Update 01-26-2013: Pacific Mambo Orchestra took home the Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Album. The title and portions of the article have been changed to reflect this.
Pacific Mambo Orchestra (PMO) is leading the renaissance of the Big Band and live music. This 19-piece Latin Big Band plays Salsa, Mambo, Latin Jazz, Cha Cha, along with a fusion of sounds that incorporate more modern genres (R&B, Hip Hop) with traditional Jazz and Salsa.
Pianist Christian Tumalan and trumpeter Steffen Kuehn co-direct this dream enterprise, which consists of 4 Trumpets, 4 Trombones, 5 Saxophones, Piano, Bass, Timbales, Congas, Bongos, and a lead singer. Only three years in the making, they have already taken the San Francisco Bay area, the West Coast, and the nation by storm. Now fresh off a national tour with Tito Puente, Jr., their vision, excellence, and love of the art is being rewarded with the music industry’s highest honor. At the 56th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, PMO took home the prize in the Best Tropical Latin Album category. The band beat out such music industry heavyweights as Marc Anthony, Los Angeles Azules, Sergio George Presents Salsa Giants, and Corazón Profundo.
Three days before the awards show, I sat down with the co-directors, principal female singer Alexa Weber Morales, and Conga player Javier Cabanillas to talk about the whirlwind of events that led up to this moment, and how they make the magic happen.
“To be frank with you, Christian began, “we feel we have already won this battle—not because we want to take a Grammy back home. It’s because we're independent, we made it happen in three years. So for us, it's an accomplishment. But not only for us, but for all independent artists that are trying to make it in their home studios, in their garages, in bars performing. It is really an accomplishment to have been nominated. It's all good.”
Steffen interjected, “When we were on tour with Tito Puente, Jr., Marlow Rosado, last year's 2013 Grammy winner for Best Tropical Latin Album was also on the tour. [Marlow Rosado] would introduce us as kind of like-minded to him. He said he thought he won the 2013 Grammy because his album was orchestral, and it featured a lot of the same elements that our album is featuring. So there's something going on here, there's a drift. So we'll see. Hopefully we'll be rewarded in that way so that we can continue making this kind of music.”
This kind of music is traditional Latin Salsa, layered with Jazz, and sometimes married to other modern forms like R&B, and Electronic.
It’s a combination that won Alexa over immediately, and fueled her desire to be a part of the magic. “I come from a Jazz background. And the thing that I've found playing Jazz is that Jazz used to be dance music, but it's not dance music now, it's art music. What I think is so great about Salsa is that Salsa is this dance music that you can layer the Jazz over. So we are basically blending these two traditions back together for the audience. And to me, it's so joyful and fun, it's not like you have to listen to this music, it will make you smarter or more educated—it's like, get out and experience it! Being on stage is an unbeatable combination.”
Steffen agreed, “We have some of the most tricked-out arrangements there are. I mean, they are so deep harmonically, but you can't tell because they are so masterfully written. The dancers can still relate to it, but they're as jazzy as it gets.”
Christian concluded, “What we are trying to do is that we have had a lot of new genres that have arisen over the last 10 years. So we're saying why not incorporate that. Our first attempt is track #3 on the album, Overjoyed, written by Stevie Wonder—which happens to be probably one of our best hits, because it has that combination that we have been pursuing."
PMO’s inaugural album has received plaudits for the beauty and depth of its arrangements, outstanding orchestration, and for its timeless originality. The combined excellence and pedigree of each musician has produced an alchemy of fresh, flavorful, and unique sounds that pay homage to the history and legacy of Latin Salsa and Big Bands, while carving a new niche in the music lexicon.
There are plenty of musical artist who play excellently, have the support of their local crowds, and even record, but still have not achieved the status of a national tour with a known legend or a Grammy nomination. PMO contributes a combination of factors to its rise. “In the first year, it was a labor of love, really, for the musicians and us, really working on that,” Christian explained. “What was the key for our success was that we always kept it consistent and with the support of other musicians that saw the vision from the very first, it made it possible. It was a collective effort.”
Steffen gave high praise to promoter Michael Lazarus and publicist Jodi Jackson for pushing PMO into another realm. “We are really happy to have run into Jodi Jackson, our publicist, who has brought a brand new element and has knocked us up a couple of notches. And our friend Michael has been instrumental in our success. He's just like another go-getter, ambitious as they come. He's just an amazing powerhouse. I think with him and Jodi together, it's like the sky’s the limit.”
The other X-Factor in PMO’s rise is the prevalence of social media. “That's what is different from 5-10 years ago,” Christian said. “We now have direct connection with each individual.”
Alexa continued, “But social media for live gigs. This isn't a YouTube band. It's not like we got all these people because they saw our videos. All the social media was, ‘Come here—we're playing.’”
Steffen agreed, “Fifteen years ago I don't think this would have been possible. We have 100 Twitter followers. The whole thing is so funny in a certain sense. With our limited resources, and our 100 Twitter followers and 1600 Facebook fans—which is really nothing—we made it to the nomination. We beat guys that have recording careers of like 20 years!”
When asked at what point PMO turned the corner toward this upward trajectory, the artists collectively agreed. In 2013, PMO had the opportunity to tour nationally with Tito Puente, Jr. who carries on his father’s legacy of Big Band Mambo. PMO benefitted from riding the coat tails of a known commodity, and established itself as a national phenomenon.
“Tito Puente, Jr. was like the perfect fit. He comes from a legacy of Mambo,” Christian said. “So that's kind of more like the image we want to project. On a national tour we want to deliver an image--that's very important--what is the first impression you want to have. So we felt Tito Puente, Jr. was the best name that we could include.”
“The tour was the turning point,” Steffen said. “When we went out of the Bay area and started to perform on a national level.”
“It was a pivotal point,” Javier interjected.
“The audiences loved it, they ate it up,” Alexa said. “The homage to his father's section of the show was amazing.”
In getting away from the San Francisco Bay area, PMO was able to gauge the effect of their musical experiment on different audiences.
“There was definitely a change from our previous engagements to the tour, because the tour was concert venues, there was no dancing,” Steffen said. “We were kind of tripping over it because we were used to a dance crowd where the energy kind of flows back and forth, and we feed off the dancers and the energy of the crowd. These guys will be sitting in their chair, and just listening to us, so all of the 100 percent comes from us to them. I was concerned about that.”
“But it didn't last long because they stood up and danced in the aisle, and ran up to the front of the stage!” Javier said.
“It was great to see the results on the national tour, seeing families come out, seeing a great section of people who really enjoyed it, both for their ears and their feet.”
Christian continued, “That was the type of response that we got, especially from the tour. We have played to a diversity of people, anywhere from Latin, African-American, Asian; we're playing in the middle of Gary Indiana, industrial areas, we had a standing ovation on every single concert, asking for more.”
Alexa finished the thought, “People would say to us consistently, ‘You guys look like you're having so much fun.’ That was what they always said. They also said, ‘You look like you really love each other.’ Which we do! On the road, it could have gone either way.”
Often the test of a band’s staying power is how they fare in the fishbowl of a tour. The depth of love each member has for the music, the rich legacy of tradition they bring to the process, and each other, fostered a feeling of family which allowed PMO to pass with flying colors.
“I've always looked for a family situation in bands. And I've got to say this is only the third time where I've felt this, that we're a family who supports each other. Where it's just like homegrown, from zero to whatever, and we stuck together,” Steffen said.
“Listen, we've seen the best and the worst of each other these past three years,” he continued. “Seriously, I've been in bad states, and nobody has come over to me and wiggled their fingers and said you can't do that. It's only been supportive. That's really the most special of it all.”
Short of showing up in their Grammy finest and possibly going home with the prize, what is in store for PMO for 2014?
“Definitely a second album,” Christian immediately interjected. “Now with all the buzz, after the Grammys, we need to continue it. A second album is ASAP coming up. So, hopefully before the summer we will have something in hand.”
Steffen agreed, “We need to ride the wave.”
Javier was also on board. “I think for me it's a physical documentation that years after I'm gone, I can have family members say, my uncle, my great grandpa, did this. I think that's the idea. I'm really interesting in recording.”
Alexa's focus was on the show and how to make it better. “It was so beautiful to see how the show coalesced into this thing with the highs and lows and moments of "Ahh!" and “Ooohs”, and the audience really loving it. So I feel like that will continue to develop— the show aspect of what we do. Maybe the choreography, maybe just other moments that we'll do in the show I think can continue to evolve. I look forward to that happening. I know personally, for myself, I'm always trying to learn what I can do better as a performer.”
PMO has made its mark on the music industry, and this Grammy win is a powerful validation. The Band will continue to blaze a trail for other independent artists and the renaissance of live Big Band music.