the PHJB. I was shocked when I heard that time frame, because the film actually seems to circumscribe six decades, beginning in 1961, when Sandra and Allan Jaffe moved from Philadelphia and opened the Hall that became a venue, a catalyst, and a shrine. It also leaps backward to the music’s African roots, especially via the drum work and percussion, while providing a range of Cubano music – via Havana, Santiago, Cienfuegos – that erases more cliched notions of the genre.

Ben Jaffe, the inheritor of the Hall and a multiple role in the band, is the primary narrator, but all the players have a voice, supplemented by intense, moving, and occasionally hilarious Cuban voices, and cross-cultural musicianship without need of a translator.

From these voices, bits of gnomic wisdom abound: “Music is the bridge”; “When we play we amazingly understand each other”; “Our responsibility as artists is to make things whole”; “Drums saved my life”; and a favorite, from clarinetist and elder statesman Charlie Gabriel: “Musical conversation cancels out complication.”

Afterward onstage, Jaffe said of the band’s own spiritual journey through music embodied in the film, “We are different people now.” If you can possibly get a chance to see A Tuba to Cuba on the big screen, seize the opportunity. It richly invokes a spirit of human transformation.

A Tuba to Cuba

24 Beats Per Second
Friday, March 16, 2:30pm, Alamo Ritz

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