The Mambo Kings Kick Ass at the Grammys

How the Pacific Mambo Orchestra, a handful of East Bay nobodies led by a couple of guys from Mexico and Germany, shocked the music industry.


Courtesy Jodi Jackson

There are always a lot of hangovers the morning after the Grammy Awards, but the 56th annual ceremony at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles in January left an already reeling music industry positively woozy. While the vast majority of Grammy trophies went to favored acts, an upstart salsa band from Oakland, the Pacific Mambo Orchestra, ended up taking home the award for Best Latin Tropical Album for its eponymous debut release, and the shock waves continue to reverberate.

It’s not just that the PMO was flying so far under the radar of the music industry, with a self-released debut album partly funded by crowdsourcing. More stunning was that the 19-piece combo triumphed over heavyweights with major-label backing like Grammy-winning Colombian salsero Carlos Vives; Nuyorican pianist, arranger, and Latin Grammy–winning producer Sergio George; and Marc Anthony, a genuine superstar whose platinum-selling album 3.0 was his first studio salsa session in a decade (a project co-produced by Sergio George).

The day after PMO’s unlikely victory, Billboard, the music business bible, ran a story with the confounded headline “Little-Known Pacific Mambo Orchestra Takes Tropical Grammy From Marc Anthony.” But no one was more shocked than San Francisco pianist Christian Tumalan and Oakland trumpeter Steffen Kuehn, the PMO’s founders and co-directors. “I have to say I lost 20 minutes of my life there,” Kuehn says. “I look at the video of the acceptance speech, and I don’t even know what happened.”

A few days later The New York Times came calling, followed by press inquiries from across Latin America, all looking to explain how David took the groove from Goliath. “The answer is when you listen to the record,” Tumalan says, and it’s true that the smart arrangements, excellent production values, and commanding rhythm section are a good place to look for an explanation. But of course creative excellence has never guaranteed a Grammy nomination, let alone a win.

Look a little deeper, and it becomes clear that the band’s success is inextricably linked to the communitarian ethos that attracted and retained top-flight talent, despite a long stretch when the band’s gigs paid a paltry sum. As veterans of the Bay Area salsa and Latin jazz scene, Tumalan and Kuehn knew many of the region’s best players, but, by both necessity and inclination, they sought out a convivial cast who would bear with them through the inevitable scuffling. The band recorded the album with the support of a successful $10,000 Kickstarter campaign that depended upon help and hustle from many band members. And when the PMO earned the Grammy nomination, rather than being content with beating the initial odds, they rallied to give themselves a real shot at winning by making sure that every Grammy voter they could locate received a copy of the album.

“My intention was to treat the musicians with the highest respect, the way I want to be treated,” Kuehn says. “We wanted to create this family vibe, where the musicians can play off of each other. This turned out to the most important factor, creating a sense of loyalty, so that people wanted to be part of this. Once we got the nomination, when we started reaching out to Grammy voters, five or six band members came out and put in days of work for free, sending out CDs and packets. There was so much love and support.”

These days, the PMO is feeling the love from the Bay Area. It was recently featured on KQED’s “Forum,” a rare live musical performance on the morning show, and the PMO is playing a series of high-profile gigs this spring, including April 19 at the San Francisco Salsa Festival at the Westin, May 15 at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, and May 17 at an East Bay salsa dance at Emeryville’s Allegro Ballroom.

In many ways creating the PMO was the culmination of a longtime dream. Kuehn had tried to launch a Latin big band about a decade ago, purchasing charts from trumpeter Michael Philip Mossman, a veteran Latin jazz player who has toured and recorded with seminal Cuban musicians such as Machito and Mario Bauzá, and Nuyorican stars Eddie Palmieri and Bobby Sanabria. When Tumalan approached him at a session in August 2010 about creating a band for a regular Monday- night gig at San Francisco’s Cafe Cocomo, they decided to share responsibility and design a salsa band for dancers, rather than a Latin jazz band that showcases instrumental soloists.

“We had the gig and six weeks to assemble the musicians,” Kuehn recalls. “We started transcribing like crazy. From the beginning we decided not to do a Latin jazz big band, but to go more commercial and focus on singers. Our first night we had 19 people on the bandstand and three people in the audience.”

Within a couple of months, the word was out on the musicians’ grapevine that a blazing new band was in town. They started getting calls from players who wanted to get in on the action, like Oakland vocalist Alexa Weber Morales, a charismatic singer well versed in various Latin dance styles. A bandleader in her own right with three critically hailed albums, she went to catch the band with a friend one night at Cafe Cocomo and came away determined to join the orchestra. She started singing with the PMO in mid-2011 as one of three vocalists, but by last year she was the voice of the band.

“I was blown away,” Weber Morales says. “I thought, I need to be in that band, and if I got in, it was clearly the best one I was ever going to be in. The sound was fantastic, and the enthusiasm on stage was really compelling. Those days we were playing for $20 or less, and the only reason you get people to do that is if the music’s really happening.”

That inauspicious start soon gave way to a bustling dance floor, but the daunting economics of running a big band meant it was always a struggle. Yet the band’s creative synergy fueled its momentum. Even though there was no budget for adding new charts, several members started contributing impressive new arrangements designed specifically for the PMO’s personnel, particularly trombonist Mike Rinta and baritone saxophonist Aaron Lington.

A music professor who teaches jazz at San Jose State, Lington also holds down the bari chair of the powerhouse Tuesday-night band at Yoshi’s San Francisco, led by drum star Tommy Igoe (who plays on three Pacific Mambo Orchestra tracks). Lington released half a dozen albums of his own, and he’s responsible for five of the 10 tracks on Pacific Mambo Orchestra, including a killing version of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed” featuring soul-drenched Oakland jazz vocalist Kenny Washington. Lington was one of the musicians who rallied to the band’s Grammy campaign, but he nearly left the group early on.

“I did it for six months, and then called Steffen and said I don’t know if I can keep doing it,” Lington says. “I almost left. It’s a 50-mile drive one way from San Jose, and I was barely breaking even. I had a really young daughter, and my wife was pregnant. Steffen said give us another six months; some cool stuff on the horizon. It’s going to be worth your while. My wife said keep on doing it; see what happens. And the gigs started getting better and paying better, which gave me a chance to write some charts.”

The band’s ascent started well before the Grammy nomination when the PMO landed high-powered management, which led to a tour last year with Tito Puente Jr., playing performing arts centers around the country. So on one level, the PMO is a heartwarming tale about a scrappy band of musicians who believed in themselves and made numerous sacrifices in order prove the East Coast naysayers wrong. But there’s a deeper story behind the band’s success that speaks to the Bay Area’s unusual ethnic dynamics, and an obsession with Cuban music that dates back at least six decades.

Part of the salsa scene’s shock at the PMO’s Grammy triumph stems from a sense of cultural ownership. In the same way that the music business uses “urban” to signify African-American culture, “tropical” refers to Afro-Caribbean rhythms, and Tumalan and Kuehn aren’t seen as salsa outsiders just because they reside on the West Coast. Kuehn was born and raised in Germany and came to the United States to study jazz at North Texas University. Tumalan is a conservatory-trained musician from Mexico, a country that contributes little to the evolution of salsa and Latin jazz besides some excellent musicians. As devotees of clave, the essential pulse of much Afro-Cuban music, Kuehn and Tumalan are the first to acknowledge that acquiring salsa’s requisite rhythmic knowledge is no easy task.

“It’s a very interesting thing to talk about the background and nationality of the musicians,” Tumalan says. “This is not a style you can play just because you know your instrument. Afro-Cuban rhythm is a language, and it takes a whole lifetime to learn and digest. It’s not an easy thing if you’re not surrounded by musicians from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, places we don’t have a large population from in the Bay Area.”

The PMO’s rhythm section, the most crucial contingent in a Latin dance orchestra, is Latino with a typical Bay Area demographic. Bassist Jorge Pomar hails from Lima, Peru, while conguero Omar Ledezma was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. Bongo player Braulio Barrera grew up in Peru, conguero Javier Cabanillas is Mexican-American, and timbalero Karl Perazzo, best known for his 22-year stint in Santana, hails from San Francisco’s Mission District.

A major reason why Kuehn and Tumalan were able to round up so many clave card-carrying horn players is that the Bay Area’s ties to Cuban rhythmic royalty reaches back so far. And much like Kuehn and Tumalan, the man responsible for building the bridge, Cal Tjader, couldn’t claim the grooves by birthright.

Born in St. Louis and raised in San Mateo, Tjader played an instrument with little history in Latin music. He hailed from Swedish stock and had no connection to Cuba or Puerto Rico. He had no connection, that is, but his love of Afro-Caribbean rhythms. Like a Latin jazz Johnny Appleseed, the vibraphonist helped sow a compelling blend of jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms throughout the United States. He found particularly fertile soil in the Bay Area, where Tjader is more influential than ever three decades after his death at the age of 56 while on tour in the Philippines.

He started his career as a drummer, performing with Dave Brubeck’s octet in the late 1940s, and then recorded widely with Brubeck’s much more active trio. But it was a yearlong stint playing vibes with pianist George Shearing’s popular quintet that changed Tjader’s life. The band performed frequently in New York, which brought Tjader into contact with the great dance orchestras of Tito Puente and Machito, sparking his lifelong love affair with Latin music.

Tjader introduced his first Latin jazz band in 1954 at the Macumba Club in San Francisco and quickly began recording a string of albums for Fantasy Records (many of which have be reissued on CD). Throughout his prolific career, Tjader attracted top musicians. His most celebrated band boasted the veteran bebop bassist Al McKibbon, pianist Vince Guaraldi, and the extraordinary rhythm section combo of Cuban conguero Mongo Santamaria and Nuyorican percussionist Willie Bobo.

Pete Escovedo and his brothers, growing up in a Mexican-American family in Pittsburg and Oakland, soaked up rhythmic knowledge by haunting the clubs where Tjader’s band played in the 1950s, standing outside when they were too young to get in. The generation of musicians who came up playing with Pete Escovedo, such as John Santos, Wayne Wallace, and John Calloway, kept the Afro-Caribbean flame burning in the Bay Area throughtout the 1980s and ’90s while traveling to Cuba to study at the source. At the same time, a steady infusion of Cuban musicians, like conga master Jesus Diaz and pianist Omar Sosa, brought later innovations to the Bay Area scene.

Santos’ and Wallace’s recordings have earned numerous Grammy nominations for Best Latin Jazz Album over the years, but as an instrumetnal genre, Latin jazz has far less of an audience than salsa. Building on their foundation, the PMO is drawing international attention to the Bay Area’s Latin music scene, which boasts some five dozen active salsa bands.

“It’s a humbling experience,” Tumalan says. “There are so many before us who paved the way: John Santos, Rebeca Mauleon, John Calloway, Louie Romero, Wayne Wallace. The sense of community is so strong, not only for musicians, but for dancers and fans.”

The question now is whether the PMO’s Grammy success is an outlier or a harbinger of things to come. The band emerged out of the history and circumstances that shield the Bay Area scene from the commercial pressures of Miami and Los Angeles while offering an impressive pool of talent, but their model could provide a road map for other ambitious grassroots artists.

“This might be a new business model,” Kuehn says. “I think the big record labels are scratching their heads. The independent nobodies can take a Grammy now. All their advertisements and promotion didn’t work out.

“It was our debut album, all Bay Area–made. We came out of nowhere, and threw a curveball.”

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