Review: ‘When the Spirits Dance Mambo’

Talking-head disquisition on the role of African religion in the formation of Cuban culture lacks any especial edge, coming off as sincere yet old-fashioned piece of filmmaking. Subject is potentially fascinating, but helmer Moreno Vega never fully succumbs to the rhythms she explores. Docu could lure Hispanic auds and students of music and ethno-diversity.

Despite infectious music and swirling costumes, “When the Spirits Dance Mambo,” a talking-head disquisition on the role of African religion in the formation of Cuban culture, lacks any especial edge, coming off as a sincere yet old-fashioned piece of non-fiction filmmaking. Subject is potentially fascinating, but helmer Moreno Vega never fully succumbs to the rhythms she explores — the spirits may dance mambo but Vega’s earnest experts proceed at a more sedate pace. Solid, informative but uninvolving docu could lure Hispanic auds and students of music and ethno-diversity.

Pic takes as its starting point the Orishas, deities of the Yorubas of West Africa who were enslaved and brought to Cuba by the Spanish. Hiding their religious observances by worshiping the Orishas in the guise of Catholic saints, slaves were able to keep Santeria traditions alive. Religious practitioners and theorists celebrate the recent recognition and legitimization of Cuba’s once-despised African spiritual roots, while colorful clips of sensual tribal dances, sinuous mambos (a fusion of Latin and Bantu traditions) and musical street processions attest to their vitality.

When the Spirits Dance Mambo

Cuba - U.S.

Production

A Franklin H, Williams Caribbean Cultural Center/African Diaspora Institute of New York City production. Produced by Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, Bobby Shepard. Directed by Moreno Vega.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Bobby Shepard; editor, Flavia de Souza. Reviewed on videocassette at African Diaspora Film Festival, Dec. 14, 2003. Spanish, English dialogue. Running time: 91 MIN. Narrator: Laura Moreno
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