Part travelogue, part history lesson and part concert film, the documentary “A Tuba to Cuba” is a fun, music-filled look at one of America’s greatest treasures — New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band — on a journey of discovery in Cuba.
For Ben Jaffe, the tuba player and current leader of the band, a trip to Cuba would fulfill a lifelong dream of his father, Allan Jaffe, Preservation Hall’s founder. Allan and Sandra Jaffe moved to New Orleans from Philadelphia in 1961, and not long after became managers of the hall, which was an art gallery and occasional performance space.
Allan Jaffe started a band, with himself on tuba, that became one of the first integrated music groups in the Jim Crow South. But in a city where music emanates from every street corner, saloon door and church window, the Jaffes found their band was a bridge over New Orleans’ racial divide.
Ben Jaffe was a teen when his father died in 1987, and after college he took over the family band in 1993, playing double bass and tuba, which became the band’s trademark. Ben says in this documentary’s narration that his father always wanted to go to Cuba, feeling that a missing part of New Orleans’ musical history was there.
Finally, with the Obama administration easing travel restrictions to the Communist Caribbean nation, the band made its first trip to Cuba in December 2015. Directors T.G. Herrington and Danny Clinch (a concert-film specialist) followed the seven-member band first in Havana, then to Santiago de Cuba and Cienfuegos. At each stop, they encounter musicians who keep alive Cuba’s traditions.
In many places in Cuba, the New Orleans bandmates discover, those traditions were born in Africa and landed in the Caribbean thanks to the slave trade. The rhythms of Afro-Cuban music and of New Orleans jazz are similar, as are the origin stories of racial division, poverty and the uniting power of music.
At every turn, the Preservation Hall crew meets up with Cuban musicians, and it doesn’t take long for a jam session to start. One of the strongest moments is when the band first arrives in Santiago, and finds itself horning in on (literally) a conga group in the street, who welcome the Americans as they form a Cuban version of a New Orleans second line.
Not everything plays smoothly in “A Tuba to Cuba.” Ben Jaffe’s narration can be clunky and repetitive, and there are moments and montages that carry a whiff of an infomercial. But when the music is playing, breaking through language and cultural barriers like they were crepe paper, this movie swings joyously and exuberantly..
‘A Tuba to Cuba’
Opened February 15 in select cities; opens Friday, March 1, at the Tower Theatre (Salt Lake City). Not rated, but probably PG for mild thematic elements. Running time; 84 minutes; in English, and Spanish with subtitles.