The magic of Orquesta Akokán is almost as notable for its unlikely logistics as for its brilliant music. The band has brought together musicians from two politically divided countries — Cuba and the US — and recreated a golden musical era that fell out of the spotlight more than 50 years ago.
With their second album released last fall, 16 Rayos, the powerful and nimble group of 16 musicians again recreate Afro-Cuban mambo of the 1950s, when big bands led by Pérez Prado, Benny Moré, and Arsenio Rodríguez began to fill the dancefloor void left by the decline of the jazz big bands of the 1940s. This spring they expect to hit the road with a series of performances around the world.
Jacob Plasse and Michael Eckroth were two New York-based fans of contemporary Latin music who fell in love with old mambo music. Through a series of lucky breaks and some persistence, they were able to go to the storied Arieto Studio 101 in Havana and help organize what was to become Orquesta Akokán (whose name is based on the Yoruba phrase for “from the heart”). The group’s eponymous debut album on Daptone Records in 2018 garnered Grammy and Billboard Latin Music Awards.
“Going down there and being in the room with these guys in that old studio the first time was like a dream,” said Eckroth.
Plasse said he was a latecomer to mambo but recalled his reactions to first hearing the music: “It was like: ‘This is the shit.’ … When I first heard Benny More, I thought, ‘This is the greatest thing I’ve ever heard. Why aren’t people talking about this? Why don’t you learn about this in school?’ … I realized that it’s this weird forgotten thing, because of the politics and history, that has so much depth. It seemed like this forgotten, golden moment in the history of music.”
Eckroth was initially a jazz enthusiast, found his way to Afro-Cuban music, and began studying piano solos from the mambo era as a doctoral student. When it came time to write for Orquesta Akokán, “I had all that stuff in my mind, because I’d just been listening to it for two or three years all the time.”
The origin of the band stemmed back to Plasse, who had been playing in other Latin bands, meeting lead singer and lyricist José “Pepito” Gómez, who was in New York but also working with the well-respected and popular Cuban band Pupy y Los Que Son Son.
The singer and his longtime friend Cesar Lopez eventually arranged for Plasse and Eckroth to meet some top musicians in Cuba to play some vintage-style arrangements Eckroth had put together.
“I don’t think those guys really knew what to expect,” Eckroth recalled. “There’s not a lot of arrangers anywhere trying to make this sound.”
“And then there was the fact that we were also all recording live,” Plasse added. “People don’t really do that anymore.”
But they felt they needed to record the musicians live as was done in the golden era of mambo.
“I’m not trying to rag on modern music,” Plasse said, “but that’s why those old recordings are so vibrant, you have all these people playing in the room and it’s closer to what you would hear live. It’s not going to have that thing that makes Afro-Cuban music so vibrant. You know, it’s going to sound like a bunch of guys playing along to a click track. When you listen to the recordings, you’re listening to a band, you’re not listening to some engineer and their plugins or whatever nerdy stuff happens these days.”
“These [old mambo] bands were playing all the time together and that’s also something that changes the band,” Plasse said. “When you have guys who have toured or play a lot together, they can anticipate each other’s moves and they breathe together, especially when you’re talking about a sax section, or trombone or trumpet section that have to play everything in unison. It just changes things, it makes it cohere more.”
One happy tension in Orquestra Akokán’s music is that while it is sophisticated, multi-layered music that rewards the concentrated listening one brings to a concert hall, it is based on a rhythmically propulsive genre designed to get people up and moving.
“I think you can look at this either way,” Eckroth said. “I mean, it does fit in concert music because there’s a lot going on. Since it’s old-style music, it’s not going to be like salsa dance music now, but also there are plenty of people who just groove to it and like it for dancing.”
“We want salsa dancers to be able to do their routine to our songs,” Plasse said. “But we want everyone to feel like they can dance, whether they know how to dance salsa or not. I think mambo is really great for that because it has more of a downbeat for people. You know, it still has that rhythmic complexity on top of it, but also, in a certain way, mambo is sparser than salsa.”
With the new album, 16 Rayos, a listener can hear music that is firmly anchored in powerful, hard-swinging mambo, but also recognize the sophisticated, tightly synchronized brass that evokes the best of American big bands, and then there are the ancient voice and drum sounds of Afro-Cuban santeria.
Plasse said the debut recording was an attempt to recreate the old era but also make it their own. “It was more like we wanted to take the ethos of that older style of playing together in a room, but then write original songs, and sneak in ideas that wouldn’t happen then.”
On the second album, Plasse said, “We tried to get more into the folkloric side of things, and mix that back into the big band sound.”
“We tried to branch out and do more rhythmic styles,” Eckroth said. “So like the first track is a comparsa, which a lot of those big bands used to play back then. We just realized that there were some other things we could crack into to get more rhythmic variety.”
Talking about the band’s return to touring this spring and the new album, Plasse added that 16 Rayos is “in certain ways more challenging for a listener because it’s delving into all these things that are deeper. But I think it needs to be heard live. That’s always been the point of this sort of music. We put our everything into these records, but the power of Latin music and all these percussionists playing together — it’s a beast.”