Chicago’s annual World Music Festival introduces audiences to an array of musical styles from around the globe. One of this year’s acts, Orquesta Akokán, arrives via New York and Havana, Cuba. But before it was an actual orchestra, it was simply a group of musicians gathered to record a new batch of mambo tunes.
New York producer Jacob Plasse and arranger Mike Eckroth had a love of classic Cuban mambo, especially the music of the great Benny More. At the same time, Plasse was writing mambo-style songs with singer Jose “Pepito” Gomez, which led to a recording session in New York.
World Music Festival Chicago
When: Sept. 7-23
Where: Various locations
“It was cool but I wasn’t that excited about it,” Plasse admits of the recording. Soon after, Gomez, who grew up in Cuba and now lives in New York, was traveling to Havana, and he suggested Plasse join him: “Pepito thought maybe we could record with musicians there.”
And that’s exactly what happened at Havana’s historic Areito Studio, with its wood-paneled room in which every Cuban musician of note has recorded. Here Plasse and Eckroth gathered an array of musicians, the go to players in Havana, many schooled in the legacy of classic Cuban bandleaders.
“These musicians have a different sort of concept of what it means to play together than anyone I’ve encountered,” Plasse says. “There is a level of exactitude and ensemble playing that’s hard to find even in a place like New York.”
Orquesta Akokán’s music transports listeners to 1950s Havana when mambo reigned supreme as the big band arrangements of Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton mixed with Cuban son to create something new and different.
“American jazz harmonies mixed with polyrhythms of Cuba in a way that was something special,” Plasse says. “We want to bring a new voice to this classic sound.”
The recording session led to a collaboration with Daptone Records, and the group of Cuban players was suddenly a band.
Orquesta Akokán (a Yoruba word meaning “from the heart”) released its self-titled debut album earlier this year. The musicians travel from Cuba for a performance Sept. 15 at Martyrs’, 3855 N. Lincoln.
“They are great musicians and this is a rare chance to see them,” Plasse says. “The energy of their live performance is simply incredible.”
Here is a sampling of other acts at the World Music Festival, which begins at 6 p.m. Sept 7 with the annual all-night Ragamala: A Celebration of Indian Classical Music at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. Check out the festival’s website for a complete schedule.
— Innov Gnawa (Sept. 16, Humboldt Park Boathouse, 1301 N. Sacramento): Founded by Samir Langus, this Moroccan ensemble delves deep into the roots of traditional gnawa, the ritual trance music of Morocco’s black communities, while also adding its own contemporary spin. Sometimes called “the Moroccan blues,” the music has a raw, hypnotic power that has fascinated artists from Paul Bowles to Jimi Hendrix.
— Sona Jobarteh (Sept. 12, Sleeping Village, 3734 W. Belmont; Sept. 13; Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington): Gambian musician Sona Jobarteh excels at the kora (a long-necked, 21-string harp/lute hybrid), for centuries an instrument traditionally played by men. She hails from a West African family of griots (hereditary musical families); her songs champion women’s rights and the challenges faced by a younger generation of Africans.
— La Dame Blanche (Sept. 20, Martyrs’, 3855 N. Lincoln; Sept. 21, Chop Shop, 2033 W. North): Paris-based Cuban singer, flautist and percussionist Yaite Ramos Rodriguez, aka La Dame Blanche, delivers a powerful mix of hip-hop, cumbia, dancehall and reggae. Her musical education began with her father, Jesus “Aguaje” Ramos, who served as artistic director for the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club.
— Zhou Family Band (Sept. 22, DePaul University’s Holtschneider Performance Center, 2330 N. Halsted; Sept. 23, Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand) For seven generations, Zhou Family Band has performed the traditional wind and percussion music of Central-Eastern China found at rituals such as weddings, births and devotions to ancestors. More than 100 family members now perform in China and they are considered among the finest players of Chinese folk music.
— Quique Escamilla (Sept. 15, Millennium Park, 210 E. Randolph) Born and raised in Chiapas, Mexico, and now residing in Toronto, Quique Escamilla takes the traditions of his homeland — ranchera and huapango — and adds in cumbia and ska on politically themed rock songs. In 2015, he won a JUNO award for World Music Album of the Year.
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.