Chico and Rita, a jazz love story

The classic bolero “Sabor a mi” was written by Mexican composer Alvaro Carrillo, but it is the perfect song to begin an Afro-Cuban love story.

Part of the Afro-Cuban musical repertoire during the Golden Age of Cuban music, the song would have been a natural for a young songstress in Havana whose purity of voice and words of enduring love quickly win our young pianist.

The song is among those expertly employed by Spanish Director Fernando Trueba in his latest film, “Chico y Rita,” an ode to jazz and the heady days of Cuba in the 1940s and 50s. It was a time of musical discovery on the island, when North American jazz artists frequently visited, opening a door to inventive collaborations in New York.

An Oscar nominee for best animated feature, “Chico and Rita” is a film for adults. It recounts the stormy relationship of the two lovers and of those around them while also telling the story behind some of the most innovative jazz of the era. Sexy and provocative, the Spanish-language film opens a fresh and inventive window to musical history and Cuban culture. It opens today in an exclusive showing at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis.

Employing film footage of Havana street scenes and actors whose moves helped guide the movements of the animated characters, animator Javier Mariscal presents an authentic portrait of the Cuba of 60 years ago when the island was a playground for North American whites. It subtly explores the racism prevalent in Cuba and the United States.

Mariscal also presents scenes from present-day Cuba, where young people listen to rap music on Old Havana Streets, a stone’s throw from the hotels where big bands once entertained the elite.

The 94-minute film, which alternates between then and now, opens with an elderly Chico Valdes thinking wistfully of the days when he met – and lost – Rita.

It is inspired by the life of pianist Bebo Valdes, 94, an elderly statesman of Afro-Cuban music. Valdes built his reputation in the 1940s and 50s as musical director of Cuba’s famed Tropicana nightclub. He is also the father of pianist Jesus “Chucho” Valdes, founder of the Afro-Cuban group Irakere and one of the island’s most renown musicians.

After the island’s 1959 revolution, Bebo Valdes left Cuba and settled in Sweden, where he played in bar lounges and was largely forgotten. He was rediscovered in 1994, when at age 76 he had a hit with the album Bebo Rides Again.

Trueba, a devotee of Latin jazz, has used jazz artists to score his various films. The director included many of his favorite Latin jazz artists in the 2001 documentary “Calle 54,” which featured interviews and performances in New York City. Among them were Bebo and Chucho Valdes, saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and the late Tito Puente.

The documentary and recording also included Cuban greats Chico O’Farrill and Orlando “Cachao” Lopez and New York-based Fort Apache Band, led by Nuyorican trumpeter and conguero Jerry Gonzalez.

He followed with “Old Man Bebo” in 2007, a film that explored the evolution of Cuban music by exploring one of its key contributors.

“Chico and Rita” isn’t about the life of Bebo Valdes, who performs half of the music used in the film. But it evokes the era that produced him and led jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie to work with Cubans, giving birth to a new kind of jazz.

Trueba uses elements of the period to move the story, among them an appearance by famed Afro-Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, who composed the classic tune Manteca with Gillespie, and met an untimely and violent end.

He also uses recordings of people playing in the style of the era, among them singer Freddy Cole. In Chico and Rita, he sings for his brother, Nat King Cole, who performed in Cuba, in Spanish.

The film also subtly addresses the racism that blacks experienced in Cuba, and the United States, where Rita briefly becomes a film star and Chico makes his living as a jazz pianist, in painful separation. It includes scenes of desire, hope and betrayal.

Masterful music from jazz composers – from saxophonist Charlie Parker, pianist Thelonious Monk, saxophonist Ben Webster and others — helps carry the story and moves it from scene to scene. It’s a character in Cuba, New York City and Las Vegas, where a lonely Rita laments the plight of a black artist who has to “sleep in a hotel out of town.”

Torn apart, the lovers may never see each other again. Chico returns to the island after the 1959 revolution, only to be told by a fellow musician that “they don’t like this music anymore. Jazz is considered imperialist music, music of the enemy.” For decades, that was the prevailing official view in contemporary Cuba.

Like so many real life Cuban musical greats, Chico fades into obscurity.

But like the lyrics of the opening song, he knows he’ll always carry the essence of his love with him.

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