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Cuba Feliz


Cuba Feliz

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Like César Paes' Saudade Do Futuro, Cuba Feliz is part documentary, part cultural document. Both films came out in 2000, and both are narrative-free, uncontextualized collections of apparently impromptu musical sequences, in which instrumentalists and singers gather to verbally improvise against traditional rhythms and styles, blending the musical conventions of the past with the emotions of the immediate present. But where Saudade Do Futuro explored a minority segment of Brazilian society, Cuba Feliz director Karim Dridi manages both a tighter focus and a more self-consciously artificial framework by following a single man: leathery, taciturn 76-year-old Cuban singer-guitarist Miguel Del Morales, generally known as "El Gallo," or "The Rooster." Cuba Feliz leaves to the imagination whether Del Morales' wanderings around Cuba are typical or were sponsored by the filmmakers, who did commission a new guitar for him along the way. Certainly it's clear that the man is destitute, and might not have had the cash on hand for such a trip. But it's just as clear that he's welcome wherever he goes, either as a known celebrity or simply because the sound of his music opens doors ahead of him. Dridi cuts sharply from one performance to the next, eliminating virtually all of Del Morales' interactions except for his jams with local musicians, who perform everything from traditional boleros to a hybridized Cuban form of rap: One of the film's most fascinating segments involves a young-turk rapper who wants to participate in an improv session at a party. Stymied by one of the older performers, who doesn't appreciate his presence, the rapper drops into extemporaneous verse, both explaining himself and auditioning. His opponent gradually becomes more annoyed, but a curious and seemingly appreciative crowd gathers to listen. This kind of situational immediacy is rare in Cuba Feliz, which shows signs of director tampering in a variety of staged scenes. Dridi's editing forces the issue somewhat by portraying Del Morales as a musical ambassador whose very presence causes spur-of-the-moment concerts to erupt. But the spontaneity of the music itself is unquestionable and captivating. Like Saudade Do Futuro, Cuba Feliz is somewhat unsatisfying, leaving too many questions unanswered in its stream-of-consciousness wanderings. But it also preserves ephemeral art that might otherwise be lost, and presents it unsullied by paternal explanation or narrative convention.