With his mambo orchestra a hit right out of the gate, Sergio Mendoza wanted to take his time to record the band's debut album.
Taking their cue from Perez Prado, Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta have put on electrifying shows from the start, adding a new twist to Cuban big-band music from the 1940s and 1950s. Writing new material and growing into the band's own unique sound, however, took some time and experimentation. After all, it's not like there's much of a road map out there for a psychedelic indie mambo band.
"I had that in mind, to make a band with that concept—a big band with a lot of horns, some mambo, some cumbia," Mendoza says. "We tried a lot of different things, and it became another entire year of just experimenting with these songs we had, and we finally landed on these 11 songs."
More than two years in the making, Mambo Mexicano! is a shape-shifting record, far from a straight-up mambo-dance party.
"It's not 100 percent traditional. It has some of the original concept and ideas, but we're trying different things," Mendoza says. "I changed my mind a lot of times, to the point where people were starting to question me and starting to wonder if this record was ever going to be done. It did take a little over two years to complete, but in the end, it all came together."
From what Mendoza calls the "spaghetti mambo" of "Traicionera" to the electronics that color "Orkesta y Sonido" to the Brazilian influences on "Mambo in the Dark," Mambo Mexicano! is a record of exciting shifts to go along with the phenomenal musicianship of Mendoza and his band.
For the album's U.S. release on the Los Angeles label Cosmica Records (the European version was released to coincide with an April tour), Mendoza dropped his name, and the band is now simply Y la Orkesta.
It's a nod to the group's fluidity—more than 20 musicians show up in the album's credits—and growth that came primarily onstage.
"A lot of the time, it feels like I'm up there working it and leading the band and calling out different sections, and it really helps having Salvador (Duran) there," Mendoza says. "He's a hell of a performer, and it takes a lot of pressure off me. Between the two of us, we really get the show going, him with performing, and me with directing."
Y la Orkesta's album-release performance will be one for the ages, with an extra-big band onstage headlining the HoCo Festival's second night. The horn section alone counts as a big band—four trumpets, four trombones—and Mendoza promises other guests, like Camilo Lara of the Mexican Institute of Sound.
"It's going to be a fun night, with a lot of the friends and people who have recorded on this record. We're happy it's finally out," he says.
"It's different every night, and that's one of the parts that keep the musicians interested. It is a big band, and there are a lot of people playing the same song, but we still leave that freedom by keeping things really fresh and really open," he says. "... When it's a good crowd, it definitely leads to different things in the music."
Recorded mainly at Wavelab Studio, Mambo Mexicano! is the culmination of a quick ascendancy for Y la Orkesta, from one-off cover band at the annual Great Cover-Up to the winner of multiple Tucson Area Music Awards, including 2009 Up-and-Coming Artist of the Year and 2010 Band of the Year. The band is also a three-time winner in the Latin Jazz/Salsa category.
"Every time you do the Great Cover-Up, it's the rule that it's going to be a one-off; you put a lot of rehearsal into it, but it's just for one night. But I had a feeling that by doing Perez Prado, there was no way we wouldn't do that again. It was a lot of fun putting it together, and it was a fun group, and I just knew it was going to get busy, and I was ready for that," Mendoza says.
Since the debut of Y la Orkesta, Mendoza has become even more in demand as a keyboard, accordion and vihuela player, touring with Calexico and DeVotchKa, and sitting in for shows with Lara's Mexican Institute of Sound and Howe Gelb's Giant Giant Sand.
"It's been a learning experience more than anything, and I still look at it that way, even as I do more and more," he says.
"I think it was Béla Fleck who said you learn more from those people you play with than the videos you watch or the music you listen to, and I think it's true for me. You learn from them, and you take what you can to make your own personal project better."
Ultimately, Mendoza has directed the musical growth and experiences from his collaborative roles right back into Y la Orkesta. And being a bandleader has informed his perspective as a sideman. But can each continue building on the other one?
"I think about that a lot," he says. "What everybody would want to do—and most people would say you should do—is focus on one, and have your own band and try to make that happen. Maybe at some point, it's going to lead to that, but I also like playing with a lot of people and playing a lot of different styles of music, and as long as I feel like doing that, I will keep doing things I normally wouldn't do with my own band."