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About Orquesta Akokán

Orquesta Akokán is a multi-generational big band comprised of Havana's top musicians and the most creative talents from New York's Latin music scene. Their sound is a reinvigorated take on the golden era of Cuban mambo, rhumba, son, tumbao, and cha cha cha combined with modern Latin jazz. The word akokán is Yoruban and used by Cubans to mean "from the heart." The band was born from a shared vision by singer José "Pepito" Gómez, producer Jacob Plasse, and arranger Michael Eckroth.

Gómez began his musical career in his hometown of Florida in Camagüey, a province in central Cuba. He cut his teeth with local groups and played trumpet in the city band. His first professional gig was as lead vocalist with the legendary group Maravilla de Florida. After two years, he moved to Havana, where he joined La Charanga Latina and had his first opportunity to tour Europe and North America. He left the group after several years to work on his own music but took on recording and touring jobs with other groups in order to pay the bills, including Colé-Colé, Azúcar Negra, and Compay Segundo (Buena Vista Social Club). He was asked to join musicians from Irakere in founding the band Habana Ensemble. It was through this group that he met legendary César "Pupy" Pedroso, pianist, composer, and co-founder of Los Van Van. Pedroso asked Gomez to be the lead singer in a new group he was forming called Pupy y Los Que Son, Son. Gomez moved to New York in 2008, where he would continue to work on his own music until 2012, when he left for Puerto Rico to sing with José Lugo's Guasabara Combo. After two years there, he returned to New York to resume singing with a number of groups including Los Hacheros, led by Jacob Plasse. Gómez and Plasse formed a friendship over their shared love of Cuban music. Together they would rediscover the sounds that Gómez knew from childhood. Their journey together culminated in the creation of Orquesta Akokán.

For his part, Plasse wanted to get back to the sounds that initially inspired him to fall in love with Latin music, so he formed Los Hacheros with some of his favorite musicians from the salsa scene. They recorded an album, Pilon, live on an old 388 Tascam tape machine, and gig by gig, Los Hacheros developed a reputation as old-school salseros.

Around the same time, Plasse began playing tres for the musical Celia, based on the life of Celia Cruz. There he met pianist Mike Eckroth. Sharing musical affinities, they began making albums together, creating Chulo Records, a label focused on vintage Latin music. Shortly thereafter, Flor de Toloache signed with Chulo. Las Caras Linda, produced by Plasse, won a Latin Grammy for best Mariachi/Ranchero Record, the first time an all-female ensemble had won the category.

Eckroth, an accomplished pianist, lent him the Beny Moré album that would inspire the next chapter in his love affair with Cuban music.

Eckroth is a composer and arranger from Phoenix, Arizona who has recorded and toured internationally with numerous jazz and Latin music greats including Johnny "Dandy" Rodriguez, Andy Gonzales, Nelson Gonzales, Pedro Martinez, and John Scofield. He earned a PhD from NYU with a thesis on Cuban piano solos of the '40s. Through his academic work, he gained access to an expansive archive of rare Cuban recordings. With his knack for arrangement and his intimate familiarity with the sounds of Cuba's great big bands, Eckroth was the final piece of the puzzle.

For Eckroth and Plasse, the original idea was merely to find a way to work with Gómez. They got together and worked on some arrangements, planning to cut a record of old-style Cuban music that the singer had been writing. However, initial sessions with New York musicians left the trio flat. It wasn't until Gómez invited the duo to accompany him on a trip to Cuba that the project began to take shape. From the moment Plasse and Eckroth arrived at the legendary Areito Studios in Havana on November 7, 2017, the cavernous, wood-paneled recording studio echoed its illustrious history back at them. This is the room used by state-owned labels Areito, EGREM, and Panart to record virtually all of Cuba's most prominent albums from the early '40s on. However, it wasn't the ghosts of musicians past that thrilled them so much as those who were assembled in the room for the session.

Gómez enlisted old friend César Lopez from Irakere; together they assembled a group of some of Cuba's greatest living musicians, many of whom had been heroes to Plasse and Eckroth. The saxophone section is made up of Jamil Shery and José Luis "El Chewy" Hernandez on tenors, Evaristo Denis on baritone, and César Lopez on alto. On trombones are Carlos "Afrokán" Alvarez Guerra of Cubanismo fame, Heikel Fabián Trimiño, and Yoandy Argudin. Santiago Ceballos Seijido and Harold Madrigal Frías make up the trumpet section while Itai Kriss plays flute. The rhythm section includes Eduardo Lavoy Zaragoza on bongo, and Otto Santana Selis on conga, with the latter sharing timbale duty with Carlitos Padron. These musicians, armed with Eckroth's arrangements and fronted by Gómez, became the backbone of Orquesta Akokán. The music they cut found its way back to Brooklyn and eventually Daptone Records. The label issued the single "Mambo Rapidito" b/w "Un Tabaco para Elegua" in February of 2018, followed by a self-titled full-length in March. ~ Thom Jurek