Orquesta Failde has become known in Cuba for performing danzón, the rhythm of 19th century ballroom dance, and for collaborating on recordings and in concert with singer Omara Portuondo, who turned 90 on Oct. 29.
But this is no veteran band. Failde’s 13 members range from 16 years old to late 20s, and their album Failde con Tumbao includes the band’s chachachá version of Camila Cabello’s “Havana,” as well as appearances by salsero Andy Monañez, violinist Federico Britos and Portuondo. The album is up for a Latin Grammy, competing in the best tropical traditional album category with Orquesta Aragón, Ernesto Fernández, Changui de Guatánamo and Mariaca Semprún.
For Ethiel Failde, the 28-year-old flute player and founder of the orchestra, being a bridge between past and present is all part of his personal quest to revive the danzón, which was created by his ancestor Miguel Failde. “The models of success for young musicians are trap and reggaetón,” says Failde. “But we can show music students who play traditional music that they can also be successful and travel the world.”
Failde spoke to Billboard from his home in Matanzas, Cuba.
Your great-great-uncle, Miguel Failde, is credited with having created the danzón rhythm. Was that legacy always present in your life?
I started dancing the danzón when I was six years old, thanks to a teacher I had at school. But I am the only musician in my immediate family, and I really just found out the whole story of the Failde family a few years ago. In the past, artists were often looked down upon, and music was seen as a hobby. My grandfather Candido, for example, was a great violinist, but all I knew about him was that he was a tailor by profession. When I started studying music, I got to the conservatory and realized I was “a Failde,” that my name was the same as that great Cuban musician. It ignited a passion in me for traditional Cuban music from that era, and I appointed myself the defender of the patrimony of Miguel Failde and the danzón.
The orchestra members are young, but you are performing “old music.” Have you been able to reach a young audience?
Yes, and I am thrilled because it’s been difficult. When the orchestra started (eight years ago), we were attracting an audience that was mostly older than 60. But we’ve been working on updating our sound, our image on stage and the production level of our concerts; that has brought us younger fans. This is our third album and it shows the orchestra’s full reach and versatility, including danzón, mambo, salsa, jazz and timba.
You’ve been very active in the past six months, even when Cuba has been locked down. What have you been doing?
We were really worried when the pandemic started. But we’ve been posting a lot of performances on Facebook and YouTube, and we’ve really increased our number of followers. Before the pandemic, most of our fans were in Mexico. But now the majority are in Cuba. We’ve seen that we’ve attracted a lot more younger people. We’ve done a lot of concerts, and we’ve also been recording performances by other groups here in Matanzas, from jazz, to rumba to Cuban country music. It’s a way of keeping musicians active. For our concerts, we never repeat the same song list. We now have a repertoire of 47 songs, and that makes the orchestra better because the musicians have to be studying new music constantly.
You previously recorded an album with Omara Portuondo, and Orquesta Failde has lately served as her back-up band when she performs in Cuba. Why did you choose to join forces with a 90-year-old artist?
Because she’s Omara Portuondo. I’ve always admired, loved and idolized her. In 2016, my manager, Pedro Pablo, had the chance to ask her if she would record with us. That is the song “Me Desordeno,” which is on the current album. Then we recorded Siempre Tu Voz, a tribute to Beny Moré. She opened her heart and her house to us. We also recorded a track that will be on an album celebrating her 90th birthday. It’s amazing the way she can sing at her age.
What does the Latin Grammy nomination mean to you?
This proves to us, a group of kids who are just starting out, going against the current by performing traditional Cuban music, that we are on the right path. I always tell the musicians who play with me that the reason they should play traditional Cuban music is simply because they like it. It’s not easy, because they are influenced by so many new trends and sounds. I have them study the great masters so that they know what they did and where they came from. And they play the danzón with joy. This nomination is not only for the Orquesta Failde. It’s for young Cuban musicians and for the danzón.