A Tuba To Cuba

Review by Willard Manus

The musical and spiritual ties between New Orleans and Havana are laid bare in A TUBA TO CUBA, the new documentary directed by Danny Clinch and T.G. Herrington for Nom de Guerre Films.

A TUBA TO CUBA deals with two journeys. The first was made by Allan and Sandra Jaffe, jazz lovers who left Philadelphia in 1961 and went to New Orleans, where they purchased Preservation Hall and brought it back to life. Once a local jazz mecca--"every jazz musician in town wanted to play there," said Louis Armstrong--it had become run-down and neglected over the years, largely because of segregation, poverty and shifting tastes in music. Although not wealthy, Allan and Sandra managed to keep the Hall afloat and begin to build a new, prosperous future for it.

A TUBA TO CUBA is narrated by Ben Jaffe, who pays tribute to his late parents for the way they saved the club: first by de-segregating it, then by marketing it as a must-see tourist attraction. Today the venerable but spiffed-up Hall draws visitors from around the world who are treated nightly to concerts of traditional New Orleans jazz--played not just by old-timers but by youngsters as well. Joining them on the bandstand is Ben Jaffe himself; like his father before him, he plays a mean tuba.

The second journey depicts the one made a few years ago by The Preservation Hall Band to Cuba. As Ben Jaffe said, "My father had a lifelong dream of going to Cuba. He loved its music and wanted to connect with it as deeply as he could." Allan died before he could realize that dream but Ben, with the help of sponsors, was finally able to organize a pilgrimage to that country.

"What I soon discovered, almost immediately upon arriving in Havana, is how close Cuban music is to the music of New Orleans," he said. "Both of them share African roots, rhythms, and history." This is what enabled the American and Cuban musicians to jam with each other, instantly and harmoniously. The joy each group experienced is visible throughout the 84-minute film. In shot after shot the musicians show their respect and affection for each other. They smile, laugh, dance and hug--and also shed a few tears as well.

In addition to playing at the Casa De Jazz social club in Havana, the Band also gave free concerts in the streets and parks, eliciting equally delighted responses from the onlookers, many of whom were fascinated by the sound of Ben Jaffe's tuba, an instrument they had never seen or heard before. The Band also took a long bus trip to the city of Santiago which, as Ben said, was like visiting a separate country. Its music, strongly influenced by the conga (and Santeria), was distinct and different, yet reminiscent of New Orleans' second-line tradition.

Once again, the Americans managed to bridge the gap between themselves and their Cuban counterparts.

Footage of past and present New Orleans, Havana and Santiago are woven into the film, giving an historical perspective to the narrative. There are numerous talking-head interviews as well, with such luminaries as Charlie Gabriel and Walter Harris (Preservation Hall's clarinetist and percussionist, respectively) and Tata Gunes, the venerable Cuban drummer who once played in New York with Dizzy Gillespie.

"We came on a journey and discovered a piece of ourselves that had been missing from our culture," said Greg Lucas, director of Preservation Hall. "We were also able to connect with our past and give our ancestors a voice."