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A Mambo Expedition In The Valley Of The Sun

Orquesta Akokán performs onstage at the MIM Music Theater in Phoenix.
Orquesta Akokán performs onstage at the MIM Music Theater in Phoenix.

Not quite a decade ago, "the world's only global musical instrument museum" opened in Phoenix. The Musical Instrument Museum, or MIM, now boasts almost 14,000 objects and instruments in their collection, with 370 exhibits from all over the globe — a testament to music's universal human truths. "We're doing the same stuff in different parts of the world," says Lowell Pickett, Artistic Director of the MIM Music Theater, "and we're using the same materials to make the instruments. We're using them to express the same emotions."

That borderless conviction also shines bright in the music of Orquesta Akokán, a Cuban big band. Formed by a couple of Americans, pianist Michael Eckroth and guitarist Jacob Plasse, the band is a living salute to mambo's mid-century heyday — the domain of legends like Pérez Prado and Benny Moré. With a roster of Cuban musicians, including lead singer José "Pepito" Gómez, Orquesta Akokán plays new, original music in that style, with a balance of humility and pride.

We hope this episode leaves you with a dual admiration for mambo and the connecting tissue of the human experience through global music cultures. We'll hear about the MIM's massive collection with members of Akokán as our guide, as well as listen to highlights from the band's recent performance at the world-class MIM Music Theater.

Set List:

  • "No Te Hagas"
  • "La Cosa"
  • "Akokán #1"
  • "Un Tabaco Para Elegua"
  • "Yo Soy Para Tí"
  • *All songs by Michael Eckroth, José Gómez, Jacob Plasse

    Musicians:

    José "Pepito" Gómez, vocals; Michael Eckroth, piano; Jacob Plasse, tres, César López, alto saxophone and flute; Jamil Schery, tenor saxophone; Joshua Lee, baritone saxophone; Harold Madrigal and Reinaldo Melián, trumpet; Yoandy Argudin and Heikel Fabián, trombone; David Faya, bass; Reinier Mendoza and Roberto Junior Vizcaino Torre on percussion.

    Credits:

    Host: Christian McBride; Producer: Alex Ariff; Senior Producer: Katie Simon; Music Recorded by Nathanael Stutz; Mix by David Tallacksen. Thanks to Sophia Mena, Anna Irizarri, Daniel Rivera, Carlos Flores, Aaron Ross, Emilyn Badgley, David Wegehaupt, Raj Dayal, Patrick Murphy. Also, thanks to Daniel Rivero, reporter and producer for WLRN. All field recordings and archival audio was used courtesy of the Musical Instrument Museum. Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Executive Producers: Anya Grundman, Gabrielle Armand and Amy Niles; Senior Director of NPR Music: Lauren Onkey.

    Copyright 2021 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.

    Corrected: November 27, 2019 at 12:00 AM EST
    The audio previously stated that Yo-Yo Ma and Buddy Guy have performed at the MIM Theater; they have not. Previously posted Nov. 22: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of WBGO staffer Anna Irizarri as Irizarria.