Orquesta Akokán: Real Life Magic 

Prudence Upton

It’s about a feeling. Passion that burns through your body and sets fire to the dance floor. A spirit that Orquesta Akokán, a Cuban-American big band, evokes with bright blasts of horn and exuberant vocals from José “Pepito” Gómez that together recall classic 1940s mambo. After all, “Akokán” means “from the heart.”

The collective recorded their self-titled debut in Havana’s historic Estudios Areito — where every important Cuban musician from Chucho Valdés to Silvio Rodríguez has passed through — in live ensemble takes which, producer Jacob Plasse says, was integral to capturing that certain something.

For Latin music, so much is about the interplay between people,” Plasse explains, speaking to BeatRoute from New York. “When you have one person going at a time, a lot of the magic of it is lost because it’s really about the interaction between human beings that makes it so powerful.”

The Orquesta was a serendipitous product of a project that Plasse, Gómez, and music director Mike Eckroth were working on. The three were writing songs that channeled old Havana, but it wasn’t quite hitting the right notes. Around the same time, Gómez was traveling to Cuba to perform with legendary pianist Cesar “Pupy” Pedroso and invited Plasse and Eckroth to attend the show. Suddenly, they were at Areito with 14 of the country’s finest musicians.

The band employs specific techniques from mambo’s golden age, using vintage equipment and minimal overdub. The result is a vivacious celebration of the past, with eyes that look towards the present. “I think with the fact that we live in different times, there’s naturally something different, energy-wise, about the music,” Plasse says. “These guys grew up playing timba, which is like salsa on steroids, so that element is always there. It’s sort of a push and pull between the eras.”

Since they’ve been touring, Orquesta Akokán sound better than ever. Especially now, with time on their side, one must experience the band in concert to truly feel the effect of their enchantment. Because, as Plasse says: “This is the type of music that’s meant to be enjoyed in the flesh.”

November 16, 2019 / The Chan Centre for Performing Arts / Tix: tickets.ubc.ca