Rap Exchange

Asked how he feels about his first trip to the United States, 24-year-old Yotuel of the Paris-based Cuban hip-hop group Orishas says it will be like tasting forbidden fruit. "We were raised to think of the U.S. as el enemigo (the enemy)," he explains. " We were told, “The U.S. has made a war against us. They have made the blockade to starve us.' It's as if all your life everyone told you: “Don't go there.' You know you have to go there and see for yourself."

Laughing nervously, the rapper points out that for him, as for many Cubans, that enemy is intimate. "When I was four, my father went to Miami on Mariel and left my mother to raise me alone. Now I'm going to see that country for myself, and I'm going to see my father for the first time in twenty years." Orishas' debut album, Cuban Style (A lo Cubano), cleaves hip-hop to the clave of the classic son, in a musical tribute to their motherland that appropriates the rap of the father's land of refuge.

The song "Madre" tells the story of Yotuel's mother and the sacrifices she made to raise him. The track opens in Cuba with a trumpet solo reminiscent of bolero, but quickly flows into the Yuma groove with the U.S.-born bass beat of hip-hop. Yotuel and bandmate Ruzzo helped bring the bass to Cuba when they formed the first hip-hop outfit there in 1994. Signaling the threat of their message to Cuban society, that early group chose the name Amenaza (Menace). Describing the group as "muy underground," Yotuel says, "We were censored and didn't get radio play because our songs dealt with controversial issues, such as life on the street and race." The street made Amenaza a huge success, as word of mouth brought crowds to the outdoor concerts the group held in the Havana neighborhood of El Vedado.

In 1997 Ruzzo and Yotuel went to Paris as part of an intercultural exchange. There they met Cuban MC Livan and sonero Roldan, who was playing with a traditional Cuban septet in a French restaurant. Under the direction of Niko, one of France's best-known hip-hop producers, Orishas was born. The Francophone influence is evident in the laid-back vocal phrasing that weaves around the bass made famous by the Senegalese-born MC Solaar. Europeans have appreciated the sound, turning A lo Cubano into gold in Spain and France. Yotuel emphasizes: "Our music comes from a lot of places, but we were born in Paris."

The band's name reaches to the birth of Afro-Cuban culture in Santería, the Yoruban religion of orisha worship. The rappers honor that legacy by shouting out to the Yoruban gods. Orishas draws from an intimate knowledge of sacred Afro-Cuban drumming on the the album's first track, "Intro." The "mother" and "baby" batá (sacred drums that have skins on both ends) talk to each other, creating a liturgical name check. On "El Canto para Ellewa y Chango" ("Song for Ellewa and Chango"), the rhythms of rumba and guaguancó rise and fall much like the sounds of a conversation on the street. "At the beginning of “Canto,' what you hear is a babalao blessing us and the album and the work we have done," explains Yotuel. "The religion in Cuba is not just a religion; it's a way of life, a daily thing. At a party someone opens a bottle of rum and pours the first drops on the floor. This looks like a simple custom, but for us it has deep religious meaning."

Coming to rap just after the economic hardship and political disillusionment of the post-Soviet "special period," Orishas eschews the contemporary salsa popular during that time and look further back. The French-speaking Cubans view salsa as a played-out appropriation of the son that now is associated more with the United States than with Cuba. In songs such as "A lo Cubano," "Barrio" ("Neighborhood"), and "Orishas Llegó" ("Orishas Has Arrived"), the tres (a classical nine-string guitar), the flute, and the sonero (a singer who "calls out" to the chorus) recall classic son instrumentation while gritty scratching, turntables, and digital mixers create a counterpoint with contemporary global sounds.

"Our influences are Compay Segundo, Pacho Alonso, Santiaguera," says Yotuel. "Our sound is 100 percent new but always shows respect to our heritage." A soft exile in the French capital brought the rappers to fertile ground for a cross-fertilization of rap and classic son so organic it can't be called fusion. "This is not rap reborn or fusion," argues Yotuel. "It is something new."

Although Yotuel recognizes the similarity between Orishas and U.S. rappers, he is quick to distinguish the group from its Northern brothers. "Like American rap artists, we too come from a marginalized world," he observes. "There are ghettos in Havana. There's violence. We have incorporated “el flow' into our sound, but where we differ is our lyrics. We are not capable of calling women whores and bitches. American rap incites violence because the lyrics are violent. We're not about that. We talk about violence -- the violence we have lived through -- but some of these groups like Public Enemy discriminate and put down their own race. We would never use the word nigger. When a rapper gets up onstage they're like a professor; they are delivering a message and that's a responsibility. We are lucky. We have been able to sing about what we want to."

Unlike the bling-bling-obsessed U.S. rappers throwing rhymes for dollars, Orishas shows a fine-tuned awareness of the evils of capitalism and its pesky sidekick, consumerism. Yotuel points to the career of Nas as an example of the pressure to sell-out in the United States. "His first album was beautiful," observes the rapper. "The lyrics were incredible, but it didn't sell at all. Then his next album was full of “fuck this' and “fuck that,' and it sold millions. American rappers make drugs, alcohol, and material items glamorous."

Yotuel refers to the Latin Grammy Awards as an example of U.S. dominance over Latin-American artists. "At the Latin Grammys, he recalls, "I was shocked to see everyone speaking English, except for Antonio Banderas's wife, Melanie Griffith." The Orishas see beyond the United States. "We hope we are contributing something new to this hip-hop scene," Yotuel admits, "but we are committed to doing it in Spanish. There are billions of Latin Americans out there who need to hear our sound and our message in Spanish."

That message does seem to be getting back home to Cuba. "Two months ago we were number one in Cuba with the song that we thought would be the most controversial, “537,' says Yotuel, relaying a report on radio play he heard from his mother. Referring to the international dialing code for Cuba, "537 C.U.B.A." is a new version of "Chan Chan," a classic son tune that has become the unofficial national anthem played by septetos in every little tourist trap on the island. In the hip-hop remake, Orishas makes a long-distance call from exilio to its barrio, riding on the rhythms of rap to come back home.

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Mia Leonin