Return of Elegance

Federico Britos's newest project revives an old-time Cuban genre

There is no conflict between tradition and modernity for Danzón by Six. With remarkable skill this new Miami ensemble has shown it can approach musical forms and concepts established long ago with an effective blend of respect and modern vigor. That, in fact, is the great promise that Danzón by Six seems to be making to its potential audience: to interpret what essentially is an old style in a new way.

At a performance this past February 14 at Café Nostalgia, where the group's recording debut, The First Danzón, was officially released, Danzón by Six played to a packed house that included local fans, celebrities, and general well-wishers. "We were very pleased," says Federico Britos, the soft-spoken founder and director of the group. The audience, judging by the enthusiasm that night, was obviously pleased as well, though there was not much authenticity on the dance floor. The choreography of the danzón, in fact, is as particular as the music itself, and few of today's dancers are versed in its performance. That situation, however, is one that Danzón by Six plans to address. "In the near future," Britos says, "we will begin to include in at least some of our performances what we hope will be authentic demonstrations of the dance, with all its contrasts and great, great elegance."

"They were simply great," observes WDNA-FM's (88.9) Arturo Gomez-Cruz of the Valentine's Day show. "The group is musically very tight and effective, and that's something that can only come from having a clear objective and putting in a lot of hard work."

Federico Britos (with violin) and his elegant orchestra
Federico Britos (with violin) and his elegant orchestra

Danzón by Six was founded in 2000 by Uruguayan violinist Britos, who in 1960, after years of experience in the tango and jazz fields, went to Cuba under contract to play with the nation's ballet and opera orchestra, then under the direction of Felix Guerrero. What began as a job for a single season turned into a thirteen-year stay on the island, during which the musician met his wife and started a family. During these influential years, Britos also met important figures of Cuba's popular-music scene and defined with clarity his musical objectives for the years to come. Since then he has played all over the world with his own string quartet and numerous artists and groups, including Hansel, Cachao, the Miami Symphony Orchestra, and jazz bassist Charlie Haden, with whom he currently tours.

What separates Danzón by Six from other ensembles today is the fact that the group's six members -- Britos, flutist Gustavo Cruz, pianist José Novas, bassist Ranses Colón, timbalero Ruben "Tutti" Jimenez, and percussionist Edwin Bonilla -- bring together great musical virtuosity; the experience of having played with musical figures as diverse and complex as Astor Piazzola, Enrique Jorrin, Charlie Haden, and the Miami Symphony Orchestra; and a deep desire to seriously explore, analyze, and interpret Cuba's most complex form of popular music, the danzón.

Created in 1879 by cornetist Miguel Failde, the danzón almost immediately became the Cuban population's favorite musical style and dance as well as the island's first truly popular national choreography. For that year on, and until 1925, when son became its formidable competitor, danzón enjoyed a golden period of virtually unrivaled popularity. Facing that great competitor, danzón was forced to take on new forms and develop into more modern styles, including danzonete, mambo, and cha-cha-chá. Notwithstanding this natural process of evolution, there remains one basic, classic, and complex Cuban danzón, and that is the form that is now the prime motivator of the work of Danzón by Six.

The basic complexity of the classic danzón is due, in part, to the fact that as a musical form it is composed of three contrasting sections held together by a shorter fourth section that also serves as its introduction. The contrasting quality of this material calls for equally contrasting dance movements for the various sections of the piece.

"Our musical objective," explains Britos, "is to analyze what has happened with the danzón in its more than a century of existence and to offer the public the evidence of our work. We plan to do this by recording as much as possible, by playing concerts, by touring, and by offering workshops on the history and development of the music at universities and educational centers."

So far Danzón by Six seems to be on the right track. With The First Danzón, the group offers a mixture of classic compositions of the repertoire, such as Failde's "Las Alturas de Simpson" and Antonio Maria Romeu's "Siglo XX," along with original creations like Britos's own "Vivian Flavia de las Mercedes," which breathes the essence of the style in rhythm and form. The band members, with the addition of Onelio Perez on vocals, the backing of a full string quartet, and a guest appearance by Cachao, put forth on this recording a satisfying musical offering that is both traditionalist and modern.

"We know our goals are not very simple," says Britos. "In fact they are quite complicated." But, he adds, "we are sure we can achieve them."

 
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