GONZALO RUBALCABA: “MI GRAN PASION” THE RISE OF THE DANZO : FROM MUSICAL FIREMEN TO MISCHIEVIOUS DANCERS

The historical role of the danzon, a passionate Cuban dance derived from the danza 1, in the formation of contemporary Cuban culture is comparable to that of other Latin American genres, such as the Brazilian choro or the Argentinian tango. The urban cultures of Havana, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires were shaped by these respective musical forms, which were played in the dance halls, brothels, and silent-movie houses. These genres bear the mark of Europe in their form and harmony, but use syncopated African-derived rhythms. The danzan, for example, owes its keen energy to the cinquillo, a rhythmic element of African origin which is also found in the Lucumi drumming tradition. But let’s start from the beginning… On or about the first day of January of 1879, a clarinetist named Miguel Failde ) allegedly played the first danzan (“Las Alturas de Simpson”) at El Liceo), asocial club in the seaport of Matanzas. One can assume that some dancing caballeros dropped their Havana cigars when they realized that Failde’s new dance was more rhythmical and variegated than the danza or the contradanza. After all, Failde had been putting out fires with his clarinet since the age of 12, when he joined the Firemen’s Band of Matanzas, a city which owes its name to various massacres committed by the ruthless Spanish conquistadores. By the way, danzones such as “Guerra” and “EI Combate”, composed during the revolutionary war against Spain, expressed the restless political ideologies of most Cubans, who eventually gained their independence from the so-called madre patria, and turned out to be excellent entrepreneurs, but lousy and incompetent politicians. One must clarify that the current structure and choreography of the danzon were developed by a musician who was born a month after Failde’s  gig at EI Liceo. Jose Urfe incorporated arhythmic element from the son in his famous danzon “El Bombin de Barreto”, first played at a social club in the town of Guira de Melena, where a few dancers probably dropped their derby hats upon realizing that Urfe’s transplanted montuno 5, a vehicle for improvisation in Cuban music, had transfonned the danzan’ s vigorous choreography by facilitating adiversity of pasillos (dance steps) which allowed the dancers to freely express their mischievious intentions.

THE DECLINE OF THE DANZON: FROM CULTURAL SCHIZOPHRENIA TO BROKEN ROUTINES

The danzon eventually became a victim of cultural imperialism and other modern tragedies, when the island was invaded by the yanqui foxtrot and charleston, the Spanish couplet, and other alien products. Some danzoneros realized that their days were numbered in 1916, during the debut of the first troupe of U.S. Black musicians, whose sound appealed to the unsuspected disorientation of the island’s schizophrenic culture. This is why various Cuban flautists suddenly became saxophonists, while many timbaleros began to play U.S.-style trap drums. The most damaging blow, however, was inflicted by a musical fifth column from Oriente Province, where Cuba’s historical tragedies usually originate: By 1920, the son had conquered the western provinces of Cuba, replacing the danzan as the most popular dance. In a desperate attempt to save the danzan tradition, flautist Aniceto Diaz (1887-1964) created the danzonete, a mixture of the son and the danzan in 1929. Like the danzan, the first danzonete was born in Diaz’s hometown, Matanzas. Appropiately entitled “Rompiendo la Rutina” (Breaking the Routine) the first danzonete was played at La Colonia Espanola, a social club for Spanish immigrants and Cubans of Spanish descent 6. Despite its brief popularity during the 30’s, the danzonete resulted in the charanga orchestras’ utilization of certain vocalists (i.e. Paulina Alvarez, Barbarito Diez, Joseito Fernandez), who became the center of popular attention as interpreters of boleros, criollas, canciones or guajiras. In terms of instrumentation, the danzones were initially played by orquestas tipicas (cornet-led bands supported by clarinets and trombone, with tympani predominant in the percussion 7. By the 1930’s, however, the orquestas tipicas had become a rare commodity, and the danzones were played by flute and- fiddle charangas francesas (remember Haiti?), which adapted to the gradual Africanization of Cuban music 8 tltrough the development of the nuevo ritmo 9 and the introduction of the tumbadora (conga drum) in the charanga orchestra of”Arcano y sus Maravillas”

THE RUBALCABA CLAN: FROM DANZO TO BEBOP
One of he most fascinating facts about Cuban music is the existence of various dynasties which have been devoted to the preservation of the danzon and other traditional genres. Such is the case of the Rubalcabas, whose historical significance can be traced to the trombonist Jacobo Gonzalez Rubalcaba, author of “EI Cadete Constitucional”, “Los Pinarenos”, “Linda Mercedes” and other famous danzones. After forming his orquesta tipica in 1918, Jacobo played an important role in promoting the danzon throughout Pinar del Rio Province. Jacobo’s children were also fIrmly committed to the danzon tradition, particularly Jose Antonio (director of Pinardel Rio’s Orquesta Metropolitana) and Guillermo, leader of the Charanga Tipica de Conciertos. Guillermo also happens to be the father of the young protagonist of this recording, Havana born Gonzalo Rubalcaba, whose percussive playing is rooted in his childhood: At the tender age of 4, little Gonzalo was already playing pailas, and two years later his father gave him a set of trap drums. By the age of 9, he began five years of classical training at Havana’s best conservatory, where he was familiarized with the works of the great Cuban composers (Lecuona, Cervantes, Roldan etc). Through his father, ofcourse, Gonzalo was exposed to the danzon legacy, as well as recordings by prominent U.S. pianists (i.e. Thelonious Monk, Budd Powell, Oscar Peterson) Gonzalo was also impressed with the styles of various Cuban pianists, such as Frank Emilio, Peruchin, Felipe Dulzaides, Lili Martinez, and his own father. The child prodigy was only 12 years old when he began to compose and release his improvisational creativity. That’s when the jazz pianist finally emerged. In terms of academic development, it is known that Gonzalo majored in piano and percussion at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory, and later obtained a degree in musical composition at the university level Institute of Fine Arts. Gonzalo never touched any drums after he graduated – the pianist was here to stay. After collaborating with the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna 10, Orquesta Aragon 11 and Los Van Van 12, Gonzalo began to record and lead his own instrumental group on international tours. In fact, his electro-acoustic band (Grupo Proyecto) has played in the most important jazz festivals (North Sea, Montreux, Berlin, etc) and other highly visible venues, such as Toronto’s Mocambo Club and Ronnie Scott’s in London. Although he is still prohibited from appearing personally in the U.S., Gonzalo’s eclectic sound has made a significant impact on numerous U.S. jazz musicians since Dizzy Gillespie literally jumped with admiration when he heard Gonzalo’s band at Havana’s Hotel Nacional, circa 1985, and offered this comment: “He’s the best that l’ve heard in along time”. Dizzy’s praise is echoed by drummer Jack DeJohnette, who states that “Gonzalo’s brilliant technique is obvious, but his sensitive ballad playing makes him an exceptional talent with an incredibly bright future”. Bassist Charlie Haden goes even further by providing amathematical description of Gonzalo: “Technical brilliance plus creativity depth equals genius”. One must agree with Haden’s formula -only a genius could make apiano sound so energetic and graceful as Gonzalo, who has been electrifying European, Latin American and Japanese audiences for years with his powerful technique, engrossing approach, and the enigmatic sense of mysticism which is prevalent throughout his expressive, disciplined phrases. In fact, “disciplined” is an important adjective to remember when talking about Gonzalo’s music: Even his most turbulent solos possess a reasonable and structured logic.

THE RESURRECTION OF THE DANZON: GONZALO’S GREAT PASSION

In this unprecedented tribute to the danzon, recorded in Germany in 1987, Gonzalo demonstrates to be afact that what Jelly Roll Morton called “the Spanish tinge” has a durable place at the heart of modern sounds. Gonzalo has successfully merged the three main currents of his artistic personality (danzon, jazz, and classical music), while conducting this passionate Cuban tradition through thrilling, unexplored territories. His modem approach, inspired in the danzones of Pedrito Hernandez 13, does not dilute or adulterate the artistic essence of the danzon legacy. After all, the third generation danzonero feels that “it was imperative to record a danzon album, as this genre is regarded as the Cuban National Dance, but it had become a museum object within the realm of traditional Cuban music”. One of the main characteristics of the danzon, by the way, is the utilization of musical quotations from varied sources, from pregones callejeros (street vendor songs) to bolero melodies and operatic arias 14. Gonzalo complies with this musical ritual by quoting Tschaikowsky fragments, popular songs, and Richard Addinsell’s melodies.

A FEW WORDS ABOUT THE SIDEMEN

Through his intense interaction with Gonzalo’s keyboards, Felipe Cabrera proves beyond any doubt that he belongs to the supreme elite of Cuban bass players (i.e. Israel “Cachao” Lapez, Jorge Reyes, Carlos del Puerto) …Roberto Vizcaino and Horatio Hernandez also belong to an exclusive fraternity- the rare breed of percussionists who can utilize their instruments for orchestral color, as if they were strings or woodwinds… Saxophonist Rafael Carrasco and trumpeters Lazaro Cruz and Reinaldo Melian accomplished a heroic act by replacing the violinists which are usually featured in the traditional danzan. Enrique Jorrin 15 would have been proud of them.

A FEW WORDS ABOUT
THE GRATEFUL DEAD
The historical significance of this recording is rather evident. The innovative danzan experiments conducted by Gonzalo are comparable to the revitalizing accomplishments of Astor Piazzolla and Paco de Lucia in relation to the tango and flamenco, respectively. Thanks to Gonzalo’s great passion, the danzon is back in town … and the ghosts of Miguel Failde, Jose Urfe, et al, can finally rest in peace.

FOOTNOTES:
1) The danza in turn derived from the contradanse brought to
Cuba toward the end of the 18th Century by the French
colonialists who fled from Haiti, a nation which would never
fully recover from the first revolution of the Western
Hemisphere.
2) Born in Caobas, a town with an alleged abundance of
mahogany trees, Miguel Faflde (1852-1926) left behind a
series of danzones, valses, pasodobles and marchas.
3) In his 19th Century traveling memoir, published in Havana in
1928, U.S. writer Samuel Hazard recalls avisit to EI Liceo by
stating that he had “never seen so many beautiful women
together”.

 

A La Fuerza Espirita, Sostenida Musica En La Historia De Los Mas Diversos Encantamientos Armonicos, En La Ciencia Ritmica, La Tecnica Oradora Y La Busqueda De Espacios Y Formas En Tiempos. Al Impulso Espontaneo Y Arrebato Que En La Improvisacion Encontramos Y Reqalamos La Vida Como Parte Y Cuadro De La Obra Por Componer. Al Estimulo Brujo, A La Mistica Agonica Y Secreta Que Ofrece EI Buen Arte, EI Artista De Ia Vida En Extasis, Arropado Por Ia Fé Para CantarIe Al Amor Y La Muerte, Y La Vida.

To The Spirits Strength – Sustained Music In The History Of The Most Diverse Harmonic Enchantments – Rythmical Science, Praying Technique And Searching For Space And Temporary Forms To The Spontaneous Impulse – Out Burst Of Improvisation That We Present To Life As Frame And Part Of The Work To Be Composed To The Witch Stimulus, To The Secret Mystical Agony That Art Offers- The Artist Himself In Ecxtasis, Wrapped In Faith – In Chanting Love, Death And Life.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba