In 2017, shortly after Trump announced his intention to once again close the door on tourism with Cuba, the all-female Cuban acapella quartet the Vocal Vidas received an offer to perform at Great Performances, a venue in Los Angeles. This would be the Vidas’ first time performing in the United States, and an opportunity to play for 3,000 people, their largest audience ever.
The quartet’s journey, from Santiago de Cuba to Los Angeles and back, is the subject of “Soy Cubana,” a poignant documentary now at SXSW, streaming via their digital platform through March 20.
The movie feels especially timely in spring 2021. After a year without live performances, with countless artists out of work, “Soy Cubana” is a reminder of the crucial work live performers can do: offer connection, joy, and, in the case of the energetic Vocal Vidas, the opportunity to transcend the tedium of our humdrum lives.
This documentary also feels vital at a time when an immigration catastrophe has again developed on the U.S.’s southern border. To share a journey with these Cuban women is to witness the vivid reactions their music engenders in their audiences. Their trip is an on-the-ground look at what’s possible when physical and ideological borders are overcome.
But the quartet’s journey isn’t overly-romanticized. “Soy Cubana” is more visceral than a Hollywood biopic: a big pleasure of the movie, for me, in addition to the soul-stirring music, is the human, even awkward moments that arise along this journey. These moments don’t fit neatly into a pre-made, musicians-from-humble-beginnings-finally-make-it-on-the-big-stage narrative.
During a performance in L.A., the group’s families in Cuba throw a party to live-stream the concert. “They’re treating it like New Year’s’,” one of the Vidas says. But the Wifi doesn’t work. After another performance, an L.A.-based vocalist approaches them at the bar and offers to teach them a song. “Of course!” a Vida says, while another, the camera shows us, seems less enthused. They jump into an improvisation of the song, right there in public, and it’s honestly kind of uncomfortable—but it’s also incredibly fun and real in its clumsiness.
The film is most interesting when it shows these many moments with a dispassionate eye instead of trying to gloss things over. Seeing one of the Vidas get annoyed at another for not re-setting the scale while weighing a travel-item offers a specific view of family, intimacy, and art-making. A montage of neatly-framed, smiling family members, or shots of LA ocean water washing away a “Vidas” written in the sand—less so.
The movie is a compelling portrait of four human beings, musicians, women, Cubans: Anita, soprano, “the magic flute, because she can hit the high notes, so sweet and sensitive”; Annia, contralto, “who brings the sazón, the spice to our Cuban sauce”; Koset, mezzo-soprano, “like the rice that is in Cuban dishes… a good rice never lets you down”; and Maryoris, contralto bass, “the salt of the dish, because there’s no dish without salt.”
Directors Jeremy Ungar and Ivaylo Getov skillfully balance providing a showcase for the quartet’s music and crafting a narrative of their trip. The group draws on a wide range of influences, from African-American gospel to Latin Jazz to popular Cuban music — a representation of the rich diversity that exists in their native Santiago. Hearing their perfectly blended harmonies is always a treat.
And the narrative allows us access to greater themes: socio-political dynamics, art-making in a world ruled by the American dollar, motherhood. Refreshingly, the story is a reversal of gender dynamics: while the women are out doing their thing, we cut back to some of their husbands, who also work, staying home with the kids. Yet the movie doesn’t harp on this as the only reason we should care: the main focus is the group’s music and infectious spirit.
Refreshing, too, is the film’s treatment of these Cuban artists as outsiders in the U.S. As the trip nears its end, a person off-camera asks about the fact that some people from Cuba decide not to go back home. The women’s answers are more nuanced than a daily reading of the news would suggest:
“Those who leave always want to go back,” one says. “Some people think here [in the U.S.] everything is easy, but you have to pay for everything, not like in Cuba where health and education are free… And here they don’t value important things like public safety… [In Cuba], it’s a relief knowing you can drop your kid off at school and no one will point a gun at them.”
In the film’s closing moments, the directors remind us that Trump Administration followed through on its promise to shut off travel between countries: “The loss of tourism resulted in economic hardship for artists and entrepreneurs, particularly in less accessible regions like Santiago de Cuba.”
We’re left to imagine the specific toll of the coronavirus on the Vocal Vidas, and others like them.
But we have been reminded of the necessity of artists like Anita, Annia, Koset, and Maryoris to help us make sense of it all.