Orquesta La Moderna Tradicion specializes in the dance music of Cuba, the native country of one its co-founders, Roberto Borrell. Chief among the ensemble's repertoire is the style of the danzon, a graceful and romantic ballroom or parlor dance that requires partners to hold each other close. With its mix of Afro-Cuban percussion and softer-sounding violins and a flute, the danzon captured the hearts of the public during the late 1800s and early 1900s and paved the way for the emergence of the tango, as well as the cha-cha.
The ensemble is based in San Francisco and was formed on October 3, 1996. It debuted the following March, and by late 1997, Tinder/Candela issued the group's debut CD, Danzonemos. The 11 members of Orquesta La Moderna Tradicion are led by Borrell, a conga player and dancer, and his co-founder, Tregar Otton, a composer and violinist who hails from Texas. Michael Spiro plays the timbales, or kettledrums. The ensemble also includes one cello and a pair of violins. The musicians come from a variety of musical backgrounds, including flamenco, salsa, blues, classical, and jazz. In addition to classic danzon music, the group also plays original pieces composed in the same vein. It also plays the popular dance music of the cha-cha, the son, and the guaracha.
Borrell grew up in Old Havana and came of age during the 1950s and the 1960s, a rich musical era in Cuba. While dance lovers frequented local social clubs known as sociedads, he perfected his moves in the privacy of his home with a broom for his partner. By the early '60s, sociedads were a thing of the past. Havana, which had boasted more than 100 of the social clubs just a few years earlier, now had none. Borrell headed to New York, where he played percussion for ten years. By the 1990s, when he settled in San Francisco, swing had taken hold, leading to a renewed interest in the Cuban dance music of an earlier era.
Otton developed an interest in Cuban music as a teenager. In San Francisco, he proposed the concept for Orquesta La Moderna Tradicion to Borrell, who was initially skeptical that such a venture would generate adequate interest. Not long after, with their group of musicians assembled and half-a-year's rehearsal behind them, they were ready to give the classics of Borrell's homeland an introduction to the public with updated arrangements.