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Orquesta Akokán – Orquesta Akokán

Dan Webb

Sungenre Album of the Month – April 2018

Brooklyn indie soul label Daptone Records have brought us some tremendous artists since their inception in 2001. Chief among them, of course, their marquee artists in Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley: two incredible, iconic singers and warm, beautiful souls who have both sadly passed away within the last 18 months. With the loss of their biggest stars, there is little doubt that the eyes and ears of independent music fans around the world were cast upon Daptone’s next move. While the label has branched out into different styles and genres in their portfolio of subsidiaries in recent years (Wick Records, a rock label, serving as prime example), the release of their first all-Spanish recording strikes as an inspired and natural progression for the label, as they enter this crucial new phase.

Led by Cuban vocalist José “Pepito” Gómez and arranger Michael Eckroth, Orquesta Akokán is a son montuno big band project recalling the golden era sounds of Cuba’s venerated music idols, such as famed bandleader Pérez Prado and tenor vocalist Benny Moré. The nine original compositions on this album, clocking in at just under 40 minutes, were recorded live to tape over three days at the 70+ year old state-run Areito Studios in Centro Havana.

The album kicks off with a solo piano passage by Eckroth, followed by a somewhat shaky series of horn blasts, before settling into an upbeat, one-chord vamp over a mambo groove for first single “Mambo Rapidito”. The disjointed, unsteady opening, featuring a bum note in the piano line and an overshot high concert F sharp on trumpet, underscore the live nature of this performance from the outset. Gómez’s rapid-fire vocals enter just after the one-minute mark. The composition hits its high point a minute later, with a burst of frenetic energy from the intricately-woven horn section. A piano solo at the 2:40 mark recalls moments of Mike Garson’s famed performance on David Bowie’s 1973 avant-rock song “Aladdin Sane”. And certainly while mambo may not feature heavily in the average Western music fan’s habitual listening repertoire, one may discover unexpected influences and similarities such as this one along the way, perhaps making a leap into such unexplored waters far more enticing than it initially may have appeared. Indeed, as a wise man once said, those who seek joy from listening to music, will find the greatest joy from listening to music they otherwise normally wouldn’t. In this sense, the debut album from Orquesta Akokán delivers in spades.

“La Corbata Barata” begins as a fairly straightforward, mostly-instrumental, syncopated horn and percussion tune and features a brief trumpet solo by Santiago Ceballos Seijido in its early stages. But it evolves and transitions very cleverly into other distinct sections as it progresses. Gómez’s vocal delivery is heartfelt and full of conviction, as it is on all tracks offered on this fine debut, although he most notably shines in his centre-stage role on the next track, “Un Tabaco para Elegua”. Serving as the second single, it describes a tambor – a sacred afro-cuban religious drumming ceremony. The composition of this track is simply sublime, building to a crescendo, with the horn section carrying us out and ending on a 007-esque suspended harmony.

“Otro Nivel”, translated as “Other Level”, is a cha cha chá tune which will make even the worst dancers among us want to move their hips. In terms of its composition, it is perhaps the most predictable of the tracks on the album, but it is fun nevertheless. “La Cosa” offers a three-chord progression for the most part closely resembling that of 60s pop and rock, further illustrating the point made earlier. Musicians among us will certainly take note of “Cuidado Con el Tumbador”, which features flawlessly-executed contrapuntal runs as flourishes throughout, the most impressive of which is performed by César “Pupy” Pedroso on piano and Jorge Reyes on bass at the 1:49 mark, the octaves speeding up ever so subtly and masterfully.

“Yo Soy para Tí” translates as “I Am for You” and no doubt one can infer from the song that Gómez is professing his love for a beautiful character of fancy. “No Te Hagas” serves as one of the album’s highlights, with a polished horn section carrying the bulk of the work. Album closer “A Gozar la Vida”, featuring a trumpet solo by Harold Madrigal Frias, veers into dissonant tones at times, but for the most part provides an easy-going, sunny disposition. An unexpected, dissonant coda featuring a free-form jazz saxophone solo leaves you wanting more.

The debut album from Orquesta Akokán simply gets better and better upon each repeat listen. Daptone Records, along with each and every member involved in this project, especially Michael Eckroth and producer Jacob Plasse, deserve praise for their role in masterfully capturing this style of music in the way they have. In so doing, they have not only introduced a whole new generation of music fans to son montuno, but have preserved it in this digital age, for future generations to come.