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In a land of lack, lots to rap about

`East of Havana' documents young Cuban artists who sing of politics -- and love.

March 09, 2007|Michael Ordona | Special to The Times

A romantic might say that the government can't quiet art, and a hurricane can't blow away hope. A cynic might say, "Just wait."

The documentary "East of Havana" follows three members of an underground Cuban rap collective, El Cartel, in the weeks leading to the country's hip-hop festival in 2004. That event is what these artists work toward all year, primarily to showcase their talents, but also to merge with the international musical community ... until Hurricane Charley threatens the proceedings.

"East of Havana" is a rare glimpse of everyday life in Cuba, where big questions and obstacles confront the rappers at seemingly every turn. Some of their lyrical criticism of the government is downright brave. The artists don't live in utter squalor, but are certainly impoverished by American standards.

El Cartel member Magyori, who slightly resembles Macy Gray, talks bluntly about survival. Her mother had been a prostitute and Magyori makes a living through black market sales, boasting that she can fashion a good dinner out of one banana. These rappers aren't fixated on bling, but on getting by.

"I'm kind of tough, a bit tough, because of the way I've lived," says Magyori, almost apologetically. She muses that if she had lived differently her music might be softer, "but I know it's not like that."

Another, the freewheeling, charming Mikki, waxes rhapsodic about his ancient stereo: a small black radio/cassette player. He laughs at it, but confesses an emotional attachment -- it has been a big part of his life.

Of the three, the serious-minded Soandry is the most accomplished rapper. His story typifies the familial separation known well to so many Cubans: His revered older brother, Vladimir, taught him to "look beyond where my eyes could see," then left for America during the 1994 exodus. That estrangement haunts the clan 10 years later. The movie's most touching sequences involve the brood's efforts to stay connected.

Soandry and Magyori write mostly about social justice, while Mikki is shown rapping passionately about love. These disparate personalities form a prickly friendship as warm and bruising as most families, although first-time filmmakers Jauretsi Saizarbitoria and Emilia Menocal don't show much of their interaction until late in the well-shot, well-edited documentary.

The three represent the variety of voices aching to be heard outside the government-controlled music industry: a community of artists with the usual range of disagreements and concerns, but all pointed toward what one calls "the complete unity of Cuban hip-hop."

"East of Havana." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Grande, 345 S. Figueroa St., Downtown L.A. (213) 617-0268.

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