Grammy-nominated Cuban mambo band Orquesta Akokán to play Snowmass and Aspen
IF YOU GO …
Who: Orquesta Akokán
Where: Snowmass Summer Concert Series, Fanny Hill, Snowmass Village
When: Thursday, June 27, 6:30 p.m.
How much: Free
More info: gosnowmass.com
Who: Orquesta Akokán
Where: JAS Café Downstairs at the Nell
When: Friday, June 28, 7 & 9:15 p.m.
How much: $45
Producer Jacob Plasse teamed up with the beloved mambo singer Jose “Pepito” Gomez and an all-star group of Cuban jazz players last year. Their aim was to make a mambo record that could sit alongside classic recordings by the likes of Benny Moré and Pérez Prado, but that would also gel with contemporary Latin music.
They succeeded with the Grammy-nominated self-titled debut by Orquesta Akokán and a U.S. tour last summer that earned widespread acclaim from critics during its initial shows.
With fiery dance-friendly concerts featuring Gomez’s vocals and a 10-piece big band behind him including three saxophones, two trumpets, two trombones and two percussions, the band has been a hit. The reception from crowds and critics has been as rapturous as it was unexpected.
“It’s not the kind of music that people are being bombarded with or told that it’s cool,” Plasse said in a recent interview from Brooklyn. “It’s definitely not cool in the Drake sense of the word. But the musicians are so incredible and their joy is so infectious — most people have never heard anything like this. I’ve never heard anything like this!”
The band is back stateside this summer, headlining the Snowmass Summer Concert Series today and opening the JAS Café’s summer season Friday. The band is the first of 10 in the summer-long JAS Café series, running at the Little Nell, the St. Regis and the Aspen Art Museum through Aug. 18.
“I love playing with this band because I feel like more of a fanboy than a producer,” said Plasse, who plays tres with the band as well as producing.
The collaboration began with Plasse’s fandom. He’d looked up to Gomez going back to Gomez’s 1990s records with Pupy y Los Que Son Son. In recent years, the singer has occasionally sat in with Plasse’s New York-based salsa band Los Hacheros, which got the pair talking about making a contemporary mambo record and working on new material with arranger Michael Eckroth.
“We were all learning together, studying the music and figuring out how it can work and how we can interpret it in a way that felt fresh but also respected the tradition,” Plasse said.
They wrote collaboratively and came together, unexpectedly, in Havana to make what would become the band’s 2018 self-titled debut. Gomez was going to Cuba to play some shows with Pupy y Los Que Son Son and asked Plasse to tag along.
“He’s like, ‘Come on down,’ and I said sure, then he’s like, ‘Let’s play some music,’ and I said sure, and then he’s like, ‘Let’s check out some studios’ and the next thing I knew we were making a record in Havana with 15 of the most badass jazz musicians,” Plasse recalled with a laugh. “It was unbelievable.”
Plasse was nervous about the seat-of-their-pants recording process, he said, because of the attendant issues of blackouts and the political pitfalls of recording at the state-run Estudios Arieto and such, but he trusted the creative process and believed in the music.
“I was told, ‘This is a bad idea and you shouldn’t do this,’ but I didn’t listen and I’m lucky that I didn’t listen,” he said.
As U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations backslide toward the Cold War embargo and tensions between the governments rise, Plasse believes it’s vital for Cuban music — and Cuban musicians — to connect with American audiences, grow empathy and understanding, and foster cultural exchange.
“It’s important so that people understand what is being lost,” Plasse said. “It’s hard to get them here and it’s only getting harder, with the way policies are changing and the way the grandstanding is going right now. Something will be lost if they can’t come here again.”
Orquesta Akokán’s U.S. summer tour runs into July before a month of shows in Europe. After that, Plasse is hopeful that they can record another album in Havana in September.