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Sample Track 1:
"Nuestro Amor" from Ochun
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"Murmullo" from Ochun
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Ochún (Ion Records) Cuban Music's Sonic "What If" The New Old Sound of Ochún

“The day I moved to New York City, I had no real plan,” recalls Paul Armstrong, co-founder of Ochún (, a band that plays what has been called “the new version of the old Cuban sound.” Armstrong had fallen in love with Cuban music listening to the CD Introducing… Rubén González in 1998. It was the first Cuban album he bought, and it single-handedly convinced him to move the New York and play this kind of music.

On his very first day in New York, some maintenance workers from his apartment building helped him move his piano in and Armstrong sat down and started playing a tumbão. “One of the maintenance guys said, ‘Hey, you have to meet my friend Miguél. He is putting a band together.’ I guess I was in the right place at the right time.”

Miguél García was born in Panama and, when he was one, moved to Cuba.When he was nine years old his mother took him to see Benny More who became a huge musical influence on him.. García moved to New York when he was  sixteen and through his twenties was in a well-known Cuban band called Osuna, and, with them, toured the  the east coastthroughout the ’70s; opening for the likes of Tito Puente and  Charlie Palmieri. When that band dissolved, things changed and García started a family. His musical career went into hibernation and the Latin music scene evolved into a new form. Now in his 50s, with his kids grown and gone, García says, “My wife said, ‘If you like singing, why don’t you start singing again?’ And so I did. The music never left me. It was always inside, waiting for the opportunity to do it again. And along comes this American playing in the old style that I like.”

““Loddy Hallo”That is what Paul Armstrong thought people were calling him whenever he played piano at Latino parties and weddings in New Jersey. “It took me a while to understand the Spanish accent; that they were saying my playing reminded them of this Jewish guy from New York: Larry Harlow!” Armstrong recalls. He learned that Harlow was pivotal in the emergence of Latino music in the 1970s in New York. “Everyone is really shocked that I am this white guy playing the way I do. The older Cubans—even younger piano players who have just gotten here from Cuba—say I have that old style sound. That the guys aren’t playing that anymore.”

“When I started playing Cuban music, I felt my space rhythmically and harmonically completely,” Armstrong explains “What is naturally inside of me is naturally inside this music. The harmonies in Cuban music allow you to play really simple and really complex; really pretty and really dark aggressive music… all within the same structure.  I feel really free within  this music. And the rhythm perpetuates itself. It keeps itself going.”

“I am proud to have all different types of people in the band,” says García. “Our trumpet, trombone, and piano players are all Americans. The thing I like is that this music is in their hearts. They play it even better than some Cuban or Latin guys, because they feel it. Our bongo player is from Venezuela, and we’ve had bass players from the Dominican Republic and Panama. You have all these guys who really like this Cuban music and perform it perfectly. But they bring subtle things from their own backgrounds too. ”“Before he left us for love in Cleveland, our bass player, Victor Sanchez, who  is a Dominican, was always arguing with the Cubans about how the Cubans think they’re the best musicians,” remembers Armstrong. “Victor would always get worked up, open his eyes real big, and say “OOOYYEEE!!!”

“I’m having more fun now than I did in my early days,” García continues. “I am more focused on the music than I was before. And I am more experienced now. I think better musicians are around now too. Everybody these days reads music which was not true before.”

In a scene where many bands are trying to perfect an essential sound, Ochún finds expression in creating their own sound. Even the band name was meant to differentiate them from others, while staying close to the roots. “At the time, everybody was called ‘Son de Something.’ I said, ‘We should get a powerful name; a name that will stick,’” explains García. “So we chose Ochún, the powerful saint from the African religion of Cuba.”

García’s singing style stays within the tradition, but he strives to find his own unique approach. “People tell me that my style is mixed,” García explains. “Some people tell me sometimes I sound like Beny Moré for instance. The radio host Chico Alvarez once told me that I sound like a  singer called Casanova. But I am reacting to a lot of different things. I think I have a sound that you do not hear that much. Most of the guys in the big bands, they all sound the same.  I have heard Cuban singers who’s soneos sound like Oscar De Leon.  A lot of the guys do. My voice is higher and I write my own soneros. I do whatever comes from me. I have something different. Not one hundred percent, but at least fifty-fifty.”

While the band relies on a corps of well-known New York percussionists, and bass- and horn-players, Ochún’s central sound is rounded out by arranger and trés-player Pablo Moya. The Cuban-born multi-instrumentalist—founder of the group Karachi,who cut his teeth performing with Eliades Ochoa (of Buena Vista Social Club fame) and later became a conductor of Ecuador’s national orchestra—has become known around New York for his complex arrangements.

“Pablo doesn’t make things very simple,” García chuckles. “He arranges things to be difficult. And the way he writes is the way he wants it played. The horns are doing one thing, and the bass player and piano are doing something else. There are all these different interlocking sounds. Some of these things are very hard for trumpet or trombone players. We have had subs who say, ‘This guy blows me away.’ Pablo says, ‘Look guys, it’s not hard,’ and then they give him that look.”

“There is a lot of pressure to play salsa,” explains Armstrong. “And we have no problem doing that for certain audiences. But when we are doing what we want to do, the arrangements are more sophisticated, and the style is older. We play a lot of originals, but a lot of the sound is straight out of the ‘30s and ‘40s. We play son, son montuno, danzon, bolero, guaguanco, and guaracha. Danzon is so different than salsa that the younger crowd doesn’t even know how to dance is. But the older people come out and show their stuff. They think of it as the original national dance of music of Cuba.”

Diversity within the band is one of Ochún’s biggest strengths. It is the combination of playing in an old style, striving for a unique voice, and working out complex arrangements that defines the Ochún sound.

“From the moment I first heard it, I knew I wanted to make Cuban music. I knew that historically this is where the  American folks got together with the Cuban folks,” concludes Armstrong. “New York is where the world comes together.”

But what really makes Ochún stand out is that they write music as if they are living in a different era. It’s not a snapshot from the past, but the musical hypothesis; the sonic “what if” transplanted in New York all over again.

-Dmitri Vietze,