Travelling through Latin America, Sam Zubrycki’s debut documentary, Miguelito, traces the unexplained disappearance of an eleven year old Puerto Rican salsa singer in 1973 and the rediscovery of his life, his music, and the world he inhabits decades later.
Samuel joins us on Close-up Culture to talk about Miguelito ahead of its UK premiere at the Raindance Film Festival in London (25 September). For more info
Q: Can you start off by introducing us to the story of Miguelito and the legendary music producer Harvey Averne?
A: Miguelito was one of eleven siblings who grew up in the slum Manuel A. Perez, which is right next to the Luis Muñoz airport of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Everyday he would go to the airport to polish shoes and sing for tourists until – one day in 1973 – he was noticed by the legendary New York record producer Harvey Averne.
The story goes that Harvey was so enchanted by Miguelito’s voice that he missed his flight out of San Juan and decided then and there to sign the boy to his music label – CoCo Records – and planned to make an album.
Within the year they recorded Canto a Borinquen, the album with which Harvey had assembled some of the finest salsa musicians of the time, Miguelito performed with Eddie Palmieri at Madison Square Garden in front of 20,000 people. But then he simply disappeared. The common suspicion within the salsa community was that he had been run over by a car not long after.
Q: When did you first come across this story and the music of Miguelito? And what compelled you about it?
A: I came across Miguelito’s record purely by chance when I was travelling in Cali, Colombia. I am a DJ and record collector from Sydney and had heard about the legendary Cali salsa scene for many years. I was digging for records and hanging out with a lot of collectors when I came across this mysterious album of a young boy in a park.
It was so different and unique to any other salsa LP I had seen before and it really stuck out. When I heard his rendition of Ralphy Leavitt’s classic song Payaso, Miguelito’s voice immediately hit me and I found there was something incredibly beautiful and mysterious about it.
I was compelled by this story because I loved the music and all the culture that surrounded it. It gave me a way in to explore a community that simply made me feel happy, and at first that was the real motivation. I also thought that all the characters were very interesting and complex people that deserved to have their story told.
As I mentioned, the album included some of my favourite salsa musicians – such as Papo Lucca of La Sonora Ponceña – and was produced by Harvey who had worked on some of the great salsa records of all time – such as Eddie Palmieri’s The Sun of Latin Music. To discover the origins of that music was really fun for me.
Q: You filmed in Colombia, New York and Puerto Rico. What was it like engaging with the salsa community in these different countries?
A: I found the three salsa communities to be very different and distinct.
At first, as an outsider, I was very concerned about how I would be perceived. However, in most instances we quickly connected once our mutual love of salsa was apparent and everyone was really interested and curious about why I was making a film about a forgotten child singer.
There was one instance when I went into Miguelito’s bario, which was renown as being one of the toughest in Puerto Rico. Yet as soon as I showed some of the residents the Canto a Borinquen record we were immediately all friends.
In New York the scene is formed predominantly around the older generation in the Bronx and Spanish Harlem. It is where you casually run into all the legends who recorded the classic Fania hits from seventies, as well a lot of the dancers from that era.
In Puerto Rico everyone in the salsa community is really proud of their music and its output. They were incredibly open and generous with their time. In Cali everyone loves salsa and although the music does originate in the city, people have embraced as a part of their cultural roots.
Q: Can you tell us about a few of the different characters you encounter along the way?
A: We meet the people who were around the album and those that love it. ‘Los Melomanos’, the audiophiles of Cali, and Colombians who adore Miguelito’s record and hold it in high regard play an important part in the film. As well the journey to meet and discover the musicians, friends and fans of Miguelito, this film takes the audience on a road trip through Latin America.
Q: This story of tracking down a ‘70s musician reminds me of Malik Bendjelloul’s ‘Searching For Sugar Man’. Did you have any inspirations or reference points for the journey you wanted to take in this film?
A: My main inspiration was Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club. It really is one of my favourite films and the way that Wenders captures the community and the story of the musicians really effected me.
Honestly, the Searching for Sugarman-style myth that comes out in the film was something that happened as things developed during the shoot. I was always conscious that I did not only want to make simply a ‘search’ or ‘mystery’ film but I also wanted to tell the story of the music and the culture that surrounded Miguelito’s album.
Q: What does it mean to you to bring ‘Miguelito’ to the Raindance Film Festival in London?
A: It is a real honour to have my first feature as part of the Raindance Film Festival in London. I am really happy that this story will be seen by a wider audience and that more people will be introduced to Miguelito’s music and his world.
Miguelito: Raindance Film Festival 2019 – Ticket info
September 25 – 20.45
Vue Cinema London – Piccadilly 19 Lower Regent Street, London, SW1Y4LR