The folks behind New York’s Daptone Records love vintage sounds, particularly the gritty old-school soul they brought to so many new ears when they resurrected the careers of singers Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley. The label’s output is undeniably fetishistic in its retro leanings, but that would only be a problem if its releases privileged “retro” above strong material and distinctive performers—good music is good music. That rings as true as ever with Daptone’s recent release of the self-titled debut by Orquesta Akokán.
The album came about largely due to the work of two New York-based musicians with an abiding love for classic Afro-Cuban music: pianist and arranger Michael Eckroth and producer and tres player Jacob Plasse. They were trying to arrange a recording project for veteran singer and Cuban expat José “Pepito” Gómez, but they couldn’t find the perfect musicians in New York. When Gómez invited them along on a trip to Havana in November 2016, they jumped, and Eckroth brought along a stack of his own arrangements for tunes he’d composed with Gómez and Plasse—and which he’d enriched with ideas gleaned while pursuing his PhD on Cuban piano solos of the 40s at NYU, where he had access to vintage Cuban charts. In Havana they assembled a top-flight band, including some of the singer’s old pals—musicians who’d worked in legendary bands such as Los Van Van, and Cubanismo!, and Irakere. They accompanied Gómez for sessions at Areito Studios, an old-school facility that’s been operating since the mambo craze in the early 40s.
The resulting album is a thrill. Its rich, punchy horn charts, its uncluttered but propulsive polyrhythms, and Gómez’s soulfully declamatory style hark back to the golden days of Perez Prado and Miguelito Valdez with Beny Moré. From the opening seconds of the first track, “Mambo Rapidito,” I was hooked. We simply don’t get to hear new music that sounds like this anymore—and in fact this combo isn’t likely to perform live outside Cuba, if it even does there.
For all its faithfulness to the past, though, Orquesta Akokán also reflects a subtle postmodernism here and there. Gómez borrows from New York salsa dura of the 70s and 80s, and between verses he improvises masterfully, excelling in the role of nimble salsero—a style of singing that didn’t exist in Havana in the 40s and 50s. As Antibalas founder Martin Perna points out in his liner-note essay, the arrangements sometimes transfer the usual piano montuno patterns into the cutting saxophone section, and the lyrical flute of guest performer Itai Kriss (one of several who traveled in from New York) on “A Gozar la Vida” sounds like a transmission from the 60s charanga craze.
Below you can hear “Cuidado con el Tumbador,” where Eckroth cedes the piano bench to César “Pupy” Pedroso, a cofounder of Los Van Van. Girded by Plasse’s twangy tres chords, the song harks back to the sound of the great Arsenio Rodriguez.
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