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Orquesta Akokán big band revives Cuba’s timeless mambo rhythms

Orquesta Akokan plays Sydney Festival for two nights only.

Orquesta Akokan plays Sydney Festival for two nights only.Credit:LINDA MORRIS

They too, are mining the past; their project, Orquesta Akokán, a 13-piece band playing the Sydney Festival, leans heavily on mambo, a style from the middle of last century. But the compositions are their own, created with Jose “Pepito” Gomez, an expat who sang with one of Cuba’s most popular groups before he left for New York in 2008.

As with the Buena Vista Social Club’s traditional music, son, it has been a long time since mambo was popular on the island. It was born in the late ’30s from the danzon – which also gave birth to the cha-cha-cha – and spread to Mexico and beyond when band leader Perez Prado left Cuba soon after.

So why go back to the ’40s?

Eckroth says mambo is “timeless” and that they “wanted to do something old-style and not modern music”. He says he is drawn to that time because in the ’30s and ’40s, “there were a lot of weird things [going on], there was a lot of experimental stuff, especially in [Perez] Prado, there was some wild writing”.

Orquesta Akokan.

Orquesta Akokan. Credit:LINDA MORRIS

Afro-Cuban folkloric rhythms and son montuno add textures to the Orquesta Akokán album, and Eckroth says this mixing of styles was common among the big bands of the ’50s, but that they were not trying to recreate the past.

“We’re in 2018 now; we didn’t want to act as if we were in the ’50s. Because nobody can do that. We’re affected by everything that has happened.”

Orquesta Akokan.

Orquesta Akokan. Credit:LINDA MORRIS

Before Orquesta Akokán, Gomez had worked mainly in modern styles of Cuban music and salsa – the music he grew up with. He was born in Camaguey in the island’s east, and studied trumpet when he was younger, but he always wanted to be a singer.

“I would sing the songs of [Cuban bands] Los Van Van and Original de Manzanillo with the cord of my grandmother’s iron as if it were a microphone,” he says with a laugh.

Orquesta Akokan.

Orquesta Akokan.Credit:LINDA MORRIS

Although he hadn’t officially studied singing, he auditioned for a well-known local big band, Maravilla de Florida, as a vocalist, and was surprised to be accepted. This led to him being able to move to Havana, where he wound up singing to big crowds and touring internationally with the salsa band Pupy y Los Que Son Son.

Despite this prestigious gig, Gomez decided to leave for the US and settled in New Jersey. Recently, Cuban musicians who had left to live elsewhere have begun to return to their homeland. Gomez isn’t sure he will do the same, even though he says he misses it every day. But he treasures more than ever Cuba’s music and firmly believes it has a role to play on the world’s stage.

“Cuban music is popular because it’s unique and original,” he says. “Even if you don’t know how to dance, you move your feet without realising it … It makes the heart happy.”

Orquesta Akokán plays the Spiegeltent January 15 and 16.

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