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Left Cuba, kept the salsa

Alonso Brito was 10 when his family moved from Havana, never to return. But now, half a century later, his debut album arrives steeped in island sabor.

August 10, 2008|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

In a world where nothing ever stays the same

I am left with only things I cannot change

-- Alonso Brito,

Co-writer, "Things I Cannot Change"


The PUBLICITY photos for the new album by Alonso Brito have that air of Havana hipness that has cloaked many contemporary artists coming from the island. It's a chic mystique derived from that incongruous juxtaposition of stylish fashion against drab communist gray. There's Alonso, sporting a leather jacket with a dashing red scarf and thick, horn-rimmed glasses, gazing out a window onto a Havana street frozen in time.

The image, however, is a digital illusion. Alonso left Havana in 1960 when he was 10, a year after Fidel Castro took power, and he's never been back. But while the photo was faked, the sense of sorrow and nostalgia it projects is very real for this artist-in-exile who, on the eve of his 60th birthday, has reconnected with his roots and released the debut album that has eluded him his entire career.

"A lot of people ask me, 'Why did it take you so long to make it to Hollywood?' " he says, his flyaway silver bangs hanging over his eyebrows. "It's natural because society for a long time has been telling us, 'Oye, at 60, whoosh, retire! At 40, start waving goodbye. And it's like, no, no, no! You know how we talk about reinventing life nowadays, and staying with it, and persevering and doing what you want. I think people of my generation, the baby boomers, need to hear that story, because it's almost like a philosophy for us to continue living."

Still, it's late in the game for Alonso to be reinventing himself. He was virtually unknown in Los Angeles until a few months ago and remains a bit of an enigma. He suddenly appeared in town with those publicity photos and the grand illusion of galvanizing the local salsa music scene, which has a flourishing club circuit. The push is to brand Alonso as the recognizable face of L.A. salsa, which unlike New York and Miami has produced no big-name stars. He and his producers envision him as that urbane persona representing the multicultural salsa set.

Yet like the picture of the artist who wasn't there, it's hard to know who Alonso Brito really is. In Miami, he was always known as Dennis Britt, an eclectic musician, charmed nightclub manager and all-around bohemian who rubbed shoulders with the likes of Barry Gibb and Donald Fagen. He's also a respected songwriter, who moved to Nashville in the mid-'90s to help write songs for Raul Malo and the now-defunct Mavericks, including the country band's heartbreaking "Things I Cannot Change."

In a single sentence, he can switch from Spanish with a strong Cuban accent to colloquial English peppered with "dude" and "champ" and "baby." He was raised Catholic but dabbled in Buddhism as well as Afro-Cuban Santeria. But perhaps most improbably for someone being groomed as a salsa star, he had to take lessons from a local dance teacher to learn that authentic Cuban sway instead of those skittish, helter-skelter steps that seem to suddenly possess his skinny legs like a trance, frenetic but on beat. In the end, he dumped the teacher and kept the crazy feet, which reminded a bandmate of moves by old Afro-Cuban rumberos back home.

Alonso is like no other contemporary salsa singer -- part Mick Jagger, part Caetano Veloso and part Desi Arnaz on acid. His recent performances at King King in Hollywood, a well-attended four-week stand at the club that ends Tuesday, showcased the magnetism of his quirky stage presence and the powerhouse talent of his backing band with its piercing horns, edgy rock guitars and dense percussion. The thunderous live versions, however, tend to drown out Alonso's hoarse, tremulous baritone, which comes through more clearly on the album, "Santo Bueno" (Good Saint), available for download on music sites by Sept. 4. The modulated recording flows gracefully through rhythms from soft samba to genteel danzon, providing tailored settings for his tender themes of resilience, rebirth and remembrance.

You believe him when he says that writing these songs helped him overcome the heartache of broken dreams, a failed marriage and near financial ruin. And that he had to learn to trust again to get back on stage in a city that he had once left in failure.

"I've got a score to settle with this town," he says, a glow in his green eyes that change color with the light. "You didn't let me give you the love I wanted to give you, so I'm going to give it to you now."

An early love of music

Dennis Alonso Brito has been haunted by a fear of failure since his childhood in Cuba, where his father was an executive for Colgate with an MIT degree. The demands of orthodox Catholicism and corporate capitalism wreaked havoc on the psyche of a boy who secretly harbored dreams of being a musician.

"If you walk up to some of these Cubans and say you want to be a piano player, you're going to get smacked across the face," says Alonso with that tobacco-smoked voice that makes his singing sound at times so dissolute.

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