- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2007

When Andy Garcia produced, directed and starred in “The Lost City,” his 16-year project about Havana in the 1950s, the critics called it a love letter to Cuba.

But that description misses an important element in the story, he says.

“I view it as a tragic poem. The movie celebrates the culture and music and way of life that no longer exists,” said Mr. Garcia, by telephone from Los Angeles on Monday upon the release of the movie’s soundtrack. “I had an obligation to tell that story.”

Born in 1956, Mr. Garcia fled Cuba in 1961. Last summer, dictator Fidel Castro fell ill with a still-unspecified gastrointestinal illness. Now his brother Raul is in charge, and there have been multiple visits to Cuba by the leftist Venezuelan president-for-life, Hugo Chavez.

Yet, Mr. Garcia remains optimistic that the island will move toward democracy when Mr. Castro dies.

“I believe so. The situation there is so desperate. There will be a natural transition,” he says. “He rules by personality,” and Raul Castro clearly lacks that charisma, he explains.

Mr. Garcia pauses for a few moments, then says almost inaudibly, “I have to hope.”

Cuban history is not really taught in American schools, so most people don’t realize that the revolution began as a push to return to the 1940s constitution, he says.

“It’s tarnished by the betrayal of democracy,” Mr. Garcia declares, explaining that once Fidel Castro ensconced himself as leader, he deceived many and turned his back on democracy. The only balm for these historical wounds is the music.

The music, the soul of Cuba, along with the island’s culture and traditions, still live on in America, he says. It was this love of music that compelled him to make “The Lost City.”

Fico Fellove, Mr. Garcia’s character, owns the nightclub El Tropico, which features amazing Cuban music and dancing. With all due respect to Mr. Garcia, the music is the star of the film.

The soundtrack, totaling 45 songs on two CDs, is an outstanding collection. Latin American music lovers will recognize many songs by old favorites, such as Ernesto Lecuona, Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros (who actually plays the trumpet in the opening and closing of the film), Israel “Cachao” Lopez (the real king of the mambo), Beny More, Rolando Laserie, Lazaro Galarraga, Bola de Nieve, Maria Teresa Vera, Duke Ellington (“Limbo Jazz”) and others. Mr. Garcia also composed music for the film.

But those mambos, guajiras and rumbas rule the CDs. Those multilayered, heart-pounding rhythms can generate heat from a skeleton.

“The music is the protagonist,” Mr. Garcia says. Fico, himself, is the very embodiment of Cuban music. “It is the consciousness of my character.”

When asked what his favorite songs are, he roars with laughter. “That’s like asking me to pick among my children,” he says. “The Lecuona stuff is magical,” he offers, after a long pause.

He also mentions “Si Me Pudieras Querer” (“If You Could Only Love Me”) by Bola de Nieve. Featured twice on the soundtrack, once with vocals and once in instrumental, this song is used in the romance of Aurora, the lead female character, who is Cuba personified. Although the melody is sublime, the lyrics — “If you could only love me the way I love you” — are heartbreaking.

The songs on the CD are a nice mix of European, Afro-Cuban and traditional folkloric music. Mr. Armenteros’ trumpet in “Cuba Linda” (“Beautiful Cuba”) sounds a haunting melody that stands out as the theme of “The Lost City.”

“It was originally a folkloric melody. It’s so old, no one even knows” who first wrote it, Mr. Garcia says. While he isn’t positive — he says he’ll have to research his vast music collection — he says he thinks the melody was originally called “Flora de Mayo.”

Impromptu, he begins to sing softly, “Flora de Mayo, Sevillana, la la la, Flora de Mayo, Sevillana.” Mr. Armenteros recorded it later as “Cuba Linda,” which is how it’s best known today, he explains.

He starts to sing the same melody again but with different words: “Cuba Linda, de mi vida” (“Beautiful Cuba, of my life”).

Clearly, the music propels the film’s narrative. The airport scene depicting Fico’s departure is set to a piece called “Adios a Cuba.” It’s a new arrangement (by Cuban-born Marco Rizo, Desi Arnaz/Ricky Ricardo’s piano player on the TV show “I Love Lucy”) of a song written by Cuban composer Ignacio Cervantes about his flight from Cuba during the Spanish-American War a century before.

The lyrics are so essential to the plot that Mr. Garcia is considering using English subtitles in the film when the music is playing. Until then, there is a commentary section in the DVD where he explains in English how the music relates to the action.

Which came first, the music or the movie?

“The music in my life came first,” he says. “I studied percussion in my teens.” As his collection of music grew, he knew he would eventually make this movie.

In 1993, he directed a documentary called “Cachao … Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos” (“Cachao … There’s No Other Rhythm Like His”). (“It was incredible” working with Cachao, he says. “We’ve won Grammys together.”) So Mr. Garcia was no stranger to combining music with film. Little did the percussionist know that he would have to learn piano.

“I got the script [from writer G. Cabrera Infante] in 1990 and saw that I played piano,” he recalls. By the time shooting started on “The Lost City,” he says with a laugh, he knew how to play.

From actor to director to producer to composer, Mr. Garcia says they are all an extension of who he is. “I don’t separate these,” he says. But, he makes clear: “Music was my first love.”

Maybe “The Lost City” is a love letter after all.

 

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