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Rhythm Embargo

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If the bitter divide between the United States and Cuba is a half-century-old political fact, the connections that bind the two are a deeper cultural truth. A new documentary by two filmmakers reveals a century and a half of musical cross-pollination and the resulting flowering of styles on both sides of the gulf. "Cuba: Rhythm in Motion" is resolutely apolitical, a labor of love focusing on the intertwined African musical heritage of the continent and the island a mere 90 miles away.

For years, University of Richmond trumpeter and music professor Mike Davison and independent filmmaker Ed Tillett have documented the Cuban side of the story, traveling the length and breadth of the island, capturing a rich variety of influential musical innovations where they were invented. "There is a different history, a different origin for every style," Tillett says, "going back in time through timba, son, danzon, contradanza, rumba and flamenco. They weave a story that shows the evolution of the music without boring the crap out of you."

The traditions on either side of the gulf developed very differently: Black slaves in the United States were not allowed to keep their drums, so they channeled their creativity into vocal and melodic forms: gospel and the blues. Cuban slaves, with no such limitations, developed a dizzying array of vital rhythmic permutations. The recombination of the two in the mid-19th century spawned ragtime, jazz and virtually all modern popular music.

The project started with Davison, who first visited Cuba in 2000 and has returned twice a year since. He was warmly welcomed -- many of the people had relatives in the States, and, Mike says, "They all love the trumpet." Havana, he found, was an American city for all practical purposes, in love with baseball and Chevrolets, albeit big '50s models with tail fins and Croatian motors thrumming out nostalgic quantities of leaded gas exhaust.

The time warp extended to the music. "It's not like the early jazz bands in America," Davison says. "We had the Jim Cullum Jazz Band here last month [at the Modlin Center], and what they play is not really early jazz anymore. But in Cuba that is not the case. You can go down there and hear them play as they did in the '30s, '40s or '50s — the articulation, vibrato, tone, groove, all the things that people don't understand unless they perform."

However pure the music, it's mortal, and time is running out because the authentic players are getting old and dying. Davison and Tillett, with the help of a top film crew in Cuba, shot hundreds of stills and 40 to 50 hours of video. "We have footage Americans haven't seen," Tillett says — "commercials from the '50s. They are in Spanish, but it looks just like New York City." And complete performances: Davison playing with a Latin jazz group on the roof of a 10-story building overlooking Havana Bay; a traditional band in a courtyard; and sessions in the Egrem Studios, where "Buena Vista Social Club," Ry Cooder's paean to prerevolutionary Cuban music, was recorded.

At the time of this interview, Davison and Tillett are still editing the final cut of UR's first film. "I get to learn all the music and Mike gets to learn all the media," Tillett says. "It's a good thing we're friends, because there ain't any money in it." In Cuba, he says, a good musician can earn more than a doctor; the bad news is that it is still only $35 a month.

It's a very poor country, but wealth is relative. "A couple told me, 'We have a gift for you,'" Davison says. "We went out to a back alley and they sang to me for 15 minutes. It was the most beautiful gift they could have given." He hopes to return the favor when the film premieres in Cuba in March. S



Mike Davison and Ed Tillett will screen and discuss "Cuba: Rhythm in Motion" at UR's Camp Concert Hall Friday, Nov. 30, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are required for the free event. 289-8980.



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