After a Grammy

Pacific Mambo Orchestra is ready for the next dance, but the economics are tough.


PMO has a new CD but few post-production funds.

Photo courtesy of Pacific Mambo Orchestra

After the shock and awe, the glitz and the glamour, the champagne and revelry, the calls from The New York Times and international press, trumpeter Steffen Kuehn and pianist Christian Tumalan got back to the hard business of running a big band. As the cofounders of Oakland’s Pacific Mambo Orchestra, they rocked the Latin music world in 2014 with an upset victory at the Grammys, where their band’s eponymous crowd-funded release earned the award for best Latin tropical album, triumphing over heavyweights with major label backing like salseros Marc Anthony and Carlos Vives.

But fame doesn’t necessarily equal fortune. While the Grammy opened many doors for the PMO, the ensemble is still a shoestring operation that is once again seeking community support. While people might think the burst of publicity means “now you’re rich and you got everything resolved,” said Tumalan, “that’s not at all the case. The Grammy was the result of a lot of work, but after the Grammy we still have to do everything—the phone calls, fundraisers, self-production. We’re still doing it the same way we did before.”

The band is in the midst of an IndieGoGo campaign to promote and distribute its second album, Live at Stern Grove, and celebrates the CD’s release at Yoshi’s on Saturday, April 29. The project documents the band’s triumphant 2015 concert and features a bevy of special guests, including East Bay-raised percussionist and Prince collaborator Sheila E., Puerto Rican-born Grammy-winning pianist/producer Marlow Rosado, and Japanese salsa star Nora Suzuki. As the lead singer for the Japanese salsa band Orquesta de la Luz, she gained an international following singing salsa in Spanish.

Berkeley trombonist/arranger Mike Rinta had written an instrumental arrangement of the traditional Japanese song “Sakura” (Cherry Blossom), and since the band’s vocalist Alexa Weber Morales speaks a little Japanese, she volunteered to open the piece. “We started playing it like that, an instrumental with a vocal introduction,” Kuehn said. “We were heading to Japan to tour and thought how about we ask Nora Suzuki to record it? We hooked up with her in Tokyo, and the piece became a vocal tune.”

In many ways the new album captures the dual dynamics that animate the band as a local and international phenomenon. The PMO’s creative success stems directly from the deep pool of talent in the Bay Area, which has attracted musicians from around the world. Indeed, Kuehn, who was born and raised in Germany, and Tumalan, a product of Mexico City’s thriving music scene, are Exhibit A. The ensemble’s struggles and successes stem from their desire for creative independence and a communitarian ethos driven by idealism and necessity.

“Crowd funding has become an important part of indie releases,” Kuehn said. “It’s a signal to the community if they want to keep listening they have to participate. The young generation looks at you really funny when you say you should buy music. But running and documenting a band like this is very expensive.”


Published online on April 6, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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