Mambo Man is the story of JC, a music promoter who throws parties to awe the white tourists of his Cuban hometown. On the side, JC tends to get himself into a lot of trouble with different business schemes, much to his wife’s chagrin. Due to the nature of JC’s work you would anticipate music to be central to the movie, actually, it revolved less directly around music than I was expecting. I thought I would see a lot of nightclub scenes and concerts, they were there of course, but what surprised me the most was just how creatively they managed to make music a main character without having to be so literal. Music followed the camera wherever it went, as you might imagine in some fantasy of Cuba. Mambo Man effortlessly wove music into the fabric of the film, adding texture, richness and life to the scenes. In fact, it seemed as though music was as much a part of the scene as the setting and characters, flowing into the background or foreground as necessary. When JC was in the market the song was coming through the vendor’s radio, when he was in the car so was music, and of course, the soundtrack took the forefront during the nightclub scenes.
The soundtrack was more than just a random set of stereotypical Cuban music simply because the film took place in Cuba. Mambo Man the movie tells the story of JC, Mambo Man the soundtrack tells the story of Cuba, providing the context for the events that unfold for JC. At one point JC is throwing a party for tourists, everyone is enjoying the song, the wine, and the food. Arturo Jorge, the well-loved guitarist, provides the entertainment for the event, at times the centre of the scene, at others in the background. The song he sings, “De Cauto Cristo a Rio Cauto” provides a missing perspective. To be a tourist in any foreign country implies a certain amount of wealth and privilege. The choice of song for this moment, a song about a simpler life, a “canto vaquero” is an interesting juxtaposition to tourists who at least have enough wealth to travel and be received at a private party. Mambo Man is full of moments like this, moments that are completed by the choice of song.
“Brisa Mañanera” sung by the incredible Eliades Ochoa is a song of grieving, the guitar is almost crying as Ochoa sings of longing for home. The song is set against a scene in a nightclub right after JC and his friend leave the home of a woman selling all of her jewellery because she can no longer stand to be away from her family who have left the island. Many people leave Cuba for many reasons. Placing “Brisa Mañanera” directly after a scene of a woman desperate to leave again provides the missing context, how difficult that decision is and how you never really stop longing for home. The song choices in the soundtrack make the story of JC, and consequently Cuba, easier to tell, they fill in the gaps so the characters don’t have to.
The seamless incorporation of music into Mambo Man made me think about the ways that music fills in our own lives. Watching JC buy his daughter a bird was such a sweet moment. The song that accompanied that moment was full of nostalgia and hope, a song that made that moment into a memory, to be called back up whenever that song would be played again. Music follows us everywhere, just like in Mambo Man. It provides the context to our own lives, entire histories live in a four-minute song and you can be hit with it like a ton of bricks just walking down the aisles of the grocery store. The music of Mambo Man was more than just a good choice of songs, it added depth and nuance allowing us to understand the film more completely.