Last weekend, my wife and I had the distinct pleasure of attending a performance by the renowned Cuban jazz musician Arturo Sandoval. The trumpeter and his ensemble dazzled the 400 music fans that were crammed into the tiny Clearwater Theatre in West Dundee, Illinois, to hear their unique blend of classic jazz beats and Latin rhythms.
Though an ardent jazz aficionado, I was not familiar with Mr. Sandoval until recently seeing the HBO film about his extraordinary struggle to achieve greater freedom to pursue his musical passion. For Love Or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story recounts the saga of the budding musician’s life in communist Cuba and the artistic repression he faced that ultimately led to his defection.
As co-founder of the Afro-Cuban ensemble Irakere, Sandoval and his fellow band members are only permitted to play music approved by the government, since Fidel Castro views American jazz as the “music of the enemy.” Despite his fervent opposition to the revolution, he agrees to “toe the party line” in order to gain permission to travel outside the island in state-sanctioned bands.
He begins a long friendship with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie during the jazz legend’s historic visit to Havana in 1977. Besides inspiring him musically, Gillespie ultimately plays a pivotal role in helping Sandoval realize his artistic dreams.
Although he longs to escape the despotic regime of his beloved country, Sandoval refuses to leave his family behind. Worse yet, the woman he loves does not share his ideological views.
Marianela, his wife, is a party loyalist who believes in the revolution and gladly endures the sacrifices necessary to achieve its goals. In one climactic scene, she chides Sandoval for his criticism of the Castro government and cites its many benefits, including free hospitals and free education. An enraged Sandoval retorts, “What good is free education if you can’t read what you want, if you can’t say what you want? What good are eyes if everybody’s blind?”
Marianela does not question the legitimacy of the revolution until one of its greatest heroes, General Arnaldo Ochoa, is executed in 1989 after being convicted on flimsy corruption charges. Only then do the couple devise a plan of escape, professing party loyalty in exchange for travel privileges. Finally, they are allowed to travel to Europe with their youngest child, Turi.
The opportunity, however, presents the Sandovals with a difficult dilemma. By choosing to defect, they will leave behind an older son and parents who are likely to face persecution as a result of their actions.
The movie features several masterful performances, including the great Andy Garcia as Arturo Sandoval and the lovely and talented Mia Maestro (did I mention lovely?) as Marianela.
Sandoval risked everything – his life, his love, and his family – for the freedom to play the music he loves. This inspiring film is great entertainment, even for the most jaded lovers of liberty.