FEATURE: Orquesta Akokán

Orquesta Akokán at Areito Studios – La Habana, Cuba.
Photo credit: © Joel Pront

A new gem from the Daptone Records label comes from Cuba, writes Yannick Le Maintec (*); Orquesta Akokán has succeeded in conjuring up the spirit of the great 1950s Cuban big bands.

When Jacob Plasse first began to record the best latino musicians in New York, live to analog tape, most of them thought he was crazy. “They hadn’t seen it done in 30 years,” Plasse says, “but once they heard the result, their jaws dropped.” Here, in brief, is how the Chulo Records label presents itself on its website. It’s essentially the same thinking as that of the soul music label Daptone Records, which built its reputation on its studio acoustics and analog recordings. The association of Chulo with Daptone is an obvious one.

Sleeve for Orquesta Akokán

An obsession with sound would become the origin for Chulo in 2012. As well as a way for Jacob Plasse to find his production mastery. His reference point? Daptone Records, of course. For Plasse, the magic of latin music lives in the collective effort. His recording musicians play together, listen to each other, respond; that’s what creates the groove. And if you have to start a recording all over again to get it right, so be it. For this young producer, the standard of recording the instruments separately with overdubs, and substitutions in the editing room, is not something he aspires to.

So far this year Chulo Records has released a half dozen albums marked with its special stamp. The label’s greatest success has come with Los Hacheros, the combo Plasse created with Papote Jiménez to honor the Cuban musician Arsenio Rodriguez.

Plasse’s newest project is even more ambitious: to dive into the golden era of Cuban music. In the 1950s, the mambo orchestras were the Cuban equivalent of the great swing bands. From the Havana casinos to the Palladium in New York, the hunger for mambo gave the music a devoted international following.

Plasse’s latest idea is to record a big band inspired by orchestras like that of Benny Moré, to get at the 1950s sound by recording “under the same conditions of the era.” Plasse says with confidence that despite being in a 60-year-old style, “the music we just made has more life and excitement than modern latin records like Despacito”. (the most streamed song of 2017).

The Orquesta Akokán came about from the collaboration of three musicians: Jacob Plasse, the workaholic of Son; American pianist Mike Eckroth; and the Cuban singer with a resume as long as your arm, José “Pepito” Gomez – the unforgettable voice of Pupy y Los Que Son Son. Just at the moment on 7 November 2016 when Gomez arrived in Havana to fulfill his musical dream, Donald Trump was entering the White House, and so Gomez arrived in a surreal historical landscape and moment in time. The stakes – and the pressure – were as high as they could be.

Gomez, who had to return to Cuba to participate in a concert with Pupy, managed to convince Plasse and Eckroth to go with him. His address book held the telephone number for saxophonist Cesar Lopez, who helped get 16 of the best musicians on the island together. The Arieto Estudio 101 was ideal, both for its size and acoustics. The recordings took place in this mythic studio, formerly belonging to Panart Records, and absorbed by the government agency EGREM in 1961. The session spanned three days with a single day of practice. The musicians “performed at an extraordinary level”, Plasse said, and they had only one day of practice and learning their parts, and one day for the engineers to find the right position for the mics and sound levels. The result is astonishing.

What’s most striking about a first listen to Orquesta Akokán, besides the excellent quality of sound, is the feeling of authenticity. How can a project conceived in New York sound so truly Cuban? Could there be a difference between a mambo played by Benny Moré in Havana, Perez Prado in Mexico, and mambos done in New York by Machito and Tito Puente? One answer comes from Mike Eckroth, who wrote the arrangements for the album. With a PhD in jazz performance, Eckroth’s dissertation examined Cuban piano of the 1940s. “The idea of having several groups of musicians playing their own rhythms in a spirit of unity is a concept that takes us far back to Africa. This is reflected in the big bands, and something you already had in the jazz bands of the ’30s. This same idea is everywhere in Cuban music, as in the montuno sound of Arsenio Rodríguez, where bass, piano, tres, and trumpet play their own score. And the mambo, whether by Moré, Prado, Machito, or Puente may have used rhythms of charanga, montuno, comparsa or rumba. All this was mambo, orchestrated in the style of the ’40s and ’50s. The biggest difference between these groups is the idiosyncrasy of their arrangers,” Eckroth noted.

John Radanovich says: “Benny grew up surrounded by guateques [country festivals] and religious drums. I think percussion and African polyrhythm are Benny’s main contributions to this music.” However, Akokán’s idea is not an attempt to copy Benny Moré – which is doomed to failure – but instead to borrow from what he brought to the mambo. Benny Moré became an idol of the Cuban people with his ability to embrace Cuban identity. This is fully embodied here by Pepito Gomez, whose performance is the centerpiece of the Akokán project. Gomez relies on his deep musical knowledge and uses all his vocal powers. The songs Mambo Rapidito and Un Tabaco para Eleguá strike like thunderbolts. Orquesta Akokán is not just an album of high-tempo mambos, it is a reflection of the diversity of Cuban music itself. This is particularly noteworthy in La Corba Barata, an obvious reference to Benny’s De la Rumba al Cha-cha-chá.

By placing two rumbas in the first three tracks, the album brings forth its Africanness from within its Cubanness. Even the orchestra’s name, Akokán, further emphasizes this Africanness. Instead of a flashy name to evoke ballrooms and casinos, like “Esplendido,” “the Mambo Kings,” or the “Maravillos del Swing,” “Akokán” means “del corazon” (from the heart) in Yoruba, an affirmation of an Afro-Cuban identity.

(*) LINK: Yannick Le Maintec’s original article appeared in French on the Le Monde website. translation by John Radanovich, author of a biography of Benny Moré entitled Wildman of Rhythm

Categories: Features/Interviews

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