Cuba's New Mambo Kings

The Mambo Kings of Orquesta Akokan. Pepito Gomez and Jacob Plasse are second and third from left, back row.
The Mambo Kings of Orquesta Akokan. Pepito Gomez and Jacob Plasse are second and third from left, back row. Photo by Adrien H. Tillmann/Courtesy of JP Cutler Media
If you ever want a test of willpower for yourself, try not to move your body or dance while hearing a Cuban orchestra. The rhythms and sounds a really good one (and even not so good ones) produces with a combination of traditional music of the island nation and African-American jazz are created with arm moving, hip-swiveling, and fast footwork in mind.

So Houstonians will likely have their rears off of the grass at the Miller Outdoor Theatre with Cuba’s Orquesta Akokán hits the stage on July 2 for a free concert. The all-star lineup of musicians are also coming off their well-received self-titled debut record on Daptone Records, with a sound firmly rooted in the mambo-centric, big band music of the pre-revolutionary Cuban era of the 1940s-50s.

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Daptone Records album cover
However, the band was not a pre-existing unit, but put together to record Orquesta Akokán. It was the brainchild of New York-based producer/guitarist Jacob Plasse and native Cuban vocalist Pepito Gomez along with arranger Michael Eckworth – though their first attempt in the studio didn’t quite work out.

“We’d been writing music in the mambo style for awhile and tried to record here in New York, but the results weren’t spectacular,” Plasse says.

With Gomez going down to Cuba for a concert, he reached out to his childhood friend and saxophone player Cesar Lopez to gather cream of the crop local players, a mixture of old hands and young musicians, most of whom had played in school and professional orchestras already.

The assemblage assembled at Havana’s Areito studios – also the name of a pre-revolutionary music label – and made Orquesta Akokán. And while this type of music was never quite “outlawed” after Fidel Castro’s revolution, its close association with the American and Mafia-run casinos made was sort of musica non grata for years.

“The sound [of this band] is certainly a continuation in certain ways, but there was a break when the revolution happened because certain music was deemed unpatriotic. Plus, a lot of the musicians left for New York or Mexico,” Plasse says. “This mambo music is sort of a fusion of Cuban rhythms and the Big Band jazz sound of Count Basie and Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton.”

After Castro came to power, Plasse says native Cuban music moved more toward embracing sounds and styles like songo, salsa, and timba. Asked about the similarities between American jazz and Cuban music – a theme of the recent documentary A Tuba to Cuba - Plasse says it’s not quite the similarity that it may seem on the surface.

“There is some continuum and you hear similar sounds and harmonies in New Orleans music and Cuban music. But I think that Cuban music is really distinct from anything in the United States. If you ask a New Orleans musician to play Cuban music, they don’t really do it right. It’s a different feel,” Plasse says – before detailing in terms of notes and chords just why. “It’s not the same swing. Plus, in Cuba, slaves were allowed to keep their drums, unlike in [the United States]. So there’s overlap, but it’s a different rhythm.”

Plasse produced and co-wrote the music on Orquesta Akokán as well as playing tres guitar (a Cuban guitar that is smaller than the traditional one with three courses of strings instead of six separate ones). But he also freely admits that he’s a “fanboy,” especially with the older members of the group.

But just as this music had its trajectory changed by political events once before in 1958, it does so again some 60+ years later. The band already has dates booked across the United States for the first half of the summer before heading to Europe. But new travel restrictions just recently put in place by the Trump administration for travel to and from Cuba – with possibly more to follow – may not bode well for the band.

“The current legal situation is, well….we have a couple of great managers that make it work,” Plasse says. “I’m not a politician or a lawyer, but we see it becoming progressively more difficult to get the [Cuban bandmembers] over here. But I think that makes it all the more important for them to come here. It makes people realize that these laws are affecting actual people. And if they can’t come here, we’ll be poorer for not being able to experience this music and the art that they are creating. And while the album is great, seeing a big band live is another experience entirely.”

Orqeusta Akokan plays at 8:30 p.m. on July 2 at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive. For information, call 281-373-3386 or visit Free.

For more on the band, visit
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero