By Emma Marsano, Special to the Almanac
Many solo artists and musical groups perform for decades without receiving a Grammy nomination. The Pacific Mambo Orchestra, on the other hand, was just nominated in the category of Best Tropical Latin Band for its self-titled debut album.
The group was founded in 2010 by Steffen Kuehn, a German trumpeter, and Christian Tumalan, a Mexican pianist who is, among other things, a piano teacher at Woodland School in Portola Valley. Currently, the two are the co-directors of PMO Mr. Kuehn directs the horns and Mr. Tumalan the rhythm section.
The creation of Pacific Mambo Orchestra can be traced to 2010, when Mr. Tumalan and Mr. Kuehn met at a recording session for an album to which they both contributed. While chatting between takes, they discovered their mutual interest in forming a larger Latin jazz group.
For his part, Mr. Tumalan had become interested in Latin jazz about a decade earlier, while studying for his first of four musical degrees, this one in classical piano music at the Escuela Superior de Musica in Mexico City. Listening to the radio in the car one day, he heard Tito Puente's song, "Ran Kan Kan," a classic of the Latin jazz genre, and was reminded of how much he liked it. Instantly inspired, he thought to himself, "I'm going to be doing something like this (someday)."
After joining forces, Mr. Kuehn and Mr. Tumalan made a deal with the owner of San Francisco's popular salsa club, Cafe Cocomo, to rehearse every Monday night, when most musicians take the night off. Within 18 months, Mr. Tumalan says, "We had a packed house on any given Monday night. Word spread (to elite local musicians), and that's how we put the band together."
In 2012, after just a year and a half of performing together, PMO decided to release an album. Mr. Tumalan and Mr. Kuehn raised money through a Kickstarter campaign to independently produce the album under the "Stefrecords & Tumalan Music" label.
Their goal for the record was to help a wide range of people to "connect with Latin music," Mr. Tumalan says.
To that end, they blended genres in the songs they recorded, and even added a Latin groove to Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed." Virtuoso Kenny Washington did the vocals on the track. "In my opinion," says Mr. Tumalan, "he sings it better than Stevie Wonder."
Among other guests artists, the album features Tito Puente Jr., the son of the artist whose song "Ran Kan Kan" originally inspired Mr. Tumalan to form a big Latin jazz group.
After its release in October 2012, the album hit top charts in Europe and South America, and reached Tim Fox, the president of Columbia Artists Management. Mr. Fox secured PMO a national tour, which they completed a few weeks ago.
PMO's competition for the Grammy is relatively steep: they're up against past winners like Carlos Vives and Marc Anthony. "The four other nominees are really heavyweights in the industry," Mr. Tumalan says. But members of the Pacific Mambo Orchestra are hopeful that their novelty will work in their favor on Jan. 26 at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards.