Orquesta La Moderna Tradición Brings on the Danzón

The Freight opens the dance floor so Orquesta La Moderna Tradición can properly express the soul of Cuban dance.


Photo by Lance Yamamoto

Even in a region as clave crazy as the Bay Area, there’s no band quite like Orquesta La Moderna Tradición. A hotbed of Cuban music since the 1950s, when legendary percussionists Mongo Santamaria, Francisco Aguabella, Armando Peraza, Willie Bobo, and Benny Velarde introduced the region to the essential Afro-Cuban pulse known as clave, the Bay Area boasts world-class bands versed in an array of essential Cuban rhythmic traditions, from son, songo, and mambo to timba, rumba, and cha cha cha.

But Orquesta La Moderna Tradición is the only combo on the West Coast, and possibly the United States, with a repertoire prominently featuring danzón, an elegant style that emerged in 1880s Havana as an early fusion of European and African music.

After several quiet years, La Moderna Tradición is surging back into action at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage on Feb. 15. With seats in front of the stage removed to open up the floor, the event brings the band back to its dance-floor roots. The talent-laden 11-piece band got its start in the 1990s, “when there was a swing dance resurgence and the Buena Vista Social Club turned a lot of people on to Cuban music,” said Oakland violinist and La Moderna Tradición co-founder Tregar Otton. He’d immersed himself in Cuban music in the early 1990s playing with the Bay Area’s pioneering Conjunto Céspedes, then spent several years in New York performing regularly with Cuban masters like trumpeter Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros, drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, and pianist/flutist Oriente Lopez. Returning to the Bay Area, Otton connected with Cuban conguero and dancer Roberto Borrell and convinced him the time was ripe to launch a danzón-centric band.

Borrell was a little skeptical, and it turned out with good reason. Quite different than salsa, danzón is “music that has a very structured type of dance, and the form is determined by how you dance to it,” Otton said. “When we did our first concert in 1996, we started the show with contradanza, which came from Haiti and went to eastern Cuba, and evolved into danzón. Each time it got a little bit slower and incorporated more Afro-Cuban elements. It made sense to revitalize, but you need dancers who know how to dance danzón. It’s not even taught in Cuba.”

As the band’s name implies, La Moderna Tradición wasn’t interested in re-creating the past. The group honed a repertoire of later Cuban styles, while always keeping several pieces of danzón in regular rotation. “We play at least a couple with every set,” Otton said. “It’s still a focus of our music and what sets us apart from other bands.”

Part of what makes La Moderna Tradición such an exciting act is that it features some of the Bay Area’s top players, including a bevy of founding members like violist Sandy Poindexter, clarinetist Don Gardner, bassist Steve Senft-Herera, and percussion maestro Michael Spiro, who’s back in the Bay Area full time after a decade-long stint as a professor at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. 

Orquesta La Moderna Tradición, Fri., Feb. 15, 8 p.m., $16 advance, $20 door (plus fees), Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-644-2020, TheFreight.org.

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