SXSW 2021 Review: Voices Carry Powerfully Across Cultures in “Soy Cubana”

“Soy Cubana” starts out on a note of discord, but you wouldn’t know it to listen to the Vocal Vidas as they perform at Los Angeles’ California Plaza in front of an audience of 3,000, the biggest they’ve ever had at one of their concerts. The female acapella quartet comprised of Koset Muñoa Columbié, Maryoris Mena Faez, Ana Josefina Hernández, and Annia del Toro Leyva are introduced in perfect harmony, describing exactly how they complement each other perfectly as if they were a dish from their native Cuba where one serves to soak up the melodies of the others like rice and another always brings the spice. If all they had to worry about was the music, they’d have no worries at all, but as they entertain thousands abroad, you hear one of the members talk about all “the obstacles and aggravation” involved in getting there and it’s frustrating that as easily as their music transcends borders, they themselves cannot.

Filmed in 2017 during the slim window of opportunity that existed between the end of the Obama Administration when trade and travel restrictions had been eased with Cuba after decades and when the administration that followed went back to limiting travel, “Soy Cubana,” at the very least, allows the Vocal Vidas to be heard far and wide, a real privilege when the only way to currently see them perform is by heading to Santiago de Cuba where they sing at El Morro Castle on the weekends. They can’t afford to be artists full-time, nor are they actually formally paid for their performances at the Castle, relying on tips from tourists and album sales, making sure to insert their contact information into every CD with the hope they’ll be discovered. The gambit works when an invitation arrives from L.A.’s Grand Performances to play a show in America, but to get there, it requires a 472-mile bus ride to get to Havana simply to apply for a visa before the costs of travel and lodging even enter the mix.

Co-directors Ivaylo Getov and Jeremy Ungar are wise to linger on the hardships about as much as the women are inclined to, erasing any suspense about whether they’ll make it to L.A. in the film’s opening seconds, instead illustrated all there is to be gained when such a cultural exchange is allowed to happen. “Soy Cubana” would be satisfying for only its music as the quartet performs truly innovative renditions of African-American spirituals and South African freedom songs alongside Cuban classics, but the film evolves into a moving testament to soft power as allusions are made to the larger impact that art has in expressing the spirit of a community or a country, but less abstract is how one can see the women have their own horizons broadened by being appreciated for their gifts a world away from home and audiences leave their shows inspired, as a planned three-show stint in the States keeps adding on new gigs around Los Angeles. Harmony may come naturally to the Vocal Vidas and after watching “Soy Cubana,” the idea of it seems a little easier to believe in happening in the world over.

“Soy Cubana” is playing at SXSW through March 20th.