A film profiling up & coming Afro-Cuban artist Cimafunk directed by James Partridge.
Former medical student, Cimafunk is now taking the music world by storm with his fusion of funk, Cuban sounds and African rhythms. In this vibrant documentary it’s hard not to fall in love with the spirit of the rising star. The self-taught musician leads us through what makes him; embracing his black identity and rural roots to pushing sonic boundaries and perceptions. His passion for music and pride for his culture are evident in his everyday interactions as captured beautifully by Partridge. We spoke with the director about how his chance encounter with the electrifying artist turned into both friendship and film, and how travel continues to influence and inspire his work.
How have your travels influenced you as a person and as a filmmaker?
I think they’ve taught me to understand that you can’t control or schedule everything and that sometimes things are best left to chance, so chill out and roll with the punches… you just got mugged while driving a moped at 50mph? You’re still privileged to be there, you’re not sitting at a desk and now you have a story to tell.
What brought you to Cuba?
The colour of the streets, the music. We decided to head to Cuba on a bit of a whim while travelling around Mexico, it was the first time going, we hadn’t done a huge amount of research and definitely didn’t have any intention of shooting a film there.
How were you first introduced to Cimafunk and his music?
We’d heard the Vedado neighbourhood of Havana had some cool drinking spots and ended up in a place called Bar Efe. When we’d arrived the place was completely empty, we’d noticed a band setting up but hadn’t paid it much attention. The place kept getting busier and busier, you could feel a real sense of anticipation, a local heard us talking in English and excitedly told us that the guy about to take the stage was on the brink of blowing up and that we were privileged to see him play at a small venue before that happened. I’m ashamed to say but at that proclamation of greatness, and a little rum drunk, I became very sceptical. Eventually Cimafunk burst onto the stage, the crowd went absolutely nuts and we were blown away by the music and performance.
Mariana, the film’s producer nudged me in the ribs and said ‘You’ve got your camera with you right? I think you should start shooting, we HAVE to make a film about this guy’.
Now he’s playing shows at Madison Square Garden which is amazing and surreal when compared to that little Havana bar.
After the show we grabbed Cimafunk and explained we were interested in making a film and he was like ‘Yeah! Sounds cool, but right now I’ve gotta go play another show with another band called Interactivo, come jump in a taxi with me!’. So we jumped in a taxi, no idea where we were going and arrived at this weird old communist looking building called Bertolt Brecht Café Teatro, a Havana gem for live music, state run so the bartenders have no cares whether there’s a queue running out the bar for drinks or you got the wrong order. Anyway, Cimafunk ushered us in and that was the start of the journey. We blew off all our other plans and spent about 11 days with Cimafunk, not always shooting, some days just hanging out, we even ended up staying at his house.
What were your highlights of the trip?
Highlights… oh man there were so many, but a few:
The night we met Cimafunk, racing down the Havana Malécon at 4AM in a taxi. An old, scraped 1950s Buick with a souped up sound system banging out Coolio’s ‘Gangsta's Paradise’ loud enough to split your eardrums, waves crashing on one side of us, the crumbling Havana architecture flashing by on the other, buzzing at the excitement of the prospect of making a film, off the cuff, about Afro-Cuban Funk in Havana. That felt pretty surreal.
The other was visiting the small village Cimafunk’s from in the suburbs of Pinar del Río. It was a place we definitely wouldn’t have had the chance to visit without having met him and felt like we were getting a glimpse of Cuba that you can only be introduced to by a local. We stayed with Cimafunk’s family who were all so welcoming, captured some beautiful, intimate moments for the film and it was there that we ate the best meal we had in Cuba, cooked up by Cimafunk’s lovely Mum. There’s a scene in the film where Cimafunk’s jamming with his barber acapella, it was so spontaneous and organic, it’s one of my favourite moments in the film.
Some of your previous work has profiled individuals from around the world and their unique stories. How do you find your subjects and when does a friendship or chance encounter turn into a film?
So far it’s been research mixed with some serendipity and luck, like when I’d been researching Japanese Rockabilly culture and then a Tokyo rockabilly gang walked past me in the British Museum - that’s an opportunity you need to grab. When I met those guys I spent a couple of days hanging out with them in London hitting up the Rockabilly mecca spots like the Ace Cafe and watching them fulfil their dream of dancing the twist on Regent Street with Rock n Roll blasting out of a loudspeaker they dragged around the city all day. After that I booked cheap flights and followed them to Tokyo to make a film about them and Japan’s Rockabilly culture.
The people I’ve profiled have been people I admire for their passion and dedication to whatever it is they do. When I’m inspired by not just the talent but the drive too, that’s when it becomes a film.
You build such intimate portraits of the people and places in your works, how do you immerse yourself in their cultures and communities respectfully?
Before going pedal to the metal on a project I like to spend some time with the individual without a camera. Getting to know each other, hanging out, forming a friendship and learning about them and their culture, eating at their favourite places. I try everything, keep smiling and talk to everyone regardless of whether you’re understanding each other.
Before making the film ‘King of the Open Field’ about Mexican cowboys, known as Charros, we spent time riding around the ranch on horseback learning about the lifestyle, eating a homemade lunch with our hero, Andres, and his father, listening to stories about the rich tapestry of Charro history that runs through their family.