Okuté Uncovers Deeply Rooted Pathways at the Intersection of Cuban Rumba and West African Music. Released by Chulo Records, Okuté Spotlights the Sound of 1960s Cuba with a Contemporary Spirit on Self-Titled Debut Album Produced by Jacob Plasse (Orquesta Akokán).
Okuté carves out a route nearly unspoken for decades in Cuban music. Improvised testaments to the requisite ingredients of West African music coursing through Cuban rumba and son are pressed straight to quarter inch tape on the ensemble’s self-titled debut album, Okuté (Chulo Records: June 4, 2021). While listeners are used to expected chord progressions, jazz harmonies, and timba patterns from Cuban musicians of the past half century, Okuté subverts these expectations, breathing new life into the genre with the voice, tres, and bass taking center stage. Producer Jacob Plasse of Orquesta Akokán introduces authenticity of mid-20th Century Cuban music at its finest on Okuté, where ancient African undercurrents inform idiosyncratic compositions.
Okuté is as unfiltered as Havana itself, where lines blur between the sacred and profane, and between centuries and even millennia of melodies, rhythms and incantations. Lead singer Pedro “Tata” Francisco Almeida Barriel (pictured on the cover of Okuté) draws not only on traditional rumba, but also his deep knowledge of Arará, Abakua and Lucumí religious music. Tata’s vocals cascade over the polyrhythms of the ensemble’s famous percussionists — the legendary Vizcaíno family, Roberto Sr. and Roberto Jr., are joined by Machito and Ramoncito. Virtuoso trésero Coto and bassist Gaston Joya further lock into syncopations that conjure not only Arsenio Rodriguez (and his pioneering albums Quindembo Afro-Magic and Primitivo), but the changüi of Eastern rural Cuba.
An ensemble of Havana’s finest rumberos, Okuté presents constellations of sound — rumba, son, the cadences of Orisha, palo, and religious Cuban traditions — and weaves these styles into something intuitively its own. The Afrocentric conceptualization of Cuban music is the heart of Okuté’s guiding creative force. Vocally, Tata references traditions that are sparsely known beyond Havana’s secret societies and seamlessly integrates them into infectious refrains. The bata drums used in ritual Lucumí music, the tres in son montuno and bright trumpet lines often associated with a comparsa form a new, irresistible synergy.
Okuté opens with “Caridad,” where the strum of the tres and vocals bring to mind Changó and Yemaya, and the fierce dispatch of the bata drums seduce us into the prismatic, diasporic universe of Havana. “Quiere La Rumba” is all about the spiritual power of rumba. Machito explains, “The rumba was always a declaration to overcome sadness, overcome sacrifice, and lift away nostalgia.” Here, the groove is initiated by batá drums, acoustic bass and an intoxicating tres riff. A soulful group chorus and dynamic vocals are capped off by an unexpected, fuzzy organ solo.
On “Rumbarimbula,” listeners are treated to a deep, woody marimbula and mournful violins accompanying the chorus. “Orayakinongo” reunites us with the bass, tres, conga and cajón in an intimate Abakuá meditation, illuminated by angelic, dreamy strings taking us to another realm.
In the Yoruba religion Okuté is the creator of the cold waters that brought shackled Africans to the port of Havana. On the small island with a big heart rumba was born in solares, played on wooden cajons ferried across the waters, and its rhythms still resound centuries later. Okuté is an ensemble of unbreakable rhythms with lyrics and melodies strong enough to endure backbreaking centuries of slavery followed by endless struggles for independence. Okuté is a true musical triumph — original and pure, and like the essence of rumba, rich with spiritual medicine.
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