By John Curley
In 2019, Blondie were invited to perform in Havana, Cuba as part of a cultural exchange with the Cuban Ministry of Culture. Blondie members Debbie Harry (lead vocals), Clem Burke (drums), Leigh Foxx (bass), Tommy Kessler (guitar) and Matt Katz-Bohen (keyboards) traveled to Cuba for the performances at Havana’s Teatro Mella. For the Havana performances, Blondie were augmented by Carlos Alfonso, Ele Valdés and María del Carmen Ávila of Cuban group Síntesis as well as Degnis Bofill, Alain Perez and David Torrens. Blondie guitarist and founding member Chris Stein had wanted to join the band on the trip but had to remain at home due to a medical issue.
Director Rob Roth’s short film Blondie: Vivir En La Habana that documents the trip and some of the concert performances in Havana was shot with 16-mm and 8-mm film as well as digital, and often has a dreamlike quality to it. The film, which has a running time of 19 minutes, is broken up into three parts: Water, Fire and Air. The shots that Roth uses of the beach, the street scenes, graffiti-covered walls and the beautiful vintage automobiles on the roads of Havana are quite evocative, and the vibrant street life of the city really comes through. Voiceovers by Blondie founding members Harry, Burke and Stein provide the narration. Despite not making the trip to Cuba, Stein does appear in the film in sequences filmed in New York City. Regarding Stein’s absence from the trip, Harry states, “He really wanted to go. Chris really wanted to go to Cuba. He was very disappointed that he didn’t go or couldn’t go. I think, you know, it would be great if we could go back.”
Giving praise to the Cuban musicians that performed with Blondie, Harry says, “We had wonderful Cuban musicians join us for the performances – vocalists, percussionists, horn players — they added a terrific level of excitement to our songs. On ‘The Tide Is High,’ Síntesis vocalists Ele Valdés and Maria del Carmen Avila sang with me and did the original harmonies that John Holt had put on the song, it was incredibly beautiful. Latin music has always been part of the feel of New York, so it was amazing to finally be able to put a very personal touch on the heartbeat of Cuba. VIVA!”
On a similar note, Burke gave praise to Cuban music and art in one of his voiceovers when he states, “Growing up on the East Coast in the New York City metro area, I heard a lot of Cuban music. And a lot of percussion, a lot of horns. And it stayed with me through my life, so it was really wonderful to experience it firsthand in Cuba. You know, the city of Havana is just alive with music and art, the street art.”
Comparing Havana to what New York City was like when Blondie were first getting off the ground, Harry says, “As interesting and crumblingly beautiful Havana is, I would really have loved to see more. More of the island, more of the people. When I was living on the Lower East Side of New York in the Seventies, New York was crumbling. There’s a certain beauty in that kind of decay, and I think that was one of the similarities,”
The performance footage is beautifully shot. The band and the audience seemed to having a great time, and quite a few shots of audience members dancing ecstatically during the performance are shown. The songs featured in the film are “The Tide Is High,” “Rapture,” “Wipe Off My Sweat” and “Heart Of Glass.” The performance of “Wipe Off My Sweat” is a particular highlight, as Kessler plays acoustic Spanish guitar and Harry sings part of the song in Spanish. Her Spanish vocals are quite impressive.
Blondie: Vivir En La Habana had its premiere on Wednesday, June 16th as part of New York City’s Tribeca Festival with an outdoor screening at The Battery in NYC. The screening of the film was followed by a Blondie live performance.
A six-song soundtrack EP of performances in Havana is available in limited-edition blue vinyl.
The film’s trailer can be seen below:
The performance of “The Tide Is High” that is featured in the film and appears on the soundtrack EP can be heard below:
The performance of “Wipe Off My Sweat” that is featured in the film and appears on the soundtrack EP can be heard below:
The performance of “Rapture” that is featured in the film and appears on the soundtrack EP can be heard below:
The performance of “Long Time” that is featured in the film and appears on the soundtrack EP can be heard below: