Bilko Cuervo — photo courtesy of Havana Cultura

At 32 years old, Bilko Cuervo—a native of Holguin, Cuba—has directed more than 150 music videos in Cuba and has worked on another 100 as cinematographer and/or art director. A graduate in Photography at the San Antonio de los Baños International School of Film and Television in Cuba, he has a Master’s Degree in Advertising at the Central University of Mexico. Since 2003 Cuervo has racked up 14 wins at the Lucas Awards, one of the most popular audiovisual events on the island. Considered an auteur for his singular style and vision, he has worked with leading Cuban, Jamaican, Dominican, Spanish and U.S musicians of almost every genre. He was also a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 2010 for his documentary Yo soy tumbero.

Despite his commitments, Bilko agreed to chat with Cuban Art News about the Cuban music video, a phenomenon that has not yet gained much recognition in the global cultural arena.

Generally speaking, how does music production in Cuba work?

Video works in two ways: the recording label provides the budget, or the musicians do. In most cases, the musicians provide it all, because when companies give money, it’s almost always not enough. We directors are represented by the Cuban Association of Social Communicators, and we work together. We also have our own equipment, which is better in quantity and quality than any that a Cuban state production company could provide. The Cuban music video market is autonomous. It doesn’t depend on state audiovisual production companies, although many of the people who work in music videos have worked in state production companies or had some other tie to them.

When it comes to foreign artists, the budget differences are broader. They have much more money. For them, a budget of $30,000 to $50,000 is considered modest. For Cuban musicians, that figure is unthinkable.

What are the differences between Cuban-based and foreign music videos?

Budget makes all the difference. If we shoot in video, they shoot film. And if they shoot in video, their cameras are superior to ours. The productions are much larger and more elaborate.

Why aren’t Cuban music videos better known in the world, considering their artistic quality?

If there is no real market—or if you aren’t inside the Latin American market right from the start, you cannot become part of it later, and not the American or European markets, either. In addition, all major television networks worldwide have certain video standards that you have to adhere to. We often work—not always, but often—with cameras that don’t have the quality that’s required.

Abroad, there’s a real music market. But in Cuba, no. So music videos are regarded differently in Cuba. When the managers of the nightlife cultural centers see a good clip of a musical group, they hire them. And that´s the main source of income for the band—the album is not that important. Abroad, the single is respected—it’s released before the album. There’s a marketing process behind each proposal.

How would you describe your creative world?

I have always tried to extract the good from the evil, completely—to find fragments of beauty where all is ugliness. I’m a big rock and roll fan, really hard rock at its most extreme. I love jazz, but rock is my life. And I think that´s the origin of my visual training. I respect women and the elderly, because I was raised by older women. That’s why I usually try to work with the elderly or children.

Many people have asked me why I always deal with very dark stories. I think hitting bottom is when the best of human beings comes out. I’m interested in that part, where the individual fails and rises, or fails and crumbles.

What´s the most important thing for you when designing a video?

The story is what counts. In the video you have to respond to the demands of the market, as well as those of recording labels or the people hiring you. But I think that there’s no separation between good work, good ideas, and good business. Of course, external demands can’t go against what I think, or my basic aesthetics.

For me, a good music video is the one with an interesting story to relate. Or interesting pictures to show—ones that move the emotions, but above all, demonstrate that there’s an art behind this, and it communicates something. And of course, there are advertising goals based on selling a song or a musical piece.

Despite your preferences, you have worked in almost all musical genres. And reggaeton characterizes your work. 

Reggaeton characterizes almost all my work—unfortunately! I much prefer to do rock and roll—rock music, jazz, hard and aggressive hip hop, but especially rock. I like to work with good, intelligent music. But I approach all genres in the same way, with the same willingness.

Without a doubt, one of the first reggaeton videos—not to be too immodest—that met the international transmissions standards, particularly in its staging, was “Pitchea,” which I did for the Eminencia Clásica group. From there on, a legion of reggaeton musicians emerged, to whom I am very grateful—not to reggaeton itself, but to those in reggaeton who are currently my friends.

One studies, one acquires knowledge and grows up. And as I was taught in film schools, ideas for films don’t really start gathering momentum until they become ideas for actual productions—then the ideas grow, and so do people and art. That’s pretty much how things go.

Important figures in the Cuban audiovisual world, such as Orlando Cruzata, director of the Lucas Awards, think you’re ready to jump into doing full-length feature films. Have you thought about this? What do you think you’re going to do next? 

I’m definitely going to get into feature films. I have four possibilities. I’m not a big fan of documentaries. If I have to do a documentary, I’ll do it, and I respect documentary filmmakers. But if God, la Virgen de la Caridad and Obbatalá give me health, I´ll go for fiction filmmaking on a grand scale, as a cinematographer and director.

But I will always go back to making music videos, because I like it. I like the challenges, the speed, the adrenaline you find on a film set; the stories, which have to achieve an objective that’s well-marked, fast, concise, and synthetic. I like it. But music videos are no longer the priority for me that they were before.

Lately, you have worked abroad. What have you been doing?

In Cayman Islands I founded the Cayprofilms Company, but this ended due to personal situations. I was doing commercials, music videos, and some film projects that I think will have success soon. I did the same as usual, directing and shooting. Now, I’ve been hired in Jamaica by a major media company, Fareye Films, to work for a few months with my Cuban team: advertising, making videos, and two film projects.