Across the Border Cu-Bop is the debut film of director Shinichi Takahashi, and while the mashup between a Japanese director and Cuban jazz may be a strange combination to some, he’s carrying on a long tradition of devout interest in jazz in Japan. This is a passion also found in the plethora of jazz clubs and bars in Tokyo.
While jazz is commercially derided as the “least popular genre” in the United States, the statistics fail to tell the full story of how jazz is embraced by earnest music fans who seek out the music specifically, in contrast to how streaming services such as Spotify relegate these artists and their art to mere background status. In recent years, jazz has become popular subject for documentarians, exemplified best by the success of I Called Him Morgan (2016), directed by Kaper Collin, acclaimed not just by professional critics but also by audiences. The embrace of jazz in Japan is also expressed in narrative film-making. The anime Kids on the Slope (2012), directed by Shinchiro Watanabe, licensed the 1950s hard bop of The Jazz Messengers and put musicians playing jazz at the topical center of the series.
Across the Border Cu-Bop seems to take considerable inspiration from another recent adult anime with Cuban jazz as its core, the Spanish film Chico & Rita (2010). But whereas that film is also nostalgic, Cu-bop deals with the here and now. Regardless, the thematic synergy between jazz films, be they documentary or jazz-themed historical fiction, is apt to gain Takahashi some notice in the indie film scene.
Takahashi focuses the great majority of his attention on two musicians, Cesar Lopez (soprano and alto sax) of Havana and Axel Tosca (keyboards), a Cuban-American living and working in New York City. Takahashi filmed across Cuba and New York City from 2011 to 2014, just before the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the Cuba and the United States. Uniting the locales is the theme of presenting complex music in very informal environments, with exception of the venue that closes out the film.
The opening scene shows Lopez teaching a focused young student on alto sax, a symbol and beacon of hope for the continuance of the jazz tradition in Cuba. Lopez rehearing with his band reveals his polished professionalism as a jazz saxophonist, a master of phrasing and melodic solo composition. While the term “cu-bop” is an abbreviation of Cuban be-bop, his five piece band, The Havana Ensemble, is schooled in the many influences that fall under the moniker of jazz, or as many African-Americans prefer, Black Classical Music. The brief clips show them combining complex polyrhythms, a defining element of Afro-Cuban music, with equally sophisticated elements of post-bop jazz and fusion. A vintage clip shows Lopez’s first professional gig in the band Irakere, formed in 1973 in Cuba and famous for launching the career of trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. Dedicated aficionados should research Irakere to learn the roots of jazz in Cuba and the political and creative challenges faced by musicians after the Cuban Revolution that are alluded to and mentioned only briefly in this film.
Across the Border Cu-Bop also goes into brief detail about the syncretic tradition of Cuba, a place “where African gods and Christian saints could co-exist,” a concept not unfamiliar to Japan where Shinto, Confucianism, and Buddhism are all components of the spiritual and philosophical tradition. In another type of mashup, the connection between Lopez and Ileana Sanchez, a visual artist featured in the film, is unclear or lost in translation but her human and animal characters portrayed in vibrant murals and painting show a sense of irreverence that ties Cuban jazz to other homegrown contemporary art forms.
Filming in Harlem and other New York City neighborhoods, the life of Axel Tosca proves to be actually more anxious and precipitous than his Cuban compatriots back home. Perhaps this is commentary on the American scene in general, or perhaps the age difference between Tosca and Lopez explains more about their different stations in life. Either way, Tosca’s life and career during this time seems unsupported by any mentors or professional representation. His band (U)nity plays dank clubs to audiences unshown on camera but assumed to be casual and probably inebriated. What ties the Cuban and Cuban-Americans together, regardless of personal circumstances, is the shared heritage of a multicultural musical tradition. Ironically, it is in New York City where the trumpet, the solo instrument most associated with Latin jazz, is first heard in the film.
In parts of the film, a narrator contextualizes the culture and political challenges, explaining the impact of the historic and current political situation on the musicians and the promotion of jazz in Cuba. To put it simply, jazz wasn’t politically correct from the point of view of the revolutionaries. When Tosca visits Cuba, he must do so surreptitiously, via Mexico with the help of a Greek travel agency and with no official invite or billing by The University of Arts of Cuba (ISA). Cuban-Americans will relate the stories of familiar separation and reunion experienced by their community. Those who are familiar with the pre-revolutionary history of Cuban music through the story of the Buena Vista Social Club already know the various complications as well as the tendency to mythologize the culture for the benefit of non-Cubans. Takahashi, in contrast, presents the life of the Cuban on their own terms.
The films ends with a lengthy excerpt from a recital at the ISA, Lopez and the Havana Ensemble and by Tosca and his trio, (U)nity. The contrast in settings between the school’s expansive and mildly shabby-chic Victorian recital hall and the claustrophobic and proletariat New York City clubs is obvious and begs the question of how the setting influences how the musicians present their art. At the least, the contrasting visuals are a rhetorical argument for respecting the music and making spaces that deserve the talents that they host, that musicians should be paid fairly and respected for their talents. Tosca’s talent really shines in this more formal setting, as compared to the New York club scene, exposing classical training and emotive jazz stylings that deserve the more focused audience shown by the ISA students.
Like myself, jazz audiences intrigued by the talents on display of mostly unknown musicians will want to discover more about the careers of Cesar Lopez and Axel Tosca. Tosca’s debut album was released in 2016, and various You Tube clips show him playing at some hip clubs.
The normalizing of relations between the United States and Cuba began in 2015 but has suffered a setback this year due to health problems of unconfirmed causes by US diplomats stationed at the US Embassy in Havana. However, Across the Border Cu-Bop strongly suggests the immutability of the cultural and familial ties between Cuba and the United States and the hope that improved relations will increase opportunities for family reunions and cultural exchanges. I’d personally go out of my way to see Lopez play a gig.
Considering all the issues surrounding the political context and the state of the arts in our wider society, Shinichi Takahashi’s debut film will touch a raw nerve and serve as part of the movement to restore respect for jazz and the musicians talented enough to sustain and nurture it.
 These establishments have been beautifully documented by Tokyo Jazz Joints, http://www.tokyojazzjoints.com/. Accessed May 14, 2018.