[Marxism] Las Orishas en el underground de La Habana

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Mon Apr 24 14:27:30 MDT 2006

Las Orishas en el underground de La Habana
Canyon Cody 
Posted: 12/8/05


Ry Cooder is credited with discovering the old Cuban crooners from
Buena Vista Social Club, just like Columbus "discovered" America. In
reality, Cooder simply introduced the rest of the world to
traditional Cuban songs that Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo had
been singing for 50 years.

But don't count on Cooder to introduce you to the next generation of
Cuban musicians. His passion for traditional Cuban music is fueled by
a romanticized nostalgia for the good ol' days, which means he's more
interested in making albums for the museum gift shop than exploring
the future of Cuban music.

"It's a goddamn hip-hop world," complained Cooder, "and now it has
even invaded Cuba." He seems to think that hip-hop has infected
Cuba's traditional rice and beans with American rhymes and beats, as
if a contaminated Trojan horse snuck into Havana on radio waves
floating across the Caribbean Sea.

The true history of Cuban hip-hop shows that quite the opposite has
happened: Cuban rappers like the Orishas have invented a unique style
of hip-hop from within their traditional musical heritage, but
updated it for the new century. Most international rappers have yet
to evolve past a mediocre mimicry of American hip-hop, but the
Orishas have distinguished themselves by creating a homegrown version
of hip-hop firmly grounded in their Cuban roots.

During a brief United States tour, rapper Yotuel from the Orishas
spoke with The Heights about the group's origins in Havana, their
diverse musical influences, and the future of Cuban hip-hop.

"Latin music is inside the blood," said Yotuel. "For us, it's
impossible to do hip-hop that isn't Latin hip-hop." The Orishas' form
of Latin hip-hop is distinct from reggaeton, a hybrid of hip-hop and
Jamaican dancehall music made popular by Sean Paul and Daddy Yankee.
"Reggaeton is all the same beat," said Yotuel. "We're very

"Orishas started with me and Ruzzo in a group called Amenaza," said
Yotuel. "We were one of the first rap groups to get popular in Cuba,
so we were invited to perform at a hip-hop festival in Paris. That's
where we met Miko Niko and Roldán."

Miko Niko, a French producer who had been sampling Latin sounds,
proposed the idea of forming a rap group that used live
instrumentation and featured a traditional Cuban singer. Niko
convinced Roldán, a Cuban vocalist and classical guitar player, to
join the Orishas, despite the fact he had no previous experience or
interest in hip-hop. Yotuel and Ruzzo begrudgingly decided to leave
Cuba in order to pursue a career in Europe.

In 2000, the Orishas released their groundbreaking debut, A Lo
Cubano. The album featured a hip-hop remix of Compay Segundo's
classic "Chan Chan," called "537 C.U.B.A." Despite grumblings from
purists like Cooder, who heard nothing but a bastardization, Segundo
himself loved the Orishas' version. "For me it's the best
interpretation," said Segundo, "because it's real without being
nostalgic, it gives the song new life."

The debut album sold over 500,000 copies, sending the Orishas out on
a hectic tour around the world. While A Lo Cubano focused on the
experience of growing up in Cuba, the Orishas' 2002 follow-up
Emigrante dealt with the difficulties of living as an immigrant
outside their homeland.

"I miss Cuba, I miss my family, my neighborhood, my roots," said
Yotuel. "I grew up in Cuba. I'm happy to finally live outside of Cuba
because now I have another perspective. In Cuba there's only two
television channels, three radio stations, and one perspective."

In general, the Orishas avoid polemic issues of politics and prefer
to focus on social issues. When asked how he feels about
Cuban-Americans' criticism that the Orishas have not been
sufficiently anti-Castro, Yotuel responded: "We don't want to mix
politics with music. I don't know anything about politics, but I have
things to say about social issues, about life in the streets. When
you're a Cuban, people just want to talk about Castro. If I was a
Mexican rapper, no one would be asking me about [Mexican president
Vicente Fox."

This year, the Orishas released their most recent album, El Kilo,
with help from prolific producer and multi-instrumentalist Andres
Levin, the Venezuelan head of New York band Yerba Buena. Yotuel said
this album is the most traditionally Cuban in its style ("really,
really old-school, like Benny More"), while their debut featured more
new-school Cuban styles like timba and salsa. The middle album, he
said, was the most straight-forward hip-hop, but even Emigrante was
different from typical rap.

"We make music, not just beats with samples on top. We talk about
social issues, the reality on the streets, not just money and women,"
said Yotuel. "And we don't disrespect women - that's probably the
biggest difference, actually."

The members of the Orishas now live all over Europe, with Yotuel in
Madrid, Roldán in Paris, and Ruzzo in Milan, but when asked about the
future, Yotual said, "I want to live here in America, maybe Los
Angeles. The weather is nice and the people understand my lyrics."

Eventually Yotuel envisions himself back in Havana working with other
Cuban rappers. "We have tried to make some collaboration with rappers
in Cuba, but the government there makes it so difficult. One day we
would like to start a label and produce Cuban rappers in Cuba." ©
Copyright 2006 The Heights

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