Orquesta Akokán rounds out Underground Sound on Thursday
After five sensational shows of Underground Sound at the Vilar, ranging from rock and bluegrass to soul and funk, Orquesta Akokán closes out the season of ‘Love for the Locals.’
Orquesta Akokán delivers a hot Havana night to Beaver Creek Thursday, just as the temperatures here in the mountains begin to cool. The band gets audiences up and dancing with its blazing Latin jazz and soulful mambo rhythms.
The Grammy-nominated musicians hail from Cuba and New York with a common goal of honoring what they love about the mambo. They fuel their legendary Cuban grooves with powerful “akokan,” a Yoruba word Cubans use to mean “from the heart” or “soul.”
Orquesta Akokán debuted in the U.S. in 2018, after releasing its first album on Daptone Records, the first Spanish-language record the label ever released. The band performed a sold-out show at Lincoln Center for the Performing in New York City, then toured worldwide in 2019 and 2020, garnering nominations for a Grammy, Billboard Latin Music Award and Telemundo Latin American Music Award along the way.
It all began when producer and multi-instrumentalist Jacob Plasse, pianist and arranger Michael Eckroth and lead singer Jose “Pepito” Gomez traveled to Havana to record their take on mid-century Cuban band music in 2016. There, they ended up gathering an ensemble of some of the best musicians on the island, culled from huge groups like Los Van Van, NG La Banda and Irakere.
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“We got a great response and became a band. It was amazing to play with these guys who I grew up listening to. They bring a different attitude and approach as performers and as a band,” Plasse said, explaining how his experience in New York City’s musical culture placed less emphasis on big bands and more on jazz and improvisation. “In Cuba, I’ve never heard a band that plays so cohesively and tightly. The government considers it a job, so two to three times a week bands rehearse.”
Orquesta Akokán brings a contemporary sound to Cuban mambo’s golden days, while still drawing inspiration from mambo’s early musicians like Perez Prado, Beny Moré and Machito. They expand upon Cuba’s rich rhythmic repertoire by pushing ideas of what’s considered mambo and drawing from folkloric and religious traditions; in doing so, they stretch into uncharted waters while still remaining true to the music’s spirit.
“We’re not trying to modernize it, but we’re in a different time and place, so it’s going to be different,” Plasse said. “We (ask) how can we write music that’s true to ourselves to show how amazing the music is. The music is just so strong on its own, with the complex harmonies and melodies.”
He believes a lot of people are “starved for good music today,” so Orquesta Akokán “speaks to a great truth of how we hear music.”
“In New York, the mambo and salsa are still a living language — a communication between the dancers and performers,” he said, adding that the greatest gift Orquesta Akokán has is its deep friendships between the musicians. “When you hear us play, you can feel that sense of comradery and that everyone respects this tradition. It’s easy to love the music. By the end, usually everyone is dancing.”
Though the lyrics are written and sung in Spanish, the musicians introduce the songs in English, to give audiences an understanding of the themes, which mostly revolve around love.
“This music was always heard live — there’s an energy to the percussion and the rhythms you just can’t get from the record. It’s taking you to another place through rhythm, and that’s what this band does really well,” he said. “We live in a time where music is sort of disposable with streaming and whatever. I think it’s important to go see live bands and figure out what’s going on in the music and feel like music matters again — it’s so full of life and energy — because people want that connection again, to feel like there’s a sense of community.”
What: Orquesta Akokán
When: 7 p.m. Oct. 6
Where: Vilar Performing Arts Center
This show is for you if you also like: Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, Las Cafeteras, Todo Mundo, Flor de Toloache or Jarabe Mexicano.
More info: VilarPAC.org