Music documentary by director Rafael Marziano Tinoco from Venezuela
In the dark of a sound studio, actress and singer Caridad reviews old photo albums of a dead musician: Billo Frómeta. Other musicians gather to prepare a big performance in his honor, they refer to him as a maestro: Frómeta was a conductor and composer of big-band-caribbean music, who managed to reign over decades in Venezuela.
About the movie
The movie is a documentary actually conceived as a musical, telling – guided by the hand of Caridad – the story of Billo from his childhood in Dominican Republic, to his life in Venezuela, his chosen homeland after being forced to leave his country to escape General Trujillo, one of the most terrible dictators ever. Arriving in 1936, in a country rich in oil and eager to consume anything coming from abroad, be it swing or rumba, he patented a sort of tropical ballroom music, easy to listen and to dance, and soon became a hit with his orchestra the “Billo´s Caracas Boys”. We witness the community of Dominican exile musicians in Venezuela, the struggles of Billo to be accepted in the upper class, his womanizing, his deep quarrels with his friends due to his conflictive nature, and the deep contradictions surrounding him. A talented musician who played several instruments, he was decried as “commercial”.
Despite his disgust with everything military, his reshaping of Dominican “merengue” made this rhythm sound martial, and made him a favourite of Venezuelan dictator General Perez Jimenez and his cronies. But then, he was first friend and later foe of Fidel Castro. In the 60s and 70s, he struggled against discotheques and the boom of salsa music, against local musicians who forbid him to work in the country.
At the end of his life, Billo played his wild card: he was working on a Symphony, in silence, and would be conducting it heading the Caracas Symphonic Orchestra. On the first rehearsal, the sceptical classic musicians started to play a combination of rhythms, Venezuelan joropo and Cuban son, arranged in such a grand manner, that they were overwhelmed by the power of music, never expecting someone like Billo to deliver this. In this moment, the emotion of recognition was so profound on him, that he couldn´t cope with it: Billo suffered a heart attack and passed away, without hearing his complete and final Opus, what he really may have wanted to do all his life. But his music kept growing and shaping generations, from jazz musician Alberto Naranjo to street rappers like “Hijos de la Calle”. Through Billo, we get to know the shifting faces of a fast growing city, the dives from the 40s and today, slums and forgotten clubs in decay.
Rafa Galindo, a 90 year old who was a singer in his orchestra, and who went into trouble with him, revives an era while giving tips for the lottery in his neighbourhood, or preparing for the great finale, a real big band remix of Billo´s most popular songs, conducted and arranged by Naranjo. As Rafa meets bass player Soteldo they pass revue of their friends in the first of Billo´s orchestras, only to realize, astonished, that they are the only two still alive. And in the background of the movie, as a discrete presence, there are always two elements: nostalgia and the fear imposed by the military class in the Caribbean. But, as saxophone player Crispín Fernandez tells us along with a sad solo:
Dominican merengue is played in major chords and not in minors: we decided our sadness to be expressed in majors.