“Tu boca en los cielos:” A New Documentary about Sephardic Jews of North Africa

Imagine if you could confront every person who ever wronged you. Well, maybe not every single one. But how about the one(s) who you felt mistreated you the worst in your life? Would you want to tell them about how terrible they were? Or would you prefer to show them how you picked yourself up and made the best of your life in spite of their cruelty or injustice?

In Tu boca en los cielos, (directed by Miguel Ángel Nieto), Rachel, a Sephardic Jew from Tangier, takes the second approach and writes a letter (and delivers it to their tomb in Granada) to the long dead Catholic monarchs of Spain. Queen Isabel and King Fernando, exiled the Jewish people from their Catholic kingdoms in 1492, with the infamous “Edict of Expulsion.”  In this stirring and heartfelt documentary, Rachel’s letter serves as the point of departure to explore adaptations and accomplishments by descendents of the expelled Jews over the last five centuries in North Africa. Specifically, the documentary highlights individuals, communities and traditions from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

The official English title of the documentary is the poetic “Your Wishes in Heaven.” When I watched the documentary, and thought of the title in Spanish, Tu boca en los cielos, I was reminded of a more literal and physically descriptive phrase uttered by Jewish friends: “From your lips to God’s ears!” which I’ve heard many times, and conveys a similar meaning. Regardless, this saying in either English or Spanish, is in the vernacular of many Jewish people and can be traced back to the Psalms in scripture. But it also appears in Arabic and Hebrew, which epitomizes the blend of cultures that characterize the subjects of the film.

Tu boca en los cielos is a captivating and enlightening documenary. Although I had some knowledge of Sephardic cultures and history, I had never delved into the experience of those in North Africa. The film features several elderly Jews who tell the story of their ancestors and/or their communities in the region.

Some of the highlights for me were the explanation of the “Noche Berberisca” (The Berber Night), a celebration held the night before a Sephardic wedding in Morocco. The bride’s dress and exotic headgear in themselves are alluring, and the ceremony is entrancing.


Thrones for bride and groom in the Noche BerberiscaMaor X [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

I also learned about  the “Mimuna,” an event to mark the end of Passover, and pilgrimages. “La Haketia” is the language passsed down for generations spoken by Sephardic Jews in Morocco. Very similar to Spanish, the language incorporates influences from Hebrew, Arabic, French and Portuguese. The archives of Simancas in Valladolid, Spain is a significant repository of  documents about Spains’ Jews before and after expulsion. Moreover, many Sephardic writers have commercially and self-published books, such as Lusia Salama, Luna Bentata and Èlie Benchetrit.  The quantity of cultural information in Tu boca en los cielos is overflowing and just too much to list here. 

Finally, what adds to the charm of Tu boca en los cielos is the soundtrack and the inclusion of original music by Tomás Lozano and performances by other musicians, such as Mara Aranda and Paco Diez.  In this documentary, “Sefarad”, in all its visual and auditory splendor, is posited as more than the Iberian peninsula pre-1492. It is a spiritual memory or consciousness.   It has remained in the mind, heart and soul of a people for over five centuries. What I understood from this film, is that being Sephardic is not just about being a descendent of those Spanish Jews who had to leave for maintaining their religion, but also about all the new cultures, languages and experiences that these people encountered and embraced for more than 500 years.

Tu boca en los cielos has been shown in different cities in Spain, in New York City and is making the rounds in film festivals around the world. I definitely recommend you catch it when it comes to your area–especially those interested in North Africa, Sephardic Jews or their history. Here is a glimpse from the trailer:

TU BOCA EN LOS CIELOS / teaser from Miguel Ángel Nieto on Vimeo.


Bakosó: Afrobeats de Cuba…A New Genre of Street Music!!

Today, May 31, 2019, I had the enormous pleasure to view the new documentary Bakosó: Afrobeats de Cuba, by independent filmmaker, Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi. This documentary features DJ Jigüe (Isnay Rodriguez)  a Cuban musician who Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi (from Puerto Rico) met over 20 years ago.  Eli’s brother, Kahlil (based in New York City) is a co-producer along with Dj Jigüe. The Philadelphia Latino Film Festival presented the hour long documentary at the University of Arts, and afterwards there was a talk-back with Eli and DJ Jigüe. Kahlil, also present, offered support from the audience.

The film is making the rounds at different international festivals and has already premiered in California in the United States.

Bakosó follows the path of DJ Jigüe from Havana to Santiago de Cuba to the Afro-Latino Festival in NYC. Along the way he stops at Palma Soriano in Santiago, where he was born, to visit his grandmother. His grandmother is a santera, who practices the yoruba (lucumi) based religion, more popularly known outside of Cuba as santería. Although DJ Jigüe’s mother worked as a teacher in Angola, it is his grandmother, Cuca, who affirms that their African heritage, traditions and religion are of utmost importance in their lives.  These traditions and links have been passed down for generations in his family.

Throughout the fast paced documentary, we are introduced to these different neighborhoods in Cuba and the street music culture to trace the origins of Bakosó. DJ Jigüe meets up with various musicians doing this kind of music, who I, and I believe most people outside of Cuba, are not familiar with, such as: El Inka, Maikel el Padrino, Kiki Pro, and the singer Alva. The children’s dance group, “Sangre Nueva” is also featured.

The fusion of music, storytelling, performance and image is seamless and powerful in Bakosó, and make this documentary a joyous delight to experience. The crowds and unnamed people in the streets of Santiago, dance  expertly, yet naturally with abandon, and you can see how much they enjoy it. Their enthusiasm jumps out of the screen. But this is not just another movie about popular music or about Cuba. It delivers a glimpse into the heart and soul of people who were born to make music and dance in the steps of their ancestors. The connection with Africa is the focus of Bakosó, and the  dance of Eleggua, the orisha of roads/paths, begins and ends the film. Eleggua must open every santería ritual and he is also a messenger of Olofi, one of three manifestations of the Supreme god in the Yoruba religion.

While watching the documentary, I was reminded of rumba dances and chants to the orishas that I heard decades ago in Havana, and how music and dance have been cultivated in Cuba by way of the Afro-Cuban religions and by the government in the schools and conservatories. African rhythms and dances have existed in Cuba since Africans were brought to Cuba and enslaved in colonial times. Bakosó also mentions the 35,000 Cuban soldiers who fought in Angola, and the many Africans studying medicine in Cuba, as more contemporary connections to the mother continent. Bakosó is a mix of these many influences and rhythms. Some of the rhythms mentioned are: Kuduro, afrobeats, conga, rumba,  conguita and makuta.

The recital hall on the 17th floor of the University of the Arts building, where the film was screened, was nearly full to capacity. Many excited and happy audience members also stayed for the question and answer session afterwards with Eli and DJ Jigüe. At least 7 or 8 questions were answered in English and Spanish, and it could have gone on for another hour at least! To raise money, tee shirts and hats were sold at a table in the lobby. In answer to a question, DJ Jigüe said that each time he left the island, one of his most important goals was to show the world what Cuban artists were doing in Cuba, since Cuba has been in isolation due to politics for some 50 years. He did that and more with Bakosó. Overall, it was a rare opportunity to meet the director and producers of this documentary, to discover what new music is being developed in Cuba, and feel the alegría (joy) and spirit of the musicians and dancers of Santiago de Cuba.  I highly recommend this documentary–if it comes to your city, don’t hesitate, just GO see it!

For more information about this new Cuban genre and the producers, check out: https://jigue.bandcamp.com/track/bakoso


Eli’s films



Life-Changing Music in Venezuela

For a long time I have been impressed with the  program, EL SISTEMA. This is a government sponsored program in Venezuela that has been in existence for some 30 years. It provides Venezuelan children (most of them in the program are poor or working class) with a music education. It gives them a chance to learn how to play a musical instrument, play in an ensemble or sing in chorus. There are even choruses for deaf children who make music with hand gestures. With dedication and gusto, these young musicians experience the beauty of music every day of their lives, and that is life changing.

In December of 2012 I attended a concert of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Gustavo Dudamel in Philadelphia. The ensemble played with such passion and commitment. I honestly had not experienced such an exciting performance of an instrumental group since I was a teenager and heard my first live concert at Lincoln Center in New York City. There were several encores for the Venezuela ensemble. I thought the audience was going to break out into a riot–there was so much energy in the hall, and genuine admiration and pride for this talented maestro and his orchestra expressed by standing ovations, applause and screaming.

There are two films available about this program. One is in Spanish and is called EL SISTEMA. The other is TOCAR Y LUCHAR and is multilingual.  I highly recommend the uplifting documentary, TOCAR Y LUCHAR, for those who want to see the children playing and hear commentary by such important musicians as Sir Simon Rattle and Plácido Domingo.


Eating Garbage in “Lixo Extraordinário” (Wasteland) — Documentary

             Cuban art critic, historian and curator, Gerardo Mosquera,  has made a career of defining Latin American Art. In articles and conferences he recognizes and explains Brazilian modernist, Oswald de Andrade’s “Manifesto Antropófogo” (Cannibalistic Manifesto), yet asserts that “Antropofogia” is no more and that it was a temporary movement that no longer fits contemporary Brazilian art.  According to Mosquera, Brazilian art has outgrown it and has become globalized, universal and abstract.  He also asserts that this cannibalism has negatives that have not been explored enough in more than 70 years, since its inception in 1922. Instead, antropofogia has been considered a positive way for Brazilian (and Latin American as a whole) artists to justify their use of imitation as a form of post-colonial resistance against the colonizer, the “center/metropolis” or the European/United States model. I translate that Mosquera cautions: Following the cannibalism metaphor, it is necessary to highlight the digestive battle that is implicit in this relationship: sometimes the consequences are addiction, constipation, or worse yet, diarrhea.” (Contra el arte latinoamericano:entrevista, 2009 http://arte-nuevo.blogspot.com/2009/06/contra-el-arte-  latinoamericano.html)

Nevertheless, Vik Muniz’  “pictures of garbage” is a 21st century example, par excellence, of Andrade’s “antropofogia,” (cannibalism).  It takes discarded items that are the culmination of years of colonization, imperialism and environmental degradation, involves some of the most marginalized people in Rio de Janeiro, parodies beloved paragons of European art, and combines them all to make a new Brazilian aesthetic. The artists figuratively ingest the garbage, transform it, and excrete it in the form of high art that revitalizes the lives of several individuals living on the margins of Brazilian society, making their livings by picking through the toxic refuse of an entire city.

A few years ago, Muniz, who now lives in New York City, decided to do an art project that would involve the people in a certain space and transform them through the art itself. He did not know what the result would be but he desired to give back to his Brazilian people with this project. In the documentary he states that he was ready to do art that would affect other people directly. He no longer needed to buy things or concern himself with money. He had immigrated to the United States after being shot in Brazil (and subsequently receiving a monetary settlement), and had made a good artistic career in New York City. In 1996 his exhibition  “Sugar Children”, photographs of Caribbean children filled with sugar, got him noticed.

The documentary, “Lixo Extraordinário” or in English, “Wasteland”, is the story of this contemporary Brazilian artist and several landfill pickers in Rio de Janeiro.  One should note that the title in Portuguese is optimistic and inspirational, while the English is not—it is the opposite.  A direct translation would be “Extraordinary Garbage”, which in fact, it is. It is turned into beautiful art and results in a lot of money and personal transformation for the artists. The protagonist of the documentary, the landfill Jardim Gramacho, closed in June 2012, but for some 30 years had been one of the biggest and most toxic dumps in the world.  In his project, Muniz recycles garbage into stunning works that garner a high price in the contemporary art world. The pieces are auctioned off in London in 2010, earning thousands of dollars each. The pickers in the documentary are forever changed by their own work as artists, the dignity that they feel because Muniz values them and their work, and by the money that the artworks earned—it all goes back to the pickers, including money earned by the documentary. This is “Antropofogia” or artistic cannibalism at its finest.  Moreover, it clearly shows how one individual can make change in the world, and how art can transform people.

For this project Muniz chose Jardim Gramacho because he saw the potential in the garbage/recyclables and realized that the people who work there are some of the most desperate in the city. When he arrives he meets and selects subjects who later he poses in traditional ways. Some of these poses are direct “rip-offs” from famous European art. Antropogia at work: “eating the European and transforming it into something Brazilian.” (my interpretation of Oswald de Andrade). His subjects are Brazilians in a disgusting dump, and once he takes the photos, they are blown up to a gargantuan size. The pickers then fill in the photos with scraps and recyclables. Finally, another photo is taken of each and that is the finished piece. Muniz and the pickers transform refuse that others have thrown away into striking works of art that are auctioned off for high prices and also exhibited in Europe and in Brazil.

Equally significant is the exhibition of “Pictures of Garbage” at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro.  The pickers who collaborated in the works attend. Usually most pickers at a dump in the “Baixada” area of Rio de Janeiro would not have the time or the money to travel into the city to see exhibitions at this museum. The museum space itself is enlarged and classes/social statuses are leveled and equalized by this exposition—in terms of the work exhibited as well as the type of individual who views it.  Muniz is the catalyst that encourages these pickers/artists, to rediscover themselves and rethink who they are–they are more than their dirty job—they are people, humans, who have been undervalued—by themselves and society.

“tupi or not tupi, that is the question.” (Manifesto Antropófogo, Oswald de Andrade)

Just as Oswald de Andrade plays with Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, subverting Shakespeare with indigenous culture and also word pun in English, the original meaning remains under the parody:  is a life of challenges and hardships worth it? “Pictures of Garbage” and Lixo Extraordinário demonstrate that it is. 


http://www.ufrgs.br/cdrom/oandrade/oandrade.pdf (Manifesto antropófogo e Manifesto da poesia pau-brasil, Oswald de Andrade)
http://artnexus.com/Notice_View.aspx?DocumentID=9624 (Del Arte Latinoamericano al arte desde America Latina)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0Xli9BNPy0 (Adios a la antropofagia)