Digital Orisha

This isn't your father's Santera: David Font, a.k.a. Io, and Olympia Alfaro fuse Afro-Cuban beats with electronica

In the living room of David Font's Little Haiti house, a poster of Kali, the Hindu god of destruction, hangs above a music stand that displays the centerfold of a reclining Michael Jackson from the album Thriller. Idol meets icon; sacred meets pop. Inside Font's production room, an Akai sampler/sequencer towers above a floor crowded with cowbells, congas, and a two-headed Afro-Cuban drum, the batá. Here Font has embarked on an experiment that brings together the high-tech capacities of electronica with the sacred truths of orisha (Afro-Cuban religious) music.

Spinning as one-half of Satellite Lounge at the now-defunct South Beach club the Beehive, Font earned a place in the mythology of Miami's electronic music as Io, a name taken from a moon of Jupiter. Playing the batá at religious ceremonies, Font partakes in Santería circles as a son of Obatalá, the Afro-Cuban orisha associated with purity and righteousness. With his new label, Elegua Records, Font combines these two personas, launching sacred rhythms into the far reaches of electronic space.

Elegguá is a trickster god, and Font is the first to admit that mixing electronica with orisha music is tricky business. Batá drumming and digital sequencing run on different clocks: "The whole world of computers and the Net, that's overdose culture," he says. "Everything's fast; everything is always changing. When you sing in ocha [the cycle of sacred rhythms], you sing one song for half an hour."

Earlier efforts to bring the saints into the consciousness of club dancers segregated the sacred from the slammin' -- amounting too often, in Font's opinion, to "salsa lite with house music." Even the best-known orisha track in clubland, the 1995 remix of La India's song for the female deities, "Yemaya and Ochun," alternates rather than layers the batá segments and the electronic effects of La India's Latin house.

Font looks to create a more complex layering. His own musical training follows the route he flew as a kid, growing up on the Puerto Rican airbus. Moving from the island to New York City, and eventually to Miami, brought the blue eyed blanquito into contact with batá masters. In Miami the do-it-yourself electronica scene opened a laboratory for experimenting with sacred rhythms in electronic form.

Mixing orisha and digital sound combines two of Miami's biggest bugaboos in a single track. Similar suspicions of lawlessness and abandon have plagued both Santería ceremonies and that ceremonial space of electronica: the rave. Local authorities seem to be equally afraid of the sacred dancers' embodiment of the gods (a.k.a. possession) and the ravers' escape from their bodies through dance (a.k.a Ecstasy).

As a member of both communities, Font can see the similarities: "Most of these raver kids, they take their pill, and they're standing in front of this twenty-foot sound system. They're surrounded by other kids packed on top of each other, and they're just off their heads with this music. It's the closest these kids will ever get to the toques de santos [the touch of the saints]."

For Font the comparison ends there: "When you start talking about the cosmology and the religion, nobody wants to hear that Oya is the wind and the storm. That's too esoteric. And there's no santero that's going to tell you that drugs are good for you."

Font's goal is not the religious conversion of the raver. He has his own demons to exorcise first: "I'm a mad scientist," he declares. "I've got these sounds in my head, and I want to hear what they sound like when they come out." The reference to Jamaican dub master the Mad Scientist is not a coincidence. Pressed for a category for his music, Font coins the term "Afro-Cuban dub." That affiliation is no coincidence, either. Although many critics decry Jamaican dub and dancehall as an oversimplified, overly electronic departure from the righteousness of reggae, others have argued that the roots of dub run even deeper than the roots of reggae. Ethnomusicologist Peter Manuel identifies in dub and dancehall the subtle pulse of long-preserved neo-African religious rhythms in Jamaica, such as pocomania and kumina. What can sound to untrained ears like repetitive bleeps evoke complex patterns for ears attuned to those rhythms' subtleties.

Subtlety seems to be what Font (under the name Io) is going for on Elegua Records' first release, Deep Surround. On some tracks the Caribbean presence seems to disappear altogether into an ambient survey of sound and silence, complete with water drops and echoing footsteps. At other moments, such as on the Jamaican homage "Minimum Dub," there is nothing but riddimstripped bare. As in much neo-African music, the bass line is suspended, forcing listeners to fill their own heads in anticipation of the missing beat. The suspended bass is then caught in the crossfire of a toy laser gun, a sly comment on the imagined perils of cyberspace for traditional sound. A wide swath of sound opens between a bass line so low you feel it before you hear it, and a Space Invaderslike treble that repeats a basic dancehall pattern. Then the bass cuts out altogether, leaving the dancehall pulse swinging all alone. The groove resounds in silence.

Perhaps because he has greater distance from the religious roots of dub, Io has more success in working subtlety and silence on the Jamaican track than on the explicitly Afro-Cuban effort called "Ewípamí." That tune opens with a crowing cock to herald the arrival of the deity. A vocal track pirated from shortwave radio in Sweden serves as a techno akpon -- a lead vocalist. The technologized voice is as unintelligible as the traditional Yoruba syllables for many of the Afro-Cuban faithful. The batá rhythms do not sound like samples, but have been taken over by the dulcet tones of the information society. The rhythm itself at times cedes to the technology. Just as it takes the patience of a lifetime to master the ocha, it will take more than a few experiments to marshal those rhythms into a new sonic space.

Font's current project may prove a prodigious apprenticeship. He has enlisted veteran vocalists Olympia Alfaro and Evelyn Smart. Currently a vocalist with the Miami-based folkloric ensemble Ifé-Ilé, Alfaro has the distinction of having sung at the first known orisha ceremony in the United States, in New York City in the late 1950s, with famed batalero Julio Collazo. Smart grew up listening to Alfaro in New York City before starting to perform Afro-Cuban folklore at age fifteen. Since then Smart has grooved and let loose with legends such as Sun Ra, Celia Cruz, Orlando Rios (el Puntilla), and Milton Cardona (who arranged the batá section on La India's CD).

Font hopes to harness the power and history of Alfaro and Smart's voices while "taking them out of context tonally." He explains that "rhythmically and tonally the batá are aggressive to most people's ears, whereas these women's voices are sublime no matter what they sing. To abstract their sound a little bit would be to force people to hear the music in a different way."

From the poster in the living room, the many arms of Kali stretch menacingly toward the production room as Font's hands slide across the knobs and dials of his Akai. Olympia Alfaro is at today's mixing session, and Font watches his guest nervously as he plays back a tower of sound. Swiping beats suggest the ocean, digitized bleeps evoke the orisha Yemaya, and Alfaro's own voice remains as distant and piercing as the cry of a seagull. The sting of her criticism is well-known. The waves of sound hit these ears that have been filled with the holiest of orisha rhythms for as long as they have sounded in the United States. Alfaro smiles.

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