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Ethiel Faílde: Keeper of the Flame of Danzón

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Omara Portuondo, Ethiel Faílde

Omara Portuondo, Ethiel Failde

Did Miguel Faílde (1852-1921) create or even “consciously stumble” upon (both better epithet than “invented”) the now-iconic danzón dance form that Cuba gave the world; or, whether, as some believe: perhaps that was Manuel Saumell? At this stage in the game, it really is a moot point albeit something that many self-righteous ethnomusicologists will argue about (ostensibly) forever. What is important – indeed an immutable fact – is that Ethiel Faílde, great-great grandson of the incomparable Miguel Faílde is, indeed, the keeper of the flame of danzón; the true successor of the iconic ensemble that the older Faílde fronted so successfully.

Orquesta Miguel Faílde was reincarnated by the young virtuoso flutist from the province of Matanzas, fairly soon after he graduated from music school, not very long ago. By his own admission, he came to danzón later than you would think. Nevertheless evidence from his music indicates that this music – and that of his illustrious forebear – runs (indeed it gushes) furiously in his veins. Today Mr Faílde directs an inspired Orquesta Faílde and has distinguished himself with his superb arrangements of songs no doubt played by his ancestor as well as many other superb ensembles since then. He has travelled quite extensively and his finest hour may have come when he was asked to perform at an official ball convened to honour President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba in March 2016.

So impressive was his performance at that function that Mr Faílde and Orquesta Faílde was also honoured with a return engagement at The Kennedy Centre during the multi-disciplinary music and arts festival Artes De Cuba in May 2019. None of this ought to mean more than the fact that Orquesta Faílde is, quite simply, the finest danzón ensemble today. The impeccable arrangements made by Mr Faílde are played with uncommon fervour and precision. The musicians parlay like old friends resurrecting the kind of musicianship that characterised the great artistry of noble academies. In short order, Orquesta Faílde, is an extraordinary orchestra headed for great things. It is fronted by an inspired leader whose dedication to preserving and reincarnating the glimmering tradition of Cuban danzón with absolute authenticity is flawless. All of this has been authenticated on many recordings – not only those made in 2016 and 2019 under review here, but also others such as a recent chachachá version of the popular song “Havana” and “Me Desordeno” with Omara Portuondo.

Orquesta Miguel Faílde: ¡Llegó la Faílde!

With this recording the Orquesta Faílde, affectionately known as “La Faílde” makes its debut. There are few first recordings as impressive as this one. The work introduces us to an incredibly “young” ensemble whose musicians embody the elegant power of Cuban danzón with uncommon idiomatic beauty. This music is proof positive not only that the form is alive, but that it is, indeed, immortal. The best thing about the performance is that the music shines not as old jewels would, but like some newly-minted gem designed to celebrate the decidedly monumental artifact that is Cuban danzón.

Cuban danzón is probably best experienced when an orchestra inspires dancers to react with ultimate grace, painting an imaginary landscape of circles and parabolas on a dance floor in honour of a music that is utterly hypnotic. Yet recordings as superb as this one are capable of simulating it all in the landscape of the mind. The most remarkable aspect of Cuban danzón is how the repertoire is able to remind us of this: The danzón played on this recording conjures the slow, formal partner dance, with footwork around syncopated beats, incorporating elegant pauses while the couples are attuned to virtuoso instrumental passages, played by the ensemble. Around 1879, the year Miguel Faílde’s “Las Alturas de Simpson” (the opening track on this recording by Orquesta Faílde as well) was first performed. The young Ethiel Faílde raises the spirit of this iconic danzón with uncommon perfection. HIS music acquires all of the stylistic features derived from African rhythm and dance to produce a genuine fusion of European and African influences. Here, as elsewhere on the disc Mr Faílde brings to life the experience of how African musical traits in the danzón including complex instrumental cross-rhythms, expressed in staggered cinquillo and tresillo patterns are given free reign.

The ensemble also revisits other classic songs – such as Dámaso Pérez Prado’s effervescent “Mambo #5”, Abelardito Valdés’ “Almendra” and the great Tito Puente’s “Ran Kan Kan”. Each of the tracks bears the unique imprint of an ensemble in which all the elements come together as if in a well-oiled machine. But the technical facility with which the arrangements are read is also complemented by a vivid performance. Soli are idiomatic and the overall balance of orchestration and emotion is superbly blended.

Track list – 1: Las Alturas de Simpson; 2: As Time Goes By (Casablanca); 3: Carta Clara; 4: Cicuta Tibia; 5: Mambo #5; 6: La Lupe; 7: Los Ojos de Johanna; 8: CubaDanzón; 9: Camina y Prende el Fogón; 10: Almendra; 11: Danzón Timba; 12: Ran Kan Kan

Personnel – Orquesta Faílde – Ethiel Faílde: flute and Musical Director; Rosalí Bazán Terga: violin; Roldany Hernández Torres: piano and violin; Solans Rodríguez Lago: violin; Mario Rodríguez Quesada: clarinets, alto and baritone saxophones; Julio Enrique Ávila Fernández: trumpet; Eduardo Herrera Gálvez: trumpet; Adrián Peña López: trumpet; Bárbaro Alexander Guerra Isasi: trombone; Andy Cantero Peña: contrabass; Jessica Clemente Aldazábal: guiro and chorus; Wilbert Tarajano Oxamendi: chorus; Yerlanis Junco Suárez: chorus; Kiko Ruiz: voice; Javier Alejandro Molina Poey: paila and bongo (12); Addel Alejandro Pojas Llópiz: tumbadoras, menos (12) and bongo (3); Manuel Alejandro Acosta Hernández: trumpet (1, 3, 4); Guests – Pancho Amat: trés (7, 9); Alejandro Falcón: piano (8, 10, 11); Yasek Manzano: flugelhorn (4, 10); Adel González: tumbadoras and chekere (12) and maracas (5, 9); Hector Eduardo Herrera: clarinets (3, 4, 7); Jose Antonio González Font: piano (2, 4); Efrén Pons: alto saxophone (4, 6) and baritone saxophone (5); Jorge Julio González Mustellier: tenor saxophone (5); Alejandro Junco Romero: violin solo (2); Mara Navas: cello (2); Jorge Coayo: quilja (2, 4)

Released – 2016
Label – Empresa de Grabaciones y Ediciones Musicales (CD1289)
Runtime – 56:36

Omara Portuondo & Orquesta Faílde: Siempre tu Voz (Homenaje a Benny Moré)

Of the scores of tributes to the incomparable Benny Moré on the occasion of his centenary this album that puts the great Omara Portuondo together with the Orquesta Faílde is certainly one of the very best. Perhaps the most outstanding aspect of this repertoire is its interpretation by Orquesta Faílde and – particularly – by Omara Portuondo. While this may be so of every track on the album some of the music on (the recording) does stand out. For instance, discerning listeners, aficionados, just plain fans of great music who believe that they’ve heard everything or that vocalists like Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan are the proverbial “last word” in vocal phrasing in music (particularly that of a ballad) will experience a welcome reality check from Omara Portuondo on her rendition of “Y Hoy Como Ayer” and on the version of “Rezo en la noche” immediately after.

On both songs we hear the 90-year-old queen of vocal music seemingly in the prime of her existence. Her ability to hold a note with uncommon power, then wrap her breath around the syllables in the final word of the lyric as she appears to swathe the very it all with every iota of her being is illuminating and absolutely magical to the ear. Miss Portuondo’s instrument is gorgeous: lustrous, precise, featherlight when it needs to be and omnipotent when the music calls for it. Her musicianship is fierce as she digs into the meaning of each word and she brings ceaseless variety to soft dynamics and gives each poetic phrase special grace. On “Rezo en la noche“, for instance, her intonation is superb as she reaches into the deepest part of her chest from where she draws breaths to evoke the almost preternatural bittersweet emotions that the lyric demands and that too in singular manner, with barely parted lips.

Benny Moré's Shoes from a display at Callejón de Hamel in Havana. January 2020. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

Benny Moré’s Shoes from a display at Callejón de Hamel in Havana. January 2020

Of course the fact that Miss Portuondo is surrounded by such accomplished musicians as those of the Orquesta Faílde certainly enhances the magical experience of the music on this disc. Their performance throughout is magnificently cohesive, nobly expressive and beautifully-toned. Above all this is a performance that is refreshingly un-egoistic. It works on so many levels too – musical and technical – that it puts most modern version of these songs in the shade.

Track list – 1: Te Quedarás; 2: Las Mulatas del Chachachá; 3: Cómo Fue; 4: Bonito y Sabroso; 5: Y Hoy Como Ayer; 6: Rezo en la Noche; 7: Mata Siguaraya; 8: ¡Oh, Vida!; 9: La Múcura; 10: Siempre Tu Voz

Personnel – Omara Portuondo: lead vocals; Orquesta Faílde – Ethiel Faílde: flute and Musical Director; Yurisán Hernández: lead vocals (1, 4, 10) and chorus; Yerlanis Junco: lead vocals (10) and chorus; Roldany Hernández: piano (1); Andy Cantero: contrabass (1 – 4, 7, 8) and electric bass (5); Rosalí Bazán: 1st violin; Katerina Perez: second violin; Lucio Carriera: tumbadoras (1, 2, 4 – 7, 9, 10) bàtás (2); Rey Manuel Silveira: timbales (2 – 9); Manuel Alejandro Acosta: trumpet (1 – 9); Karel Samón: 1st trumpet (2, 4, 9); Adrián Peña López: trombone; Mario Rodríguez: alto saxophone (1, 5); Wilbert Tarajano: chorus; Guests – Johnny Ventura: voice (7); Telmary Díaz: voice (2); William Vivanco: voice (7)

Released – 2019
Label – Empresa de Grabaciones y Ediciones Musicales (CD1672)
Runtime – 38:33

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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Featured Albums

Adrien Brandeis: Siempre Más Allá

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Roberto Jr. Vizcaino, Adrien Brandeis, Roberto Vizcaino Guillot - Photo Nayeli Mejia
Roberto Vizcaíno Jr., Adrien Brandeis, Roberto Vizcaíno Guillot - Photo: Nayeli Mejia.

Listening to the music of Siempre Más Allá, it certainly seems that the young French pianist, Adrien Brandeis has strengthened the belief that he is a proverbial citizen of the Afro-Caribbean universe. To be clear Mr Brandeis still loves all music and swings as hard as any pianist who loves Black American Music – that is, music that you can sing and dance to. But also continues to be beguiled by the rolling thunder of Afro-Caribbean music. The wild call of the rhythms and the joie de vivre of the questing melodies and harmonies not only appeal to his ear, but also speak to him in the hidden parts of his heart.

By his own admission Siempre Más Allá took root during three tours to Mexico undertaken under the aegis of the Fédération des Alliances Françaises du Mexique. The virtually all-Afro-Cuban repertoire of the album radiates charm at every turn. These disarmingly natural and eloquent performances bring out the music’s inherent drama and penchant for tumbao with a deft touch while indulging Brandeis’ lyrical instincts to the full. Meticulously balanced, the four quartet pieces, the trio and duo pieces feel as if they are chamber works. Brandeis’ astonishingly insightful playing is musically captivating and technically blemishless. Each phrase rings so completely true that one can’t imagine the music played any other way.

Adrien Brandeis: Siempre Más Allá
Adrien Brandeis: Siempre Más Allá

The album features Mr Brandeis and a group of very accomplished musicians. These include the celebrated Cuban percussionist Roberto Vizcaíno Guillot [on two tracks] and his son Roberto Vizcaíno Jr., Mexican drummer José Loria Triay make up the wall of percussion. The Brasilian bassist Giliard Lopes brings his distinctive veritas to the whole rhythm section. The big surprise here is, perhaps, the presence of the great Cuban Horacio “El Negro” Hernández sitting in the drum chair on La buena vibra.

Siempre Más Allá is an affirmation of Brandeis’ enduring love and natural affinity for Latin music. Not surprisingly the music seems to echo the famous Latin American phrase: “¡Que rico bailo yo!” [which, in English, exclaims: “How well I dance!”]. This is no hyperbole as the music – in its pulses and rhythms show as Brandeis traverses the rhythmic topography of the Caribbean and Latin America. Along the way Brandeis plunged into the world of changüí, the chacarera, Brasilian gaucho music and the ancient melodic thunder of bàtá drums.

From the get-go listeners will find themselves immersed in quite another world of rippling percussive grooves. The track Ek Bakam, for instance, conjures the intricate architecture; the line and flow of an epic Mayan civilisation located in the Yucatan. Narratives from the Latin world abound – often paying homage to famous traditional musicians. Pancho’s Power is one such chart inspired by the vivid world of the legendary trio Los Panchos. Brandeis gives his percussion section a lot of space when he puts the spotlight on them on Tierra de Oportunidades – a wistful memory of the pianist’s three tours to Mexico, which is also incidentally the popular provincial slogan of the Mexican state of Guanajuato. On Huachi-Huachi Brandeis digs deep into the epicurean delights of the only Latin country in North America with this song in praise of a kind of gourmet Mexican fish: the huachinango.

Brandeis then celebrates his association with percussion colourist Roberto Vizcaíno Jr. with the extraordinary music of Vizcaíno Blues, a piece unique with its exploratory chromaticisms and elegant sonorities that beautifully capture the eloquence of the percussionist in whose praise the music is written. Mindful of the fact that Vizcaíno is Cuban but makes his home in Mexico, Brandeis shapes the rhythmic and harmonic palette of the piece accordingly. On La Buena Vibra Brandeis delivers astonishing pianistic fireworks in the piece’s melodic and harmonic lines, played at a frenetic pace, to mirror the style of its dedicatee, Michel Camilo. The pianist demonstrates an authentic home-grown grasp of Cuban music as he reimages Voy a Apagar la Luz, by the legendary and late-singer Armando Manzanero, here adapted as a wistful solo piano work. Meanwhile on the dizzying ride of Humpty Dumpty the pianist pays homage to another idol: Chick Corea, by revisiting the sparkling composition of the recently-deceased piano maestro.

It is hard not to be mesmerised by this spirited and finely nuanced music artfully crafted in an album by Adrien Brandeis, a pianist who is about to take the world by storm with a recording that is going to be one of the finest by any musician located outside the Latin American sub-continent.

Deo gratis…

Tracks – 1: Huachi Huachi; 2: Alegría; 3: Pancho’s Power; 4: Ek balam; 5: Un peu d’espoir; 6: Vizcaíno’s Blues; 7: Tierra de oportunidades; 8: Humpty Dumpty; 9: La buena vibra; 10: Voy a apagar la luz

Musicians – Adrien Brandeis: piano; Giliard Lopes: contrabass; José Loria Triay: drums; Roberto Vizcaíno Jr: congas and bàtá drums. Featuring Roberto Vizcaíno Guillot: percussion [1, 6]; Horacio “El Negro” Hernández: drums [9]

Released – 2022
Label – Mantodea Music Productions
Runtime – 58:25

YouTube Video – Adrien Brandeis – Siempre más allá (EPK)

YouTube Audio – Adrien Brandeis – Vizcaíno’s Blues

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