Not only is music one of Cuba’s most important exports, it also has been in the frontlines of the island’s many attempts at normalizing relations with the United States. Even though the 60+ years-old embargo against the island severely damaged the connection between U.S. and Cuban musicians that was so important to the development of jazz, the 1988 amendment that loosened the restrictions on the trade of cultural goods between both countries opened the doors in the decade that followed to artistic and academic exchanges, collaborations and even tours. Not that the U.S. government made it any easier on Cuban artists and promoters, cultural and academic institutions in this country to engage in such exchanges; the number of legal hoops they had to jump through would make an Olympic athlete envious. In the case of brothers Ilmar Gavilán and Aldo López Gavilán, they had to wait until President Obama partially lifted the embargo during the final months of his administration to make their dream of touring together a reality.
Los Hermanos/The Brothers, the delightful and poignant new documentary from Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider, follows the siblings, separated by hundreds of miles, as they go about their lives in New Jersey and Havana, during Ilmar’s holiday visit to the island and as they finally tour the United States before the orange-hued one shut the door on any more trips between the two countries and imposed new and harsher sanctions in the island. Both Ilmar and Aldo, like a good number of Cuban musicians, come from a musical family: their mother, Teresita Junco, was an acclaimed pianist, their father is an orchestra conductor and their maternal grandfather was a clarinet player. Ilmar, the elder, picked up the violin as a child; Aldo, six years younger, the piano after having tried the cello. Aldo also proved to have an innate talent for composition from an early age. Ilmar went to the Soviet Union at the age of 14 to study violin and then to England and later the United States. He wanted to collaborate with other musicians that were better than himself. Aldo also left the island to study piano in London but returned because he wanted to start a family (he is married to orchestra conductor Daiana García). Ilmar founded the Harlem String Quartet, married a South Korean cellist (Siojun Yang) and raised a family. Back in Havana, Aldo makes do with what’s available whenever he’s putting on a concert: there are only two concert halls with good pianos. “You need initiative to get by and live happily,” he says. In other words, resolver. Their mother had to get a job in the Dominican Republic so they could see each other and play together.
Ilmar’s trip to Cuba and his U.S. tour with Aldo are mirror images of each other. Both begin with not only with each brother missing the other’s arrival and continue as Ilmar experiences life in Cuba and Aldo the enormity, the diversity and the contradictions of a country that for so long has been at odds with his own. In Cuba, Ilmar is given a crash course in government stores, outdoor markets and rations. He visits the old apartment building he grew up in to find that his old neighbors still live there. Aldo, on the other hand, is astounded by the decay, the abandonment and the desolation he encounters in Detroit’s inner-city neighborhoods. But he also marvels at the fact that those American cars that still transit Havana’s streets were made in Detroit. He also gets to experience U.S.-style patriotism when both brothers invited to play at a 4th of July concert in the majority white community of Chautauqua, New York. It is here where we see how Cuban musicians have brought, and can keep bringing, both countries together.
The documentary is peppered with video footage of the two brothers performing separately in their careers and of their mother being interviewed on Cuban television as well as the sound of their more youthful voices preserved in the cassette tapes their father has carefully tucked away. And like any good Cuban, both brothers are incredibly talkative and open. You cannot help liking and rooting for them. And then there’s the music. They may have followed their own career paths, developed their own individual musical voice. But something magical happens when they play together. You can see it in the smiles of the members of Ilmar’s quartet during the first concert of the tour. You can see it on the way Ilmar and Aldo send each other visual cues during a performance or a rehearsal.
At times, Jarmel and Schneider can’t help themselves in stating the obvious. They use a clip of Obama’s speech announcing the lifting of sanctions against Cuba, where he compares both the U.S. and the island nation as two brothers who were estranged for many years (except that Ilmar and Aldo were never estranged). And back in the Havana apartment where he spent his childhood, when Ilmar quaintly asks “Why do I feel this is my real house?”, one of his former neighbors responds, “It’s your house. These are your roots.”
Still, you can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness in seeing this almost utopic dream of reconciliation, this joy both brothers feel, be destroyed by the petty tantrums and selfish needs of a wanna-be caudillo. Los Hermanos/The Brothers, however, leaves room for hope as the brothers meet once again, a year or two later, at a small recording studio in New York to record a track for their first album as a duo. Hope that the doors may reopen once again, a hope that lives in their current U.S. tour with the Harlem String Quartet.