What Orquesta La Moderna Tradición is
Orquesta La Moderna Tradición has been one of the most legendary groups of Cuban music in its entire history. It is a group whose members are based in San Francisco, California, and consists of 11 members who play different genres such as danzón, timba, guaguancó, cha cha chá, son, rumba, charanga, among others. They also mix in elements from American jazz, violins, and Afro-Cuban rhythms.
The beginning of this orchestra’s story goes back to 1996, since they started to perform throughout the United States to bring the best of traditional Cuban music to every corner of the country and transport Cuban immigrants back to the Havana’s streets and clubs during the 50’s. All the success accumulated allowed them to perform at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, the Smithsonian Institution, the Lincoln Certer and many other venues of high prestige.
Recently, Orquesta La Moderna Tradición once again displayed their talent at Yoshi’s, a jazz club and restaurant located in Oakland, California, whose reputation in the San Francisco Bay Area is not up for discussion. Our editor Eduardo Guilarte was present at the show to cover the details of the event, which left all those present in awe.
Conversation with Tregar Otton, founding director of the orchestra
Based on the above, we talked with Tregar Otton, founder, director, composer, and violinist of the group. This talented musician, born in the Marshall Islands and raised in Texas, started to learn about classical music from an early age and joined the Berkeley Symphony while he still was a teenager. By the 1990s, this musical promise worked as a regular part of Virgilio Mart Y Sus Majaderos, La Tipica Novel and the Charanga Orquesta Broadway.
By the year 1995, Otton founded Orquesta La Moderna Tradición with Roberto Borrell. At the beginning, the group started to become well-known for its soft sounds of Afro-Cuban charanga, which are accompanied by a set of wind instruments and violins that give a unique touch to this group’s music.
Today, we have the welcome presence of the musician to talk about each and every one of the issues raised in this brief review and anything he wants to reveal to our dear readers. It is such a pleasure to have you here today, Tregar. How are you feeling?
I am fine here near San Francisco. Good to see you today.
Very good, Tregar. You got started in the world of music at a young age. Could you tell us a bit about your beginnings?
I started playing violin when I was four years old and my family had a violin teacher as a neighbor. My parents did the laundry for all our neighbors, so we met her and she ended up giving me classes every day. After that, I studied a lot of classical music, bought music when I was about 20 and fell in love with it because it used the violins differently from classical music. I really enjoyed playing dance music because the connection with the public is quite different from that of classical music. In the case of classical music, many people get bored, but Cuban music and salsa music make a much more direct connection to the audience. There is nothing like playing for a floor with dancers.
We understand that you were born in the Marshall Islands, but grew up in Texas, is that correct?
Yes. After my dad married my mom, they both moved to Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, in the middle of the Pacific. After that, I grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, till I was 13 or 14 about when I moved to California.
I asked because it is very interesting how you set your eyes on Cuban music despite your origins. Where does this interest in Cuban music and the rhythms you play come from?
For the same reasons I play dance music. It caught my attention when I heard Charanga de La 4 or one of these New York bands. I was impressed that violins were part of the percussion and were making repetitive sounds with the refrain and the son montuno. We are more part of the rhythm section than the melodic section in many of our songs. We can dance while we are on stage. I was also impressed by the improvisations of Cuqui and Alfredo de la Fé. I had many Latin friends I met in college while learning Spanish because no one in my family spoke it.
How did Orquesta La Moderna Tradición come about and who joined you in its foundation?
I was working with a group. I was in New York, where I was playing with the Broadway Orchestra and the Orquesta Tipica Novel. I was very lucky to have been in that city because I got to know many veteran musicians in the 80’s like Renato Valdés, Virgilio Martí, and Adalberto Santiago. I visited a Cuban friend from San Francisco named Fito Reinoso, who had a group called Ritmo Y Armonía and he visited us here in New York. I was tired of the cold in New York, so I decided to go to San Francisco, where Tito and I had the idea of creating a group. It was there that I met a great drum instructor and dance teacher Roberto Borrell, who joined us to found Ritmo y Armonía. After two years, we had to be apart, but Roberto and I still wanted to play danzón. At least here in the Bay Area, it is very difficult to get singers. The ones we have are good, but there are not so many. So, we planned to make a danzonera or danzón group. When the orchestra began to work, we only played danzón songs, rehearsed every week and did many tours with this musical genre because there was a boom with swing dancing and dance music during the 40’s. So, we were surfing that wave. So, we were surfing that wave and doing collaborations with swing groups because it was older music. Danzón is a very rich genre, but it is no of interest to many people because they do not know how to dance it, so we started expanding our repertoire to include more modern and dance music. We still play danzones, but only two per set. There are still musicians from the original group in the orchestra including Michael Spiro. Roberto went to Peru about a decade ago, so Michael and I stayed with the group and invited Eduardo Herrera, who is a singer born in Caracas, Venezuela, to perform with us. We expanded the repertoire by doing the best we could with my own creations. Let’s remember I am the arranger of the group, so I do some songs and we have one that is included in the new recording in which I wrote the music and maestro Carlos Caro from Cuba added the lyrics.
Although rhythms like danzón are not so popular, did you feel the acceptance of the public?
There were many people who knew danzón who began to notice that it was a very interesting genre due to the presence of the violins. As Roberto Borrell is a dance teacher, he teaches many of his students how to dance danzón, which is not easy because they should be affixed on each turn they have to make according to the sounds of the instruments.
Can you go from one genre to another in the same song?
Yes, we do that a lot. On our new album, we have rhythms with batá drums from music of Santería, which we use for our danzón songs. It sounds complicated when I explain it, but it is easy at the time of listening to it.
What makes Orquesta La Moderna Tradición different from other Latin music groups in the United States?
Well, I know no other group that plays danzón or charanga. There are two genres of popular dance music in Cuba that come from son montuno, which uses violins and flutes. In the case of charanga, the musicians use violins and flutes. Since the 70’s and 80’s, charanga is now no longer heard in the United States. In Cuba, neither do you hear danzón much. We are a group that has so many danzones in the repertoire. There are not too many groups that play cha cha chá. Me being an arranger, I try to create cha cha chá songs that are not copies of what was played by Orquesta Aragón and other bands in the 40’s and 50’s.
Given that music has evolved so much, what reaction do you perceive from the young public when you play charanga, cha cha chá, danzón and other rhythms?
Interesting question. For young people who do not know and are not salsa fans, our music sounds like salsa because it is difficult to distinguish the genres without knowing them well. However, I work as a music teacher and I have many groups of children, in which there are many salsa fans. They listen to Ray Barreto, Willie Colón, and Hector Lavoe. They also like charanga and understand it well. However, I think danzón is more difficult because it has to be a reflection of what people are feeling in their culture. Cha cha chá is simpler and innocent, but danzón is finer and refined. I think music can influence people and play its part in changing the direction of their culture.
Can you tell us a little bit about your performance at Yoshi’s?
Because of COVID-19, for a year and a half, we could not do anything. We could not even rehearse until the vaccine came on the market. We got this date with Yoshi’s because we have played there many times before as well as Yoshi’s in San Francisco. So, they gave us a date and we had the support of local DJs like Luis Medina, Chuy Varela and Jose Ruiz. We also made use of social media to promote us, sell our CDs and attract people to our shows. The staff of Yoshi’s was impressed because it is rare that a local band has been able to sell so many tickets. We were very excited to see so many people loving us and showing how much they love music. We have a large audience that is very loyal to us and has been going wherever we perform for over 20 years.
What are your future projects?
We get everything ready for the repertoire of the new album. When I was in New York, I was working with Juan Carlos Formell, Juan Formell’s son, who is the bass player and took over his father’s position in Los Van Van. I was one of the first people he met here in the United States and we became very good friends. Then he told me that I could arrange any of his songs without any problem, so I have about four or five of his songs ready and some others that I have not finished yet. We have enough material to make at least two albums, but it is very expensive. One could only cost us about $15 to start with.
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Official website: www.danzon.com
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