Film Explores Music History 'Under the Radar'

Jazz musician J. Plunky Branch talks about his documentary, Under the Radar. Branch's project is an exploration of the history and cultural influence of Afro-Cuban music.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is the sound of Afro-Cuba.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in Spanish)

MARTIN: The tight rhythms brings together forms of music such as salsa, jazz and even hip-hop. It's only 90 miles off the coast of Miami, but Cuba is not easy to reach - for most Americans, anyway. But the music has become one way the culture has made its way around the world.

In a new documentary, "Under the Radar: A Survey of Afro-Cuban Music," jazz artist J. Plunky Branch goes to Cuba and explores the history and rich sound of Afro-Cuban music.

J. Plunky Branch joins us from Richmond, Virginia. Welcome.

Mr. J. PLUNKY BRANCH (Musician; Producer, "Under the Radar: A Survey of Afro-Cuban Music"): Thank you so much. My pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: What do you think distinguishes the Afro-Cuban sound?

Mr. BRANCH: Cuban music is based on Spanish music, and the Afro part is based on the music of former slaves. One of the things that we learn about Cuban culture is that it mirrors or goes parallel to the culture here in this country and other parts of the Americas. And by that I mean these lands were settled or colonized by Europeans. And soon after they came, they began importing Africans to work as slaves, and the Africans brought along their culture, and then they also brought along their music.

MARTIN: Interesting. And you also got to play some music while you were there. In fact, there's a clip of you playing along with the Cuban band. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

MARTIN: You seem like you just rolled right into the mix. So did you find it easy to bring your jazz training, your jazz background to the Cuban rhythms?

Mr. BRANCH: Absolutely. It was quite easy for me, one, because I had studied Afro-Cuban music and African music for some 25 years before I went - so one, that made it easy. But two, the whole concept of African music - black music, if you will - is based on three, what I call three principles. One, the principle of energy, the principle of rhythm and the principle of improvisation. And those things are readily apparent in all of the forms of Afro-Cuban music. So in the piece that you just heard, I was doing some jazz riffs, and we created a track of people vocalizing their parts that would be a part of salsa or timba music, all done vocally. So it's an artificial band done with people making the sounds with mouths.

MARTIN: I didn't know that. That sounds interesting. I mean, I thought - I'm just listening to you can hear it. I'm sure you're watching it, yeah.

Mr. BRANCH: There's the bass part - yes. The bass is sang by a person imitating a bass, and the percussion parts are all female percussionists. And rather than playing their drums, they were making the sounds with their mouths. It's a kind of a modern day trick to bring that music to a futuristic kind of approach. But even when I was playing in basic rhumba ensembles or changui music or - and I'm not trying to be esoteric, but these various parts…

MARTIN: Or show off.

Mr. BRANCH: …of Afro-Cuban…

MARTIN: …kind of showing off a little bit. It's okay. It's okay.

Mr. BRANCH: But I was able to blend in quite readily.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm talking to jazz musician J. Plunky Branch, producer of the documentary "Under the Radar," an Afro-Cuban music documentary.

Now, you also have some rap going on there. Let's listen to that.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Rapping in Spanish)

MARTIN: And I don't speak Spanish, and I understand that you don't, either. But do you know what they're saying?

Mr. BRANCH: Well, this particular rap is about the Cuban Revolution, and saying revolution. And he's talking about the Cuban Revolution. Our experiences with rap and hip-hop music were some of the most interesting times that we had in our trips to Cuba. At the time, rap was relatively new, and it was the Cuban authorities, the government figures and the cultural ministers had a kind of a ambivalent relationship to rap. They weren't quite sure if they should try to stamp it out or allow this kind of artistic freedom.

MARTIN: This leads me to a question, which is I understand that there's a long history of sort of cultural contact between the U.S. and Cuba. Lots of artists have had the ability to sort of travel back and forth. And it's also true that, you know, artists have every right to comment on conditions and issues in society, as any other citizen would in this country. But it does lead to the question of whether - I think many people would say that perhaps you're naive, that - you know, your interest is primarily musical and cultural. And I saw in the film that you say, in part, your co-producer, Alvin Bailey, is quoted in the film at one point and saying that part of what you want this film to do is be a statement against the embargo.

And I guess I just wondered whether - and I hope you're not offended by question - whether you really feel you're qualified to make that kind of a political statement, given that your interest is primarily music. And this is a very long and complicated political history.

Mr. BRANCH: Well, I think it's a - I don't think offensive at question. I think it's a natural question. And, you know, to defend myself - and I'll smile as I do it - I think I'm extremely qualified simply because the fact that I'm a musician doesn't mean that I can't read or know history or study politics or philosophy, which I have. And so others may think that I'm naive, but I did man-on-the-street-type interviewing. Others might have a view that's largely affected by what they read and see, having not gone to Cuba. So I may be more qualified than most because I've taken the journey there.

MARTIN: What was the most interesting thing you learned while doing this documentary?

Mr. BRANCH: Well…

MARTIN: As a person who's traveled all over the world, as you have.

MR. BRANCH: For me, it was a confirmation of how closely associated people are and how close our culture parallels the culture of many places. In Cuba, it fits into that. And by that, I mean, if you studied Cuban history through the music and how it was developed, it's almost like studying American history through black music.

And you get periods of slavery, and you get period of antebellum South, and you get periods of minstrel shows and blackface. And you get periods of Afro-Cuban music musicians not being able to play Congo drums in the city, or periods where the music was used as entertainment for the tourists, but the musicians couldn't come in the front doors of the hotels where they played.

These things were very similar to the history that I know in this country, and I just hadn't expected it. I was ignorant of that fact. I was also taken by how many black people there are in Cuba. When people see my film, that's often a comment I get. They say, wow, I had no idea there was many - that many black people in Cuba.

I think we tend to see Cubans as the people in Miami or New Jersey who are rallying against the current government there, and they're almost 100 percent white. And so you could get a view that Cuba is one filled with revolutionary demons, and they're all white people. And I didn't found that. So that was the most interesting thing to me.

MARTIN: Jazz musician J. Plunky Branch is the producer of "Under the Radar," an Afro-Cuban music documentary. You can learn more about the film and how you can see it at our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore.

Mr. Branch, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MR. BRANCH: It has been entirely my pleasure. I really want to thank TELL ME MORE and you, Michel, for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in Spanish)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Thanks again to Allison Keyes for sitting in for a few. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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