It's odd to say that Pacific Mambo Orchestra started small -- after all, they are 19 members strong. But the band shocked the Latin music world this year when, without a national record deal, it managed to upset Marc Anthony and two other Sony Music Latin acts and win the Grammy for the Best Tropical Latin Album.
Pacific Mambo Orchestra was started by two Bay Area musicians, pianist Christian Tumalan and trumpeter Steffen Kuehn, who saw a void on the Latin music scene -- big bands of the past. "A lot of people were sort of craving this sound," said Tumalan during a recent interview on KQED's Forum. "They have been listening on the radio and in the club scene to a lot of different types of salsa. But this particular sound, people were craving the return of that."
It was with the bands of Tito Puente and Machito in mind, that Kuehn and Tumalan put the call out to Bay Area musicians. According to the two, finding and organizing the talent wasn't hard. But paying them was.
"The challenge was to keep the band playing regularly," said Tumalan. "It's a financial challenge to keep a band of this size happening, but we have the support of every single musician." Tumalan recalled not being able to pay his sizeable band in its nascent days, but said that from the beginning, the band members "were there literally for the love of this art form, which is big band for the Latin [sound]."
That love is evident during the band's performances -- at a March 1 show at San Rafael's Terrapin Crossroads, band members congratulated one another after solos; Tumulan teased audience members; and well into the second set, when audience energy started to drag, percussionists Javier Cabanillas, Braulio Barrera and Omar Ledezma Jr. stood up and started kicking Rockettes-style all the while maintaining their incredibly tight beat.
The kick-line may be something that the band developed during their recent national tour. Kuehn recalled one specific show in Carmel, Indiana: "Up to that point, we really hadn't played any concerts in that sense. We played the clubs, we played the festivals where we feed off the energy of the dancers. All of a sudden that was not there anymore, so it had to be 100 percent coming from us to the audience, instead of a back and forth between dancers, audience and the musicians." Much to their credit, during the Terrapin Crossroads show Pacific Mambo was as welcoming to the khaki–clad awkward swayers in the back of the room as they were to the salsa dancers feverishly turning in front of the stage.
Kuehn and Tumulan said that the Grammy win has generated more than buzz -- CD sales and album downloads are up -- and many of the band's members, who double as music educators, say the win has inspired their students and fellow musicians.
"Because we have such a close knit community," said Kuehn, "with not just musicians, but with dancers and friends and family support -- it's bigger than us. It's basically like the Bay Area is standing behind us."
When asked how Pacific Mambo managed to rise above the legions of other talented musicians and get noticed, Kuehn and Tumalan credit the musicianship of their band, community support and a bit of the unknown. "It's an open question still. 'Why us?'" said Kuehn. "I think we tapped into some form of energy that guided us through these past few years. I cannot explain it any other way, because there are a million musicians out there who strive for the same thing."
Audiences who have seen Pacific Mambo perform live may be able to fill-in some of the mystery -- a return to class, to showmanship, and to the joy of music. Indeed, a Pacific Mambo show is a workshop in live performance. During their Grammy acceptance speech, Tumalan exalted "The mambo is back and it's back to stay!" One can only hope that he's right.
Pacific Mambo Orchestra returns to the Cafe Cocomo in San Francisco on March 22, 2014, to celebrate its Grammy win. It's a more-than-fitting spot, given Cocomo was the band's first steady gig. For more information visit cafecocomo.com.
Listen to four tracks from Pacific Mambo Orchestra's Friday, February 28 appears on Forum:
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