In the Spark “Transplanting a Tradition” episode, master percussionist, dancer and bandleader Roberto Borrell brings his passion for Cuban music and dance to students and audiences, reiterating the need to preserve the roots of Cuban music so that it will continue to grow and so that future generations can experience it. Viewers get to sit in on a dance class, see a segment of a performance by Borrell’s 12-piece Orquesta La Moderna Tradición and get a glimpse of the life of a traditional artist living outside his native country.
Borrell grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in Havana, Cuba, during the heyday of popular dance hall music, when danzón orchestras and big bands played all night performing a variety of genres, such as danzón-cha, cha-cha-chá, son-montuno, mambo and boleros. He enjoyed a successful career, first with the Conjunto Nacional de Cuba and later directing his own dance company. With the advent of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, however, many aspects of the culture in Cuba changed, and it became an increasingly difficult environment for artists, especially those who refused to join the Communist Party. Like many other thousands of Cubans, Borrell fled to the United States in 1980. Upon relocating to the Bay Area, Borrell met violinist, composer and arranger Tregar Otton, and together in 1996 they founded Orquesta La Moderna Tradición, perhaps the only ensemble in the United States that is dedicated to presenting traditional Cuban dance music, especially the lilting grooves of danzón.
Danzón, one of Cuba’s first unique dance/music genres has a long history that represents a fusion of African and European elements, and it represents the roots for many popular dance styles today. One of the most unique and compelling characteristics of danzón is the intricate connection between the music and the dance and between the musicians and the dancers. Following the musical structure and specific musical cues, dancers of classic danzón change their steps accordingly and move with musical phrases, at times allowing for some improvisation within the structure. This requires them to listen very closely to the music in order to hear an important cue, such as when to pause, when to make a big turn or when the music is about to end.