Back in 2017 UK music producer Mo Fini set out to make a film set in rural eastern Cuba, championing the music of the area – which has finally seen the light of day, after winning 80 awards at 40 festivals, with the UK premiere in London this April. But this is no music documentary, it is a full-blown Cuban-style fictional caper (based on a true story) with top Cuban actors such as Hector Noas in the title role.
Mambo Man, known to friends as JC, is accustomed to being a big fish in a small pond as a ‘successful local businessman’ in Bayamo, just north of the Sierra Maestra mountains. JC has made use of the government’s economic reforms to expand the private business sector. He puts on music concerts, runs two farms and hosts foreign tourists visiting his farm for music and food. With his hat and cigars and laid back smile he commands respect but he is used to workers doing stuff for nothing because they just want to help mates out. Near the beginning of the film he laughs to his team “The problem with Cuba’s economy is that it has no economy”. Without spoiling the plot, dog-eat-dog capitalism turns around and bites him on the backside. Meanwhile the backdrop to the story quietly reveals the markets full of local produce, Cuban audiences dancing to local bands, bustling and busy cities, livelihoods provided by farming, vehicle repairs, music and tourism.
There is not always enough drama for or depth to the characters, but the cinematography is stunning. It sumptuously evokes the intense heat and light of the sun, the dry dusty fields, the smell of cigar smoke and rum, the patience and inventiveness of people with not a lot. However, the music is the unassuming star. It plays on the radio, in the car, at the bar, in the street. The lyrics and mood of each song quietly tell the story too, sometimes posing a question rather than reflecting the dialogue. Arturo Jorge, singer-songwriter, trés and guitar player from Bayamo, performs for tourists a traditional song about the life of a cattleherder, leaving uneasy questions about tourism hanging in the air. Other performances include Candido Fabre, from Santiago, and more top musicians featured in the soundtrack include fellow Santiagueran Eliades Ochoa, singing about longing to return home. Cuban musician Edesio Alejandro co-directs the film with Mo Fini, and his experience of making music for film shows here.
The theme tune ‘Mambo Man’ especially written by musician David Alvarez sums up the moral of the story “Money, money, money… Oh Mambo Man you have much to learn”, but the music tells the additional story of a rich cultural heritage of the countryside in a changing world.
Review for CubaSi magazine Spring 2022
The UK premiere for Mambo Man will be in London at the Ritzy cinema Brixton on 28 April 2022, as part of La Linea music festival, with a Q&A with the co-director Mo Fini. Book tickets here
The Mambo Man soundtrack has been released on vinyl.
Watch the trailer for Mambo Man here