Orquesta Akokán, a big band with members split between New York and Cuba, are a musical catchall for culture, history, and genre. These players have worked with Chucho Valdés, Irakere, Los Van Van, and other historically hefty groups, and in Akokán they traffic in vivid music that draws on a brassy combination of mambo, jazz, and folkloric traditions. On the group’s second album, 16 Rayos, they rededicate themselves to the tenets of their 2018 self-titled debut, which amassed critical accolades and a Grammy nomination.
That first disc arrived fully realized, but 16 Rayos—the title references a Yoruba tale of divinity—feels even more cohesive and heavy with intent. The album’s second single, “El Inflador,” is a quick rumba that could’ve been seamlessly slotted into Craft Recordings’ five-disc 2018 box set The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions, which collects definitive documentation of the country’s 1950s and ’60s musical peak. As burly as Orquesta Akokán can be, their abilities are more apparent in their subtler moments: the spacious opening of “Llegue con Mi Rumba,” which allows the percussion to find the spotlight; the delicate embroidery of strings, a first for the group, on “La Guajira del Mar”; the rhythm section’s interplay on “Orchidea”; and guest vocalist Xiomara Valdés trading bars with bandleader José “Pepito” Gómez on the closing title track. You may not grasp all the deep cultural underpinnings of 16 Rayos, but either way, the album’s cunning melodies and harmonies and relentless rhythms make it both an easy entry point into the history of Latin jazz and a contemporary touchstone for devotees.
Orquesta Akokán’s 16 Rayos is available on Bandcamp.