Mambo! From The Heart, Orchestra Akokán Delights Denver

By Joe Contreras, Latin Life Denver Media

Live and direct from Havana, Cuba, Denver was treated to a rare and special performance of Cuban Mambo by Ochestra Akokán Monday night at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Denver Monday night Oct. 3, 2022. The performance was part of the university’s tribute to Hispanic Heritage Month.

The evening began with a bit of mambo by Perez Prado, a tribute of sorts to the king of Mambo music, before the Orchestra launched into their set of all original Mambo music.

Orquesta Akokán – Millennium Stage (January 5, 2019)

Akokán is a Yoruba word used in Cuba meaning “from the heart,” and judging from the smiles and passion of all members of Orquesta Akokán their sophisticated and classy performance felt like a heartfelt gift from the band to the listener.

Assembled and led by Cuban vocalist José “Pepito” Gómez, Orquesta Akokán is a big band collective of the finest musicians on the island, both young and old. The 12 piece Orchestra features all-original music and has produced two albums, the first was nominated for a Grammy in 2018. The just released second album is also expected to be nominated.

The vocals and mambo dance moves of José “Pepito” Gómez were dynamic as he strutted around the stage in his silky white suit jacket, matching pants and colorful silk shirt.

Orchesra Akokán takes a bow, Newman Center for the Performing Arts, University of Denver October 3, 2022. Photo by Latin Life Denver Media

Watching the performance made me wonder if this was what it was like back in the day of mambo’s heyday with the likes of Big band leader Dámaso Pérez Prado who brought mambo to international acclaim. Often referred to as “The King of Mambo,” Prado brought the mambo dance and musical genre to wide audiences thanks to hits like 1949’s “Mambo No. 5”.

Pérez Prado enhanced the style pioneered by the Arcaño y sus Maravillas, mainly by adding the harmonic sophistication he discovered in American jazz and big band ensembles. He eventually settled in Mexico City, where he, along with other Cuban musicians like Benny Moré, introduced mambo to a receptive Mexican audience.

Joe Contreras (left) and Don Lucero (right) with Orchestra Akokán Tenor saxophonist German Velazco (center). Photo by Latin Life Denver Media

By the late 1940s, mambo music and the mambo dance had gained favor in the United States thanks to orchestras led by Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez, and Pérez Prado. One New York-based mambo group that gained particular notice was Machito, lead by Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo. Machito, Puente, Rodríguez, and Prado all helped make mambo an American dance craze that lasted well into the 1950s.

According to a bit of research I did the difference between mambo music and salsa music is that, musically speaking, mambo is a sub-genre of salsa. The term “salsa” evolved to describe a wide array of musical styles from Cuba, Venezuela, and the Caribbean isles. These styles include son Cubano, danzón, rumba, cha-cha-cha, bolero, merengue, folkloric music, and even forms of Latin jazz.

Band leader José “Pepito” Gómez signs a CD for a new found fan. Photo by Latin Life Denver Media

Listening to the mambo rhythms of Orchestra Akokán made it difficult for the Denver audience to stay seated for most of the performance. Finally an elderly Cuban man couldn’t sit still any longer and bounced up from his seat and began dancing. The rest of audience was finally invited to get up and move for the final two numbers which they did in earnest.

The entire band stuck around after the show mingling with the audience and signing their CD’s and vinyl albums. All in all it was a night to remember. If you missed them in Denver you can still catch their final U.S. performance in Avon, Colorado, just a few miles west of Vail, Thursday October 6th.