Improvisation may seem more the tool of jazz musicians than filmmakers, but director T.G. Herrington set up some spontaneous interactions for the documentary “A Tuba to Cuba,” about the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s December 2015 trip to Cuba (which inspired the Latin rhythms on its 2017 album “So It Is”). The band members had taken a long bus ride to the city of Santiago on the southern end of the island, where Herrington had arranged a meeting with a parading group focused on conga music.
The film captures the moment as the New Orleanians arrive with their horns in hand and the conga group members, wearing bright white and blue striped shirts, hold various percussion instruments. The result is a sort of international second line to blaring horns and Afro-Cuban beats.
“We tried to create situations where things weren’t planned but we knew there was a good chance of magic happening,” says Herrington, who has visited Cuba many times and was familiar with its musical and regional diversity. “We kept translators at a minimum on purpose. The purpose of the film is going further than language. It unfolds on screen. You put a camera in a room with two people who you have a good idea they’re going to connect somehow, that spark’s going to happen. … It happened again and again.”
Most of “A Tuba to Cuba” was filmed in three weeks in Cuba, with some pre-trip filming in New Orleans. Though it invokes the historic and musical links between New Orleans and Cuba, it’s not heavy on names, dates and historical exposition. It tells the story of the band’s trip through filmed concerts and arranged meetings and collaborations. The film premiered in March at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, and it’s the closing night film at the New Orleans Film Festival on Oct. 25. It’s also running at other festivals this fall, and a theatrical release is expected in February 2019.
The film is visually stunning, capturing colorful details in the streets of Havana including Spanish colonial architectural details, vintage cars, people socializing on the streets and more. Cameras survey the countryside as the band boards a yellow school bus and journeys to Santiago. Herrington and music photographer Danny Clinch both ran camera crews.
The band also visits Cienfuegos, which was founded by people who left Louisiana following the Louisiana Purchase, preferring to live in a colony linked to Spain instead of the U.S. territory.
The film captures many connections, including a sort of duet between Preservation Hall member Charlie Gabriel on clarinet and a Cuban tap dancer. The band visits descendants of the renowned percussionist Tata Guines, who performed with musicians including Dizzy Gillespie while living in New York. Other connections go beyond music.
The film is framed by Preservation Hall artistic director Ben Jaffe talking about his father Allan Jaffe, who along with wife Sandra, founded the Preservation Hall in 1961. Ben says his father always wanted to make the journey to Cuba.
The film makes excellent use of archival footage, much of it belonging to Preservation Hall, including a clip of Louis Armstrong lavishing praise on its early musicians. The film notes that the hall was founded during segregation, and that it was a place where mixed-race audiences could listen to music together. There isn’t enough time to get into a full history of Preservation Hall, but given the attention paid to its early years, it only mentions a few of the musicians who performed at the hall and comprised the band that toured in its first decades. Win Butler and Regine Chassagne of Arcade Fire get more time on screen than innumerable Preservation Hall band members.
Preservation Hall band members find pictures of past versions of the band at Casa de Jazz, a Cuban social club devoted to jazz. While the film documents the musical links between New Orleans and Cuba, it’s also a good introduction to the Cuban traditions long inaccessible to American music fans.