Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 22nd, 2021
Soy Cubana (Ivaylo Getov/Jeremy Ungar, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
A feature-length adaptation of directors Ivaylo Getov and Jeremy Ungar’s eponymous 2016 short documentary, Soy Cubana profiles the four women of the Vocal Vidas, an a cappella group based in Santiago de Cuba, located on the southern tip of Cuba, almost 500 miles from the capital city of Havana. In particular, it joins them on their first (and so far, only) trip to the United States, in 2017, to perform in Los Angeles at a number of venues, including one that is part of the Great Performances series. Over the course of the film’s brief 80 minutes, we follow their individual stories, along with how and why they sing, plus a little about their hometown. It’s a lovely portrait, filled with beautiful music and engaging protagonists.
The four women are Anita (Ana), Annie, Koset and Maryoris, each singing a different vocal part and occasionally taking a solo. It’s from their collective efforts that their quartet’s unique sound emerges, and anyone who has ever sung in a choir or small group can appreciate the hard work that goes into such a perfect blend. To earn money, they perform at the Castillo del Morro, a 17th-century coastal fortress where tourists stop to listen, leave tips and buy CDs. No one is about to get rich from any of this, but a little goes a long way in Cuba’s faltering economy, and given that they love what they do, it’s not only about the money.
Then again, as we see from their home lives, the extra income doesn’t hurt. Some are married with children; all have extended family networks of some sort. Once we get to know our subjects, it’s time to travel, even if getting a visa, especially with the new Trump administration cracking down on tourism to and from the island, proves more complicated than the Vocal Vidas thought it would. After navigating a few hurdles, they are on their way, the rest of the movie tracking their tour in the U.S.
Though they wow audiences with their interpretations of traditional (and more modern) Cuban songs, including “Chan Chan” (made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club), they do not shy away from other music, including the South African protest anthem “Freedom Is Coming” and the occasional American tune. They charm with both their authenticity and willingness to experiment. Expat Cubans flock to their shows, but so do many others.
Cinematically, Soy Cubana is gorgeously photographed and a model of documentary access, if otherwise straightforward. No new filmmaking ground may be broken, but we learn a fair amount about Cuba today, its culture past and present, and its current relationship to the United States. By the end, we have journeyed in the company of harmonious souls and gained an appreciation for the human side of an island so long demonized (at least in America) since Fidel Castro took over. Music is a powerful tool of diplomacy.