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January 2004
CUBA: ISLAND OF MUSIC An Interview with Director Gary Keys

By Wilson Morales

An Interview with Director Gary Keys

Just when you thought there was all to know about Cuba through film documentaries about Fidel Castro and the acclaimed film “The Buena Vista Social Club”, there’s more to come. Gary Keys is a noted film music documentary filmmaker whose many films have included “Ray Charles in the Holy Land”, the four-part PBS series “Jazz America”, and the definitive Duke Ellington biography “Memories of Duke”. His latest film, Cuba: Island of Music, is a documentary about the ordinary people of Cuba who, in their homes, on the streets, in their schools, and most of all, in their hearts, have delivered to the world one of the greatest musical creations of modern times. Featured in the film are renowned artists such as Orquesta Aragon, Los Zafiros, and many others. In an interview with blackfilm.com, Mr. Keys speaks about the making of this film. 

WM: What inspired you to do this film in Cuba? 

GK: I was teaching undergraduate work at Yale and master at Columbia and I really didn’t like teaching, so I said I was going to stop. Columbia University wanted me involved with them and asked if I would do a master’s class, so I said that’s an awful lot like teaching, but where would you have me do this class, and they said Cuba. So I immediately said yes, and they thought it was a set up, so I had to quit just to get this job. I always wanted to go Cuba and I’ve always loved Cuban music, African-American music, Afro-Cuban music. I did a film with Dizzy (Gillespie) and Dizzy was a fan of Afro-Cuban music. To go there and teach a class about filmmaking was great. We started talking about the economics and I found out that the Cuban people didn’t have any money, so I told them that I would it, but I would keep the work, and they were fine with this. The film is what you see. 

WM: Knowing the politics surrounding Cuba, were there any challenges to making this film?  

GK: Well, they were mostly in my mind. I don’t speak Spanish. I’m from Detroit. I had translators. I had a tour guide, and the Cuban production arm following me around. In fact, they weren’t really following me around, but helping me go places, and my first trip there, I had 16 days, and to do what I was going to do, I couldn’t take a day off, so on the 10th day of working all day and all night, the Castro boys, as I ended up calling them, said to me, “Listen Gary, we’re not working like this. This is crazy. What we will do is still meet you every evening and we’ll get you the best band.” So they let me go, and do and see whatever I wanted. You can see from the film that there were no restrictions. Another funny thing was that I kept looking for some type of conflict that I could find and if you see the baseball scene, I turned this corner one day and hear these guys screaming at the top of their lungs, and I tell the crew “Ok, we find it, let’s starting shooting, not knowing what the hell they were talking about. As I’m shooting the scene, one of the crew members asked what was being said between these guys, and I thought it was politics, but it actually the baseball game they just played. So no, I had no problems really. It was all in my mind. 

WM: Is there any particular scene that you thought was the best scene you shot? 

GK: That’s a very funny question. I think the best thing I shot is the next think I will shoot. Not to think that I’ve already shot it. The scene that I liked a lot is when the kids are in the streets and the water is surfing on the water from the rain. Those are kids, and the music is everywhere, and the kids coming running from the streets and just belly whop and they don’t have boards, or skates, or anything, but themselves. They all go zooming down this water. That’s life. I didn’t set that up. I didn’t tell them to do it. I turned around the corner and there they are. When they saw me shooting it, they loved that. That is the youth. 

WM: Before going to Cuba, did you have an itinerary of what you wanted accomplished, step by step?  

GK: I only had musical things. I had no idea cause I was going to a country that I never been to before and I had heard so many negative things about it. I only wanted to go because of the musical aspects and because Dizzy Gillespie, who was a good friend before he died, had always told me that if I was ever in Havana, get there in a hurry. It was in tribute to him and then my own curiosity. I had no pre-conceived idea of who I wanted to get.

WM: Was it difficult for you to leave some footage on the cutting room floor? 

GK: I think that is the true challenge of being a filmmaker, to know what are your ins and what are your outs. A film has a certain time to it. My film is 85 minutes and I shot close to 40 hours. You have to be selective. You have to decide as a filmmaker what you are trying to say and succinctly can you say it, because if you show all 40 hours, they’re going to fall asleep or you’re going to lose the whole point. The minutia of filmmaking is the editing process and that’s what will make you either a good filmmaker or not a good filmmaker. Can you be good enough to what to pick or what not to pick? 

WM: What do you want folks to walk away with once they finish seeing this film? 

GK: At the end of the movie, I say that these people have a huge joy of life. Just like the Africans that were brought into this country and created jazz and blues and rock and roll. Oppression, if you have this joy of life, or if you have this way of letting it come out, you’ll never be oppressed. Your music will make you free. Just like the African American have and just like the Cubans do. It doesn’t really stop you from enjoying life.

WM: What are you working on next?

GK: I have a couple of things. One is a play about Duke Ellington and Eleanor Roosevelt called “The Duke and the Duchess”. Her codename was the Duchess and it’s about his first concert in Carnegie Hall in 1943 which was for Russian war relief. The Museum of Modern Art is giving me a one-man show next year when they open back up on 53rd St. I’m working on some outs on that footage. I have 20 songs that I never used. The museum has all my work and they wanted to put it the way it was as opposed to edited.




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