Black Magic Musicians

Before the grillz-and-bills lyrics of modern hip-hop, there were the socially relevant teachings of Public Enemy. Before the abrasive thumping of reggaeton, there were the rich vocals of Benny Moré. But Orishas' genre-splicing music follows no predecessors; the Cuban trio is unique in its endeavors. Roldán González, Hiram "Ruzzo" Riveri, and Yotuel Romero have created their own fusion, melding traditional Cuban son and rumba with rap lyrics and rhythms. Orishas' latest release, El Kilo, features African percussion, Spanish guitar, gritty urban turntable scratches, and booming bass lines. But despite the eclecticism of their music, there is no doubt Orishas are firmly rooted in their Cuban origins. The bandmates often reference the Santería gods from which their name is derived. Although Orishas' homeland directly influences the group's distinct sound, the members did not meet or find success until they were thousands of miles away from their muse.

Producer Niko Noki introduced the members of the then quartet (Liván Núñez Alemán, a.k.a. Flaco-Pro, left the group after the first album) in Paris in 1999. After the release of their debut album, A Lo Cubano, Orishas flexed their versatile appeal by playing a plethora of concerts with a variety of artists from Cypress Hill to Iggy Pop. Their experience as foreigners shaped their sophomore release, Emigrante, a telling album that won a Latin Grammy. The remaining three members now live scattered throughout Europe; González resides in Paris, Romero in Madrid, and Riveri in Milan. Although oceans apart, Orishas' artistic and spiritual connection to Cuba is ever present, while their political stance is decidedly ambiguous.

"We don't want to be used politically by anybody. I want people to see us for our music rather than our political views," Romero reveals. "In Cuba we couldn't do the music we wanted to do, and that is why we had to look for new horizons — in particular France. I don't want anybody labeling us as a political group. And we don't want to touch the topic of Castro for better or for worse."

The government of Cuba has been particularly supportive of Orishas' efforts, especially for a group that adamantly distances itself from its motherland. The Ministry of Culture built a studio for rappers in an attempt to realize Orishas' wish of seeing the once-shunned hip-hop music flourish in Cuba. Despite their unwavering champion, Orishas' maintain a political silence that has not weakened their influence in the country they left behind:

"Thanks to our music, the music in Cuba has turned 180 degrees. Now in Cuba you can hear reggaeton and rap music. Rap has entered Cuba like a revolution, and we can say humbly that we had something to do with it," says Romero.

Orishas' social stances are not so vague. Many tracks recall the realities and hardships of life in Cuba via references to the struggles faced under intense scrutiny, poverty, and deceitful acquaintances. Riveri and Romero's heady rap rhymes roil into a furious crest while González's balladlike vocals are the sweeping undertow that balances out the wave of melded sounds. The trio always remains true to the integrity of its words with songs that exude confidence and acknowledge its originality. Unlike the overtly crass lyrics often associated with rap, Orishas do not promote violence, belittle women, or glamorize wealth.

"Hip-hop has distanced itself from such artists as Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy. If you listen to their lyrics, and compare them with today's acts, it's more belligerent. It seems like there is some kind of anger in the new rap artists. I believe that rap should be revolutionary and a unifying force. Instead it's about who has the most gold, the most bling," says Romero.

Perhaps the threesome's positive influence will spread with its numerous individual collaborations. Aside from acting gigs, Romero helped produce and raps on albums for Miami-based artist Descemer Bueno and actress/singer Beatriz Luengos. A solo full-length is in the works for González, but Orishas fans can still expect a new album in 2007. Orishas' current release, El Kilo, is yet another tribute to the group's heritage. The album's title refers to a slang term for a cent in Cuba. Romero reveals the true meaning behind it:

"What we're trying to say with El Kilo is that you may not have a dollar, you may not be a millionaire, but at the very least you will have un kilo. You could have any album you want — a U2 album or a Michael Jackson album — but in every home, we would hope that there is at least El Kilo from Orishas."

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