Music: Feel the beat

A taste of Cuba in Sausalito

By Lily O’Brien

Imagine that you’re walking along the Malecón, the scenic waterfront walkway that stretches for five miles along the seawall in Havana, Cuba. You can almost hear the sound of the waves hitting the beach, and in the background, the distant sounds of a swaying Latin melody backed by an Afro-Cuban beat. Well, the good news is that you don’t have to travel to Cuba—just head to the Sausalito Seahorse on Sunday night and dance to the sounds of Orquesta La Moderna Tradición.

The original group was founded in the early ’90s by Tregar Otton, a violinist, along with several other original members of the band, and Robert Borrell, a well-known Cuban instrumentalist and dancer from Havana, who had hundreds of dance students who needed a place to dance. At that time, the band played mostly danzón music, which was derived from the music brought to Cuba from Haiti in the late 1700s. Orquesta is one of the only bands in the world that still plays this kind of music.

Along with playing violin, Otton arranges the music and manages the band. He says that when Borrell left around 1995, he took the band in another direction. “Danzón is mostly instrumental,” Otton says by telephone from his home in Pacifica, “so we got some other Cubans in the group and changed the focus from mostly danzónes to include other types of Cuban music.”

Otton says that one of the things that makes them unique is the variety of music they play. “A lot of salsa bands—the tempos and style of music is real similar,” Otton says.  “But you come hear us and we will play fast stuff and then we’ll throw in a danzón, which is slower and more elegant than a cha cha cha.”

Another thing that sets Orquesta apart is that they do a variation on the traditional salsa band instrumentation—conga drums, timbales, hand percussion, piano, bass, a rhythm section and vocalists. Otton says that most Cuban salsa bands use trumpets and brass, whereas Orquesta features two violins and a clarinet, giving them a much sweeter, mellower sound. “But the music does groove and does have a strong Afro-Cuban influence,” he adds.

Orquesta La Moderna Tradición plays at the Seahorse on Sunday, Feb. 9 (and the first Sunday of every month) from 5-10pm; $10; 305 Harbor View Drive, Sausalito; 415/331-2899.

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