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The prehistory of the Cuban video clip

The desire to graph music, to share the way they prefigured it in moving images, was very early in the minds of the precursors of sound cinema in Cuba. 

They shared the same imperatives of their predecessors in other parts of the world, because the need for music in the audiovisual does not arise, in reality, with sound films, but comes from the silent cinema when by different means it was to sound the images that were projected on the screen. Remember the role played by pianists and other musicians who accompanied the screenings with their own interpretations in situ, filling the rooms and theaters with sounds where a cinematographer was able to show a life beyond reality.

In Cuba, those who took the first steps in this direction, probably knew of the appearance of some Cuban musicians in small filmic material made in the United States as early as the twenties, dedicated to them and produced by Vitaphone, the first film system sound created in 1926. It is remarkable that two years after Vitaphone was created, in those first attempts, it appeared in the short The Cuban Nightingale the Cuban soprano Carolina Segrera singing the habanera Your (Eduardo Sánchez de Fuentes) and An old love (Alfonso Esparza Otero-Adolfo Fernandez Bustamante), backed by the Buenos Aires ensemble Don Alberto and His Argentines. Probably, the one of Carolina Segrera is the first appearance of a Cuban musician in a musical sound short. This hypothesis should be revised when it is possible to find the musical short that, also for Vitaphone recorded the Matamoros Trio between 1928 and 1929. The Cubans had traveled to New York in May 1928 to record 21 songs for the Victor label, among them those that they sing in the short, according to the testimony they gave in 1952 to the magazine Bohemia: the song Promise and the world famous They are from the hill. According to Ciro, Cueto and Miguel, they, the Trío Matamoros, would be the first Cuban musicians to appear in a short film produced in the USA and where, according to them, was the Segrera and the comedians The Four Fools.

And although Vitaphone, as a sound system, had a short life, nevertheless continued its business journey, assumed by Warner Bros. As continuators of the sound film industry in the United States, they continued to include Cuban musicians in small short films that included approaches to music. graphic representation of what was sung or performed or dramatizations that had to do or not with the meaning of the song. In 1930-1931 the orchestra of Don Azpiazu with his singer Antonio Machín take to the celluloid the great hit of the moment in the United States: The manisero (Moisés Simons) in a short film shot in the studios Astoria, from New York, and produced by the Paramount, company that was also the owner of the theater where they were presented initially. In him, it appears singing Antonio Machín, Daniel Sánchez in the guitar and Remberto Lara in the trumpet and interpret in addition the son Adela (José Figarola), the proclamation The manisero and Siboney (Ernesto Lecuona) He performance de Machín as a seller of peanut cones, his interaction with the spectators of the fictional cabaret and a scene that pretends to resemble an indigenous environment, too far from the real to take it seriously, provide the scenic-dramatic elements so that it does not end up being a musical interpretation without further connotations. In any case, the Paramount incursion in Cuban themes responded to the enormous popularity reached by the proclamation of Moisés Simons in the United States at that time, which filled his famed theater with an audience eager to witness the art of the Cubans.

For that same time, Vitaphone returns to the Cubans in A Havana Cocktail, filming in 1931 in a studio in Brooklyn, New York, Manolo Castro and his Brothers Castro Orchestra. The excellent short of 7.56 minutes, from the dramaturgy makes interact at moments to the bartenders with the sonority of the rhythm section of the orchestra, to then offer a peculiar and sanctified version of the classical St. Louis Blues (WC Handy), to blow maracas, bongo and segments of "The manisero" castings in the piece, and that serve as a musical pretext to later interpret the complete theme with a performance  in which all the musicians participate, maracas in hand, astonishing the assistants of the simulated cabaret in the set of filming.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in France, where there was also a furore for Cuban music, in October 1932 the Paramount films in his studios in Joinville, Paris, Don Azpiazu, a repeat offender in these conflicts, this time without Antonio Machín and with a very white orchestra with unthinkable instruments for an approach to the real are or the rumba to the North America -including banjo and accordion-, in whose formation you can identify, among others, José "Tiny" Socarrás, singer and bongosero; Julio Cueva and Pedro Vía on trumpets. Azpiazu was also approached by the British Pathé, who in London, on the same tour, filmed him live at the Leicester Square Theater, as announced in the title of the short Don Azpiazu and his Cuban Ensemble, interpreting The manisero and an inconceivable Cuban rumba, to the use of then, stripped of the meaning and the sonority of the authentic rumba; but in this one it is only the filming of a presentation in a theater, without elements of dramaturgy, nor contributions in the edition, beyond the own performance from the orchestra and the Cuban dancer Alicia Parlá.  

The musical cinematographic shorts enjoyed great demand among the assiduous ones to the cinemas, reason why the producing ones continue the accomplishment of these audio-visual; so in 1931 the Warner Brothers undertakes the realization of The Melody Masters,  a series of shorts with the big bands first line then, filmed in the Vitaphone studio and supervised by Samuel Sax. Of course, the Cubans also classified here: in June of 1937 they decided to reproduce the successful show that a Cuban orchestra with two Mexican singers presented at the Yumurí, one of the most famous Latin cabarets in New York: they produce Eliseo Grenet and His Orchestra, with the great Cuban composer, director, producer and businessman. In the credits appears Roy Mack as director and the participation of the Mexicans Ramón Armengod, actor, and the tenor and actor Jorge Negrete, who had not yet achieved the international recognition he had after. This material is part of the film archives of the Library of Congress in Washington DC and has not yet been seen in a digital version. Something similar happens with two short films filmed by the Catalan Xavier Cugat, who are still waiting to be seen and digitized. Cugat, after passing through Cuba, assumed very early in his repertoire Cuban themes in profusion, and with sagacity he imposed them on high-night circuits. standing in the United States, within the current of the so-called music society, incorporating even Cuban singers as was the case of Miguelito Valdés. It is known that in one of those shorts, filmed in the mid-thirties, the Cuban Nilo Menéndez, author of the famous song, appears as pianist of the orchestra. Those green eyes.

Fiction music cinema becomes a reality when the technical means that make it possible are created. Thus, short films and musical films in general appear in Latin America at the beginning of the thirties, but in Cuba it would be necessary to wait five years for their first fiction feature film to appear in sound films. The American shorts that also arrived in Cuba and were played in the tandas of the Cuban theaters along with the feature films, should have inspired those who were stubborn in making films on the Island, thinking then totally tied to music and its most renowned performers. To the point that Maracas and Bongó, Short of only 14 minutes, it was the first fiction material with sound made in Cuba and it was nothing more than the audiovisual representation of what the ill-fated gallant Fernando Collazo sang with the Septeto Cuba and the singer and rumbera Yolanda González "Rayito de Sol" Through a story of love and jealousy, a discourse in images that supported the meaning of the four musical themes:  Vanity (Armando Valdés);  Lágrimas Negras (Miguel Matamoros), The Cumbancha (Fernando Collazo) and Maracas and Bongo (Emilio "Neno" Grenet) By the way, Fernando Collazo would be the first audiovisual interpretation of the classic matamorino Lágrimas Negras. The slowness of its rhythm and the elementary dramaturgy characterize this essentially musical short film, made by Max Tosquella in 1932 and produced by Mussie del Barrio through his company BPP (Barrio Pictures Producers).

In 1936 Ernesto Caparrós made his first attempt at sound film and it is also a short musical under the title of the homonymous song by Ernesto Lecuona:  Like lullaby of palms that unfortunately has not been preserved. Along the same road I would travel Tam Tam or The Origin of the Rumba, another short entirely musical, of 1938. This pretended, with ingenuity and little information, to represent in images the genesis and development of what they called "rumba" as understood by the choreographer Sergio Orta and his director Ernesto Caparrós, inspired by the show presented by the most famous cabaret of that time: Eden Concert.

But it is in 1940 when the intention to tell a story graphically a musical theme and for commercial advertising purposes is concretized for the first time: the short My five children, based on the eponymous guaracha of Osvaldo Farrés, who plays the singer and actor José Fernández Valencia on the film. Farrés, who at that time was also producer and advertising manager of the La Polar brewery, moved influences and managed to finance the production of the audiovisual short film for which its director, Ernesto Caparrós, did not find a better name than that of "musical poem"  The musical direction was in the experienced hands of the composer Gilberto Valdés, with notorious pieces in the afrocubano field. «Seven minutes of success for an ad", His creator called him, proud of the excellent photography and the achieved bill, according to the canons of the time. The diffusion was total, through the means then to the use: the producer decided his projection in more than ten cinemas at the same time, while in the park Maceo, like new attraction, The Polar installed a large ad screen, behind which each night was projected My five children

A few months later, in 1941, the Cuban producer Saica Film made the short film Rhythms of Cuba, that introduces in a greater dimension, dramaturgical and scenic elements for each one of the musical themes that compose it and a novelty in its assembly. The Casino de la Playa orchestra supports these themes: The song of the guajiro (F. Fernández and G. Rodríguez Fiffe), sung by René Cabel; the guaracha The witch of Guanabacoa (Hermenegildo Cárdenas), in the voice and style of Orlando Guerra "Cascarita" and the conga Pim pam pum (F. Fernández and G. Rodríguez Fiffe), sung and danced by the "rumbera" Estelita Rodríguez, in front of the Carnival comparsa The Sultana, in a grand finale to which was added the Casino de la Playa directed by Guillermo Portela. In the first theme, the director Ernesto Caparrós appeals to shots outdoors to represent the peasant environment; in the second, the story told by the guaracha is represented, appeals to the make-up in a grotesque manner to turn all the members of the orchestra into blacks, but a "novel" procedure is introduced by using the frame of the referendum. babalawo inside the circumference of the leather of a bongo; in the final conga Caparrós introduces optical effects that place the energetic rumba dancing on a giant piano, which brings novelty in editing or editing. Each of the three parts of Rhythms of Cuba, It could have been in itself a prehistoric video clip, but it is in the final segment where there is a contribution of growth, distant, but on the way to what would later be the Cuban video clip.

These were not the only audiovisual short films with music as a protagonist to be held in Cuba: on the contrary, according to José Galiño, an expert in music from ICAIC, there were many different ones made by the different Cuban film producers in the 40s and early of the 50. But only those that we mentioned have been conserved until today, and there remain to regret their loss some about whose existence there are references, like the one where it says Arsenio Rodríguez appeared and that was produced as part of an electoral political campaign.

The fifties invalidated the need for film shorts in 16 and 35mm, with the emergence in Cuba of the great invention: television, which filled its spaces with musical and mixed programs, where music was integrated for advertising, exhibition and of accompaniment.

In 1964, already created the ICAIC, the production of the short The Physicist by a denominated Grupo Experimental Cubanacán it becomes, in the words of José Galiño, the first creative act conceived outside the vertical production scheme of the ICAIC. Cataloged by many as "the first music video clip", it is not strictly speaking, in my opinion, as a continuator of the same narrative scheme: representation of the story told in the song, without the essential and sometimes protagonic role of editing or editing in the final result. Directed by Tulio Raggi, Milton Maceda and Rolando Zaragoza, with a photograph of Raúl Pérez Ureta, with the collaboration of Jorge Pucheaux and starring, among others, by Fidelina González, María Padrón and Luis Lacosta -all with remarkable work in Cuban cinema, but not as actors, which were not - The Physicist In his credits, Alberto Menéndez, a musician with a history with the founders of the feeling, as the author of the music, emphasizes in his achievement the humorous encouragement of his putting on the screen, inserting himself, in his own right, into the prehistory of the Cuban video clip.

That same year, Rogelio París, with the ICAIC, realizes what is now a classic: the documentary We, the music, that gathers in independent scenes to iconic figures of the Cuban music from its more extreme manifestations, as it is the case of the Choir of Claves, Carlos Embale, Celeste Mendoza, Ignacio Villa "Bola de Nieve", Elena Burke, Miguelito Cuní with the Chappottín Group and his Stars, the dance couple Silvio and Ada, and many others. Each segment, played by a musician or group, could be in itself a short that approaches the characteristics of the video clip.

Under the direction of Santiago Alvarez, the short film would go down in history Now, that using only the photographic montage, by Idalberto Gálvez and Norma Torrado, would illustrate from a perspective of denunciation and protest the homonymous song interpreted by the American Lena Horne. The impact it had Now  It is associated not only with the excellence of its edition but also with the current situation that it denounced at that moment: the resurgence of actions of discrimination and repression against the black population of the United States in that decade.  

They tell who lived the sixties working in the ICAIC, that then, was not very well seen the obsession of José Limeres to record in the celluloid something of the most important that, in his opinion, was happening then in the Cuban music scene. The importance of his obsession is valued today, because without the audiovisuals that he made at the end of that decade we would not have praiseworthy images of several of our most important musicians: his shorts dedicated to Celeste Mendoza, the vocal quartets Los Zafiros, Meme Solís (1966) , Los Bucaneros (1968), the D'Aida Quartet in its 1968 formation and the Cuban Orchestra of Modern Music. In all these shorts, television aesthetics is present in an unequivocal way, and in the last two there is a pre-eminence of the visual aesthetic current op-art, with strong impact then on the Island. Unlike its predecessors, in no case did Limeres set out to graph what was counted in the soundtrack of these audiovisuals, but to provide a visual aesthetic with the artistic-musical interpretation.

Many internationally consider Jailhouse Rock by Elvis Presley, made in 1957, as the first video clip in the world, but in this way some of these Cuban and American shorts that we discussed here could also be classified as such and much more within the production in Cuba; However, such a classification would be illegitimate if we take into account what is considered today a video clip, in whose definition it is not enough to only represent in images for advertising and commercial purposes a song for its promotion and the one who interprets it, but also because the video clip it creates an aesthetic and a language of its own that, conjugating in the montage other elements, today very diverse and emanating from the unstoppable technological advance, makes it recognizable as a means of audiovisual expression.

Rosa Marquetti Torres Filóloga. No es musicóloga, pero le encanta escribir sobre música y músicos. Librepensadora. Adicta al helado de caramelo. Alérgica a la chusmería ilustrada y al postureo. More posts

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  1. Jaime Jaramillo says:

    Very good compilation of historical shorts from Cuba, enriched with comments and thorough investigation of films made mainly in Cuba and USA. Rosa is a well renown writer and musical researcher that has written books on several subjects dealing with cuban music and his most recent masterpiece is Chano Well life (1915-1948) that traces the life of this legendary conga player that along with Dizzy Gillespie, Machito, Mario Bauza is responsible for helping to create the fusion of jazz music and cuban rhythms, often referred to as afrolatin jazz.

    Jaime Jaramillo- Colombia

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