Various Artists

Roots of Rhythm [New Video]

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Originally broadcast on PBS in 1990 (and issued in both VHS and DVD formats), this three-part, three-hour series examines the history of Afro-Cuban music. Narrated by Harry Belafonte, it begins with its origins in Africa, its importation to Cuba via both African slaves and Spanish settlers, and the subsequent development of this strain of Latin music, including its international exposure. The coverage is balanced between historical narrative commentary; footage of late 20th century musicians performing various facets of the music in Cuba and elsewhere; vintage clips of musical performances and historical events, dating back to the early 20th century; and interviews with numerous musicians. If there's a criticism to be made of this well-shot program, it's one that applies to many ventures that tackle a large, complicated genre: the focus can ramble, and neophytes might find it hard to keep track of all the movements and players, at least the first time around. In its favor, it has numerous interesting musical performances, some taken from Hollywood movies, by important figures such as Xavier Cugat, Celia Cruz, Desi Arnaz, and Dizzy Gillespie (the most skilled integrator of American jazz with Cuban rhythms in the late 1940s). There are also far more recent scenes with Ruben Blades and Gloria Estefan, with the latter's performance arguably being given too much space and significance. Plus there are moving songs by local performers who will be unfamiliar to international audiences, but are doing much to keep musical traditions alive. The cultural context of the style's incubation is also discussed, whether in accounts of the importation of slavery to Cuba or the growth of flamenco music in Spain.