Akokan Orchestra brings Mambo to Alaska during Hispanic Heritage Month by Estrella Rodriguez-Northcutt y O’Hara Shipe
Foto: Camila Falquez
While Anchorage’s music scene is filled with a diverse catalog of musical talents, when it comes to Latin music, there is very little representation despite Hispanic people making up eight percent of Alaska’s population. Currently, there is only one active Mariachi band in Anchorage, Mariachi Agave Azul, and their performances are few and far between. As music plays a crucial role in Hispanic and Latin American cultures, the lack of local musical representation is felt extremely hard during Hispanic Heritage Month, which is why the arrival of Cubano-band Orquesta Akokan last Friday was so important.
Led by Jose “Pepito” Gomez, Akokan celebrates Cuban heritage through their synergy of contemporary sensibilities, mixed with a deep spiritual reservoir and knowledge of folkloric traditions. The band’s diverse portfolio propels their music into previously uncharted vistas while dismantling the conventions of what is traditionally considered mambo. “It’s so important to appreciate our ancestors because they are the base of what our music is founded on – this is the music of our ancestors. To us, it’s important to reflect and show our music culturally and pass it on just like our ancestors did. They’re the ones that paved the way for today’s Cuban music in Latin America and the US. Having ancestral sounds in our new music and remembering where that music came from is what we strive to do. We don’t want to copy it, but reimagine it,” says Gomez in his native Spanish.
In Cuba, mambo started as a form of social and political expression in the 1930s. Closely tied to the dance style of the same name, mambo music originated as a syncopated form of danzón-mambo, which is renowned for its highly improvised style. By the 1940s, mambo had made its way to Mexico City where melded with influences from North American jazz. Soon, mambo became an internationally recognized musical genre and the original iterations of the music began to be shed from the new sound. Through generations of cultural appropriation, Cuban mambo morphed into a hybrid of everyone who touched it.
The sonic mixing of genres is nothing new, but to Gomez and his bandmates, there is value in reclaiming what was lost. “Music is a huge part of Cuban culture, and realistically, music plays a role in all aspects of my country. It is a key principle in filling us with happiness, and laughter all the time, every day,” explains Gomez. But there is pressure in being a cultural bearer for the entire country. “I grew up in Camaguey, and I’m not from Havana, so when I started, I felt that I was only making music for a small region of Cuba. But when I visited Havana and connected with other musicians, Akokan, took on a new meaning. We were making music for my entire country, not just one region,” says Gomez. Despite the pressure, Akokan and Gomez have risen to the challenge with their debut and sophomore albums. They even picked up a Grammy nomination for their efforts. “[Our second album], ‘16 Rayos,’ has more ripeness because, with time, we’ve developed our musical composition and grown into the unique sound that the band has created,” says Gomez.
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