"They say he went to Europe and when he got there -- incredible disillusion," begins the title track of Orishas' Emigrante, an intense mix of fierce grooves, melodic breaks, and highly expressive lyrics born of both rap's urban political consciousness and the running social commentary characteristic of Cuban son. On its powerful second album, the Paris-based group is still representing Cuba, but it has also put its revolutionary mix of hip-hop and Latin dance music in the service of global refugees.
"This record is a reflection on what we've been living in Europe," reports Yotuel, one of the three Orishas, talking on a temperamental cell phone from Paris. "Being an immigrant is a problem in Europe; you are really made to always feel like an immigrant, without rights as a human being. We're concerned that the political right is gaining power here, and we're against all fascist movements in Europe. We gave the album the name Emigrante as a way of speaking for all of the people who have no voice here."
Since leaving Cuba themselves, Yotuel, Roldán, and Ruzzo have evaded the despairing reality of those in their rhymes. A lo Cubano went gold in France, Spain, and Germany and sold 50,000 copies in the U.S. based on word of mouth and resoundingly positive reviews that recognized Orishas as the first Spanish-language group able to successfully translate hip-hop style into new Latin music for an international audience. After triumphing abroad, they returned to Cuba in December 2000 for two massive concerts. Last November Orishas went back to the studio in Paris with their original producer, Niko Noki, to record their anticipated follow-up.
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"We were nervous about embarking on this second adventure," Yotuel admits. "But once we got into the studio we decided to go with whatever flowed; to do something very spontaneous and fluid."
The result is less rootsy and more polished than their first album while still retaining an acoustic sound, featuring Cuban musicians on tres, trumpet, percussion, and piano, as well as a string quartet. Colombian salsero Yuri Buenaventura (another Paris resident) joins on "300 Kilos," a swinging toast to Cuban musical power that puts down "falsos Latinos" and lame attempts at Spanish rap.
More tracks focus on life in this mad world, in the form of personal stories or "conversations" with friends. "Desaparecidos" laments the dead -- victims of political regimes, police brutality, gang strife, and AIDS -- mourning "another mother without a son; a tree that never bore fruit." "Gladiadores" is an ode to Cuban balseros, and the more upbeat "Que Pasa" -- the CD's opener -- is a "pa' mi gente" shout-out to the Havana neighborhood of Vedado. Yotuel wrote the sweet "Niños" for his baby son.
On Emigrante, Orishas transmit a self-confidence deserved for the poetic strength of their lyrics and the subtle innovations made by their deftly mixed music. The presence of son montunos, clave rhythms, and melodic underpinnings will likely give Emigrante appeal for many pop and traditional Latin music fans. As Yotuel sees it, it's the best way to get the message through: "Music can be as effective as any conventional weapon."