Odds are you’ll be tempted to grab a passport and start researching airfare bargains to Cuba if you tune in to “Great Performances: Havana Time Machine,” the latest installment in the long-running PBS series that highlights various facets of the arts.
For this episode, the host is singer Raul Malo, frontman of the American roots band the Mavericks, who states at the outset that it’s been his lifelong dream to return the country in which his parents were born, and which they fled after Fidel Castro led his revolution in 1959.
As an introduction to the music that is such an integral part of Cuban life, “Havana Time Machine,” premiering Friday, provides an excellent glimpse of the country’s seductive rhythms, the uniquely empathetic interplay among musicians and the extraordinary voices of singers including Eliades Ochoa — of Ry Cooder’s vaunted Buena Vista Social Club project two decades ago — vocalist Ivette Cepeda, jazz-funk keyboardist Roberto Fonseca and the ambitious young Cuban indie band, Sweet Lizzy Project.
Malo is joined by Ochoa’s group for a street corner performance of the standard “Siboney,” then visits what appears to be Cepeda’s house to blend voices with hers on “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas.” From there he takes a side trip outside Havana to stop in the former home of writer Ernest Hemingway, then sets down at the mystical, decaying former beer garden where all the musicians come together.
Before they get there, Malo also strolls through the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) school for young artists, delivering an exceedingly haunting rendition of “Besame Mucho” accompanied by jagged arrangement for string quartet (whose young members play with no sheet music anywhere in sight, thank you very much).
As Malo notes a little more than halfway in, “You don’t think I’d come all the way to Cuba without the Mavericks, do you?” and quickly leads his band in a couple of their originals, “All Night Long” and “Easy As it Seems,” both anchored in irresistibly infectious Latin rhythms. (The group, as it happens, is playing tonight in L.A. at the Regent Theatre downtown.)
All hands show up on deck for the predictable grand finale performance of the song known as the Cuban national anthem, “Guantanamera,” which turns out to be gloriously unpredictable as a performance.
On the music front, “Havana Time Machine” is a total delight. As a travelogue, one co-sponsored by a Cuban travel company, this romanticized portrait is exceedingly light on the downside of a country still run with a heavy hand by its communist government.
There’s no mention of “la lucha,” the daily struggle for most Cubans just to make ends meet. Nor is there any discouraging word about the flip side of the tourism coin that has brought tens of thousands of Americans to the island nation in recent years, nor of the dilemma the country is facing from the desire of so many young Cubans to leave their native land to find more lucrative work elsewhere — anywhere.
Still, after spending nearly an hour immersed in the wondrously compelling music Cuba seems to produce so organically, it’s still going to be awfully tempting to reach for that passport.
‘Great Performances: Havana Time Machine’
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
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