Why Making a Good Music Documentary Means Speaking Two Universal Languages
For the filmmakers who captured the historic trip to Cuba by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, it wasn't about translating English to Spanish, but Music to Film.
It’s very hard to make a film about music that’s better than actually just listening to music. That’s the challenge co-directors T.G. Herrington and Danny Clinch took on in A Tuba to Cuba, a documentary the revered New Orleans Jazz band as they travel to post-embargo Cuba. There, the film captures the team, which includes Ben Jaffe, son of the founder of the Preservation Hall as well as its band leader today, as they travel the country, tracing the shared musical roots with their Cuban musician counterparts. The film covers the influence of history (slave ships stopped in Havana en route to New Orleans), the birth of syncopation and jazz (and arguably all modern music) and above all, the strength of music to communicate our worlds to each other without words.
Here's a clip from A Tuba to Cuba that we listen to in the podcast:
Herrington, having edited for Michel Gondry and David Fincher, and Clinch, a legend in the music photography world, had some idea of how to tackle this project from the start. Music is a universal language where the connection between the two types of music is something you can recognize instantly. But to understand why, you need another universal language; film. A Tuba to Cuba is a great case study of how a music doc can go beyond the genre mainstay of concert coverage and BTS footage, to telling a story that uses the power of film to express what the music can not.
On the eve of the film’s SXSW premiere, I saw down with T.G. Herrington and producer Nicelle Herrington, as well as band leader and doc subject Ben Jaffe. He joins us half way through, as he had to go over a few things with the band about leading a big New Orleans-style line parade down Congress and Sixth following our podcast!
Here are a few topics we talk about in the podcast:
- The importance of knowing your story, whether or not you know where it will take you
- How to capture musicality through visuals
- Filming in a new and remote places (like Santiago and Cienfuegos, Cuba!)
- Recording sound on a music documentary that contains (obviously) music and live concerts
I mention in the introduction to this podcast that I had a chance to visit The Preservation Hall and see the All Star band play for the first time last year. It was the last night on a long trip through Louisiana, after savoring nearly every variety of cuisine (fused with ingredients introduced from Senegambia region of Africa, indigenous spices, and European mainstays), and touring the heartbreaking depiction of enslavement at the Whitney Plantation Museum, among other things. Ending with the magnetic music at The Hall couldn't help but to set me off thinking about the beautiful things we create in the face of tragic oppression. A Tuba to Cuba embodies the exploration of that story, along with the pure joy and cross-cultural experience of music. Here's a look at what the Preservation Hall experience is like with the band in session:
To follow the progress of A Tuba to Cuba and to know when you can next catch a screening, check in with the film's official site.