I’m finally getting around to writing this: Pacific Mambo Orchestra has won the Grammy for Tropical Latin Album, beating out Marc Anthony, Carlos Vives, Los Angeles Azules and Sergio George. Steffen Kuehn and Christian Tumalan, our bandleaders, were at the Grammy pre-telecast to accept the award, while most of the band was back in the Bay Area (though I and several others had come down to Los Angeles the week before to attend the NAMM music merchants conference).
Much of the press following this upset win has focused on how we could have possibly done it. Some pigeonhole PMO’s success into the social media meme. But we were no YouTube phenomenon. As Steffen joked a few days before the Grammy’s, “I was thinking of putting in my acceptance speech, ‘We’d like to thank our 100 Twitter fans and 1200 Facebook fans for this victory.'” Those numbers are minuscule to begin with, and laughable when you’re up against Marc Anthony.
No, there are three reasons PMO succeeded in grabbing a Grammy nomination:
1. Regular gigs in the San Francisco Bay Area, which built an enthusiastic live —not virtual — fan base.
2. A fresh-sounding, highly original album.
3. A Columbia Artists-produced national tour.
There’s one reason we won: FOCUS.
I’ll be honest: If it had been my band, I am not sure I would have pushed as hard as we did. I might have assumed I could never win, that the nomination was a token honor, and that was it. With our win, however, the value of that final sprint is hammered into my head now.
As soon as we had the nomination, the real work began. In band meetings, we strategized and divvied out lobbying for the hearts of the Grammy voters, members of NARAS. The task was enormous, but the purpose was singular: We needed people to listen to us. We accomplished this via the Grammy 365 members-only web site, a Facebook group for Grammy voters, in person, at gigs, at the San Francisco Grammy chapter meeting, advertising in Billboard, and via the band’s and some of the member bandleaders’ own mailing lists (such as mine).
I’ve been in many bands. I’ve even been on a Grammy-nominated record before. But I’ve never felt the drive and camaraderie of the “march of the 19-piece army”, to use engineer Michael Lazarus’ words.
I hope this victory shows people that miracles do happen, that indie bands can succeed, that teamwork and community are critical and that focus is a beautiful thing. Those are the lessons I have learned from this process.
Many of us in the band are bandleaders ourselves. Some are Grammy winners many times over, and have traveled the world extensively (Jeff Cressman and Karl Perazzo with Santana, Tommy Igoe of Birdland fame). The arrangers, primarily Mike Rinta and Aaron Lington, are deserving of some notice. Trumpeter Jon Ruff is such a character, riding his motorcycle around like Evel Knievel and sharing stories from his life as an active musician with the military. And my friend Mara Fox deserves a shout out as the only other woman on the record besides me and the toughest gigging trombonist you’ll ever meet.
Music critic Rich Scheinin recently wrote a piece about the booming Hammond B-3 scene here in the Bay Area. I like to think PMO’s Grammy win is a sign of a thrilling future for indie music in Oakland, San Francisco and the whole Bay Area. As I told a CBS reporter, this “new mambo” we’re playing is an irresistible mix of danceable salsa rhythm overlaid with sparkling jazz. “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,” Steffen told Jennifer Oliver O’Connell of Examiner.com.
Ginny Prior of the Contra Costa Times mentioned the Oakland factor in her article about our win (of course, you can’t call PMO East Bay OR San Francisco, as it’s really a full Bay Area phenomenon). She noted that Steffen still teaches music in Hayward and Antioch schools. “Also from Oakland are M.U.S.E teacher and multi-instrument musician Pete Cornell; saxophonist Tony Peebles; lead vocalist Alexa Weber Morales; percussionist Omar Ledezma; trombonist Mike Rinta; and Aaron Lington on baritone sax.” Oh, and while we’re talking about teaching, I’d like to mention that I’ve taught the Oakland Feather River Camp summer music week pro bono for the last 6 years.
The originality that you hear on the album owes a lot to who we are as individuals living in this creative and diverse community. I am beyond proud that a small example my songwriting is showcased in Bolero Cocomo. I had written an ambitious vocalese section that references everything from Homer’s Odyssey to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (vocalese are be bop licks with poetic lyrics a la Kurt Elling or Annie Ross). However, I didn’t finish it in time for the album. On tour, I developed that vocalese further and was thrilled every night to sing it under the spotlight, trading licks with a luxuriant sax solo from Pete Cornell.
There were several instances like that where decisions made in the recording studio that I hadn’t agreed with ended up being serendipitous on tour. Ultimately, that teaches me that you can be honest and fight for your artistic vision, but if it doesn’t work out, trust that each creative decision shifts others into place. Keep making music and you’ll be surprised at what happens down the line. As Evan Francis, flute player on the Grammy-winning album, said on Facebook, “Keep showing up to practice and play the music and through the years, amazing things happen, without exception. This means you!”