Grammy Winner Chucho Valdés On Improvising the Musical Score for Cuban Film ‘Esteban’

The Havana Film Festival New York kicked off its 18th annual program with Jonal Cosculluela’s inspiring Esteban. The movie tells the rousing story of a young Afro-Cuban boy (Reynaldo Guanche) who suddenly becomes inspired to learn how to play the piano even though he cannot afford to pay the old, cranky teacher (Hugo, played by Manuel Porto) who realizes how talented the boy really is. Esteban scrounges up money for his lessons, fights with his single mother who cannot wrap her head around this random obsession, and begins getting better and better. It all culminates, as all flicks like these always do, in a final heart-tugging performance. There was barely a dry eye in the house at HFFNY’s opening night ceremony at the DGA Theater, with many an audience member openly shedding happy tears once the credits rolled.

Part of what makes Esteban strike a chord is its spare but emotional musical score. Consisting solely of piano arrangements composed by none other than Grammy Award-winner and Cuban musical icon Chucho Valdés. On hand to present the film alongside his director, Valdés was visibly moved when sharing how every piece he wrote for the movie was performed on his own Steinway piano which is signed by his own father, Bebo Valdés. It’s a detail made all the more significant given that the guy who sold him the piano didn’t even know about it. Talk about meant to be!

Following the warm reception for the film at the packed theater, Jonal Cosculluela was joined on stage by Valdés and his producer and wife Maritza Ceballo. They talked about the perils of shooting a feature film debut, why Reynaldo was the perfect fit for Esteban, and how Valdés improvised the entire score at his studio in Málaga, Spain. Check out some highlights from the Q&A below.

Esteban is screening as part of the Havana Film Festival New York.

On Getting Esteban Off the Ground

Jonal: It all began when I first was shown this script. I immediately fell in love with it. I always love to say that there’s an element of autobiography in this film—that’s how much it spoke to me. Also, before Maritza became the main producer of the film, I had a couple of other producers lined up but I needed someone who could be there for me 24/7. The people I was working with were busy with other projects so they kept going in and out of our meetings. And the person who was always there by my side at all these meetings were you had to make people fall in love with this project was Maritza. She’s a journalist, not a producer but as we embarked on this journey, it became obvious that she was the de facto producer of the film—and that she was really good at it. All what was missing was the title itself. And that’s how this director-producer pairing came about.

Chucho: For me it was all about digging into the script. That alone drove me to work. And more than that, to see the love and passion that these guys were working with, that alone was an inspiration, really. I also felt like I was a part of a story in a different way. I also starting playing the piano when I was a little kid. Only, of course, I was pretty lucky to have my teacher at home: my father. Bebo was my Hugo. But I also knew plenty of my friends growing up who wanted to learn how to play the piano, and I saw them struggle to pay for those classes and sometimes miss out on them when they had no money to do so. In that way the story felt like my own.

On Getting Chucho Involved

Jonal: Well we were at the Havana Film Festival just sitting down somewhere and then Chucho walked into the room. I just nudged Maritza and said, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if Chucho Valdez composed the music for our film?” We’d obviously never met him. And, just because that’s the kind of person she is, she just said, “Wait here.” She went up to him! Chucho is just as personable as you can see so he kindly agreed to read this script we were working on. A few weeks later he called us up telling us he would love to be a part of the project. I have to say one of the things that made me most nervous about this was the music. Because I know nothing about it! I didn’t really know how to sort of, ask him what it is that I needed or wanted. But the first thing that Chucho did—which is actually the same thing I did with our child actor—was make the conversations all about the emotions we were aiming for. We made it very simple for one another.

Chucho: I really do see the musical score to be the result of a truly collaborative effort. We worked together and kept throwing ideas and suggestions back and forth in terms of what would work. And, of course, working off of the images themselves helped. We always gave ourselves several option—you know, A, B, or C—and then we’d tinker with each one and see what clicked. It was a long process but it was great. I’m very happy with the final result.

On the Movie’s Improvised Soundtrack

“What we began with was this idea that Esteban would be a film about music, but it wouldn’t be a musical.”

Chucho: Well, the thing is I improvised everything you see on screen. I didn’t write any of it down! So maybe now I should go back and start transcribing it. I mean, for the most part and except the main theme which we used over and over, all the music you see in those scenes was improvised on the spot.

Jonal: What we began with was this idea that Esteban would be a film about music, but it wouldn’t be a musical. So to make the music really stand out and carry the message we wanted we decided early on that we would only use it sparingly and that we would only use piano pieces.

Chucho: We did everything with scenes that were already shot and cut. I’d improvise a sequence and send it back, and then get notes and I’d change it ever so slightly as we went along until it was set in stone. None of it was really in the script, we really worked collaboratively on it. That’s how I really enjoy working. Looking at the screen and seeing those images is inspiring. And in trying to match those images, in trying to coordinate certain shots and beats, that’s how we arrived at the music we were all happy with.

Jonal: There’s one scene in particular where I’d cut it with a temp track from an old Chucho song and when I sent it to him I realized I’d kept several close-ups of the piano player where you could see what keys she was hitting. And when I showed it to him I just kept thinking, “Oh, god. What have I given him?!” Because that was hard. He basically had the freedom to play whatever he wanted in between shots but when you saw the close-up he had to play what was on screen. We were working on that together overnight until Chucho said, “Let’s just take this up tomorrow morning, okay?” And then the next day, he sat down and played it all the way through. I uttered plenty of swear words I will not repeat here. I couldn’t believe he’d done it.

On Casting the Lead Role of Esteban

Jonal: We did quite a large casting. Lasted a couple of days. We wanted boys between 8 and 10 years old. The only two requirements were that he’d need to be Afro-Cuban and he’d need to know how to play the piano. Reynaldo was one of the first kids we saw. From the get-go I saw something. He’s quite the character. Above all, what struck me most is that he’s quite the liar. I told him that I’d bring him a piano and asked him what he’d play for me. And said, “Anything you want.” As it turned out, he had no idea how to play the piano. Actually, one of the women you see in that final audition/performance scene, who’s actually Chucho’s sister, is the teacher we had work with Reynaldo. He also told us he had plenty of experience of as an actor. Which, was also a lie. He knew nothing. So we also got him an acting coach. So, at 9 years old, he was practicing piano, going to acting lessons, shooting with us. All of it during his break from school. And even when he was back in school, he kept at it with us and his grades didn’t even suffer. He’s amazing. He’s our hero. We played with him a lot. We tried to keep it very playful, but he’s definitely very mature for his age. So whenever I’d tell him he was like an old man, he’d scold me and tell me I was a chamo, just a little kid who joked around all the time.

This Q&A was conducted in Spanish with Michelle Farrell serving as a simultaneous interpreter, and was translated into written English by the author.