Orquesta Akokán: The Cuban Collective That’s Bringing Back Old School Mambo

There’s a saying one often hears from Latin music lovers: “Let’s keep Cuban music alive.” You might ask yourself: When did Cuban music go extinct? But the truth is, classic Cuban music as we know it, whether mambo or rumba, hasn’t been mainstream since the Buena Vista era of the 60s and 70s. But a new mambo band called Orquesta Akokán is about to change that.

The 16-piece band that’s signed with Daptone Records, includes some of the best musicians in the Latin music business, along with Cuban legendary vocalist Jose “Pepito” Gomez. The album, dropping March 30, was produced by Chulo Records founder and producer, Jacob Plasse and arranged by Mike Eckroth.

The sound consists of a combination of jazzy bass and sax along with Afro-Cuban percussion rhythms, and instantly transports anyone who has ever experienced Cuba back to the island. And if you have yet to visit Cuba, this album might inspire you to finally go — that’s how magical and nostalgic it is.

Orquestra Akokan - Cuban Mambo Band

Even the way this project came about sounds like something straight out of a movie script. Plasse, who has always been a fan of mambo music, was inspired to do an album that not only preserved the old sounds of Cuban big band music, but also paid tribute to it. He got together with Eckroth and Pepito, who he had worked with before, and together the three of them produced an album that literally takes you back to the days of Benny Moré and old Cuban music.

“I know Pepito from listening to his records and when I found out he was in New York, I would do gigs with other bands with him,” Plasse tells Hiplatina exclusively. “I started having him playing in my band Los Hacheros, when my singer wasn’t around and then I started pestering him to record. The idea of having a mambo band with 12 or 16 musicians might sound crazy but it seemed like a cool idea to record and so we did it.”

Pepito managed to get some of the finest musicians to make the album, which was actually recorded at Areito Studio in Havana, Cuba. The studio has housed some of the most legendary artists including Benny Moré and Celia Cruz.

“In Cuba pre-revolution before Castro, there were all these casinos and all these American jazz bands going down to Cuba and playing. That was the music of the time,” says Plasse. “The mambo music we created for this album is also in the vein of the way Cuban music fuses their interpretation of Rumba with the sounds of big band. It’s a blend and we couldn’t be delivering it at a better time.”

Since former President Barack Obama reopened the US embassy in Cuba in 2015, Americans have been able to easily travel to Cuba – in many cases directly – without the limitations that once existed. It triggered a lot of curiosity surrounding the island and it’s rich culture, though there have been a ton of misconceptions surrounding traveling there since this past November when the Trump administration announced a new set of restrictions regarding travel and trade with Cuba. The ban initially included the limitation of individuals being able to fly there and the pressure to only travel there if part of  groups licensed by Treasury Department for very specific reasons but apparently that’s not really the case.

It’s of course not like traveling to most countries, but traveling to Cuba is still very much possible in 2018, you just need to be able to provide proof that you meet the approved categories of traveling there. In fact, direct flights from the states to Cuba still exist through Jetblue and so the interest in the island by Americans – particularly young Americans – still very much exists.

“I think it’s really important for people to go and experience Cuba,” says Plasse. “Not only does it serve as an opportunity to just learn about this fascinating place where the culture is still so strong there, but the people there, the Cubans, they need it. Their economy right now depends on it so you’re actually doing a good thing by going down there.”

Plasse didn’t have one specific audience of people in mind when putting together the album but he does hope that it lands with younger generations. “I want it to reach the generation after the Buena Vista generation because a lot of those people when they think of Cuban music, Buena vista tends to be their last point of reference and that was almost 20 years ago,” he says. “I think this album would be such a great way for young people to learn about mambo, to learn about Cuba, and its culture.”

The album is a musical history lesson and an ode to the old school Cuban music of the 60s and 70s. Orquesta Akokán has done a brilliant job at preserving the genre’s classic sound that serves almost like an honorary tribute to the Buena Vista era. We can’t wait for the full album to come out but for now, make sure to check out their single “Mambo Rapidito,” on Soundcloud to get a sense of their sound and don’t forget to mark the album release date, March 30th on your calendars!

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