ÌFÉ: A spiritual fusing of traditional and modern sounds

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By Don Macica –

In late 2015, a YouTube video appeared and immediately started shooting around the internet via Remezcla, LargeUp and other ear-to-the ground sites that track Latin and Caribbean music and culture.  3 Mujeres (Iború Iboya Ibosheshé) by ÌFÉ was both straightforward and a bit mysterious at the same time. I didn’t quite know what to make of it, but I loved it. Luckily, there was a free download from SoundCloud too, so I immediately put it into my iPod rotation.

3 Mujeres is a rumba workout, except it’s not, exactly. Almost all of the sounds come from electronic instruments, played by hand by expert percussionists. The production is ultra-modern, yet the vocals have a very traditional feel, mixing Spanish and Yoruba languages. The video explains things a bit via a lengthy prelude in which we are introduced to each member of the group before the song proper even begins. The whole thing is a live-as-it-happens take recorded at the studio and home of project leader Otura Mun in Santurce, Puerto Rico.

That introductory tease was followed up this spring with another video and SoundCloud track, House of Love (Ogbe Yekun). It’s much less traditional sounding, yet still deeply rooted. With its shifting and seductive rhythmic bed and floating vocals, it is practically an R&B slow jam, something like Sade at her most minimalist. It’s gorgeous, and the accompanying video is mysteriously seductive as well, beautiful black and white imagery that follows Otura Mun through a space that is equal parts spiritual and sensual, blurring the distinctions between them.

As it turns out, before Otura Mun put together ÌFÉ, he was musician, DJ and producer Mark Underwood, sometimes known by his identity as DJ Nature. Before that, though, Underwood was an African American raised in Indiana and living in Texas. His move to Puerto Rico in 1999 was, as they say in what has become an overused term, transformative. In the case of Otura Mun, however, it is completely apropos. It was there he discovered rumba as well as the spirit world at its foundation, the practice of Ifá, the African Yoruba religion in the western hemisphere.

I was heading down to Puerto Rico last week for some cultural exploration (OK, I was on vacation), so I e-mailed Otura / Mark in advance with a few questions. We met at Mareabaja, a small restaurant and bar in Isla Verde, where he was playing traditional rumba sets with friends. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

My first question was “Should I call you Mark or Otura?”

OM: Otura Mun is better. It’s my name in Ifá.  All Babaláwos (ed. note: a Babaláwo is a priest of the Yoruban Ifá religion. Mun became a Babaláwo in April 2015 in a ceremony in Havana, Cuba.) receive a letter or sign in Ifá from the 256 possible Odu Ifá that defines them and becomes their name moving forward. Mine is Otura Mun.

DM: Did your understanding of the roots of rumba and batá lead to your interest in Yoruba spirituality, or was it the other way around?

OM: I’ve been interested in both since the very first time I saw a rumba in San Juan and heard my first Orisha songs, all on the same night played by the same group, Grupo Carabalí. But I also sensed an implied level of devotion and dedication that both the music and the spiritual practice seemed to require or demand. When I finally reached a place where I felt like I was ready to embrace the music, rumba specifically, I was also at a point where I felt that I wanted to find a way to explore the “invisible world” and my spiritual self.  I chose Ifá and La Regla de Ocha as my way to access that world. So yeah, I guess you could say they happened simultaneously.

DM: I’ve read that you moved to Puerto Rico on a whim, but that doesn’t seem quite complete to me.  Were you seeking anything other than island style fun and an opportunity to work as a DJ? Was there a culture, attitude or scene that attracted you that didn’t exist in the U.S.?

OM: It was definitely a big change culturally for me. I’m African American and I didn’t speak Spanish when I moved in ‘99. Old San Juan put me in the mix with Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Haitians, Colombians, Argentinians, Venezuelans….  San Juan in the late 90’s was a vibrant place. The island’s music and art scenes were centered in that small beautifully built Spanish colonial city. Music seemed to be a huge part of the cultural expression of everyday people and there seemed to be a sort of unquenchable thirst for it. Learning the language presented a welcome challenge and helped me, I think, to re-envision the world I had been living in from the bottom up. [I was] literally constructing a world vision with these new words and sentiments as the building blocks. I have a Spanish language personality now that doesn’t really read like my English self.  I saw the people in Puerto Rico as culturally different from myself and the folks I knew both in Texas and Indiana and their attitudes and expressions of that culture were attractive.  There seemed to be a conscious sense of Africaness in the music, a strong sense of the importance of family and brotherhood or sisterhood in general, and a love for life, for the moment, youthfulness. Puerto Rico in 1999 called to me in a clear enough way that I picked up and moved from zero, no family, no points of reference and not much of a plan. I saw the move as an opportunity for self-improvement, an opportunity to build a cultural bridge that I could use later, and I think in that sense I’ve been quite successful.

DM: Were there Latin sounds and beats in your DJ sets before you moved to Puerto Rico? Could you differentiate between the Afro-Latin sounds and rhythms of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Colombia, Dominican Republic etc.?

OM: Before moving to PR I wasn’t so in touch with Latin music. I listened to primarily Hip Hop, Dancehall Reggae and Jazz. I studied a semester or two of Brazilian samba and batucada at the University of North Texas and had heard a little bit of salsa and rumba through friends. I really heard, saw and experienced Latin music for the first time on a 2 week trip to San Juan in 1997. There I saw rumba, salsa, bomba, plena, flamenco, charanga live for the first time. I heard merengue, bachata, reggaeton.  When I moved to PR in ‘99 I didn’t know the difference between merengue and salsa.

DM: Why, as you were in Puerto Rico, were you inspired by rumba and batá instead of bomba and plena?

OM: I’m just more into rumba as a genre. I’ve fallen in love with rumba. It consumes me. I respect and appreciate bomba, but I’m much more drawn to the musical conversations I hear between the drums, singers and dancers in rumba personally.  The genres are just so different. I try not to compare them. Yes I heard rumba first in Puerto Rico, and yes I learned to play it in Puerto Rico, but I’m a student of the music and admirer of the Cuban musicians who created and built this beautiful form we rumberos live to play.

DM: Is it accurate to say that ÌFÉ is electro-rumba?

OM: I would never say that what ÌFÉ is doing is rumba. We’re drawing heavily from that established musical dialogue. We’re using the rumba clave, the drummers are playing parts similar to the language of the 3 main drums, but the singing, the song structure, the intent, cadence are all quite different. We’re breaking too many rules to call it rumba since a large part of what makes that genre work so well is that all the players are respecting the basic rules of the conversation. ÌFÉ draws heavily from there, but what we are doing is something different.

DM: There is a fairly established nu-cumbia movement that’s swept Latin America and the Global Bass community in the U.S., especially from a DJ standpoint but also live bands. Were you listening to any of that when you started to consider what to do as an artist/bandleader rather than a producer or DJ?

OM: No I wasn’t. I really just listen to rumba, Orisha music and Jamaican Dancehall. If anything else sneaks in there it’s probably Coltrane or Art Blakey, something very straight bebop. I try not to look outward as much as possible when creating. Lately my inspiration comes from a more visual place or from reading.  I don’t listen to music at the house as a general rule. I wasn’t trying to make something that was going to fall into an established movement or community at all. It was really just about making something that was powerful to me first, with the hopes that some folks could feel the message and sentiments in the music. It’s been sort of cool seeing where ÌFÉ has gotten played and who has really responded to it. There’s definitely a Latin American Bass music community that I’m just now discovering that have supported the songs. They’re doing great things. It’s refreshing to see what else is going on in music right now. And I have discovered artists via shows that have played ÌFÉ’s music that I have quite liked.

DM: The two songs that are out so far are almost entirely constructed of processed percussion and vocals, very minimal, close to a very traditional rumba ensemble.  Is that the foundation from which you’ll be building, or is that the sound itself?

OM: I would feel confined if I were to say that that’s the definitive sound itself but it’s certainly a place I like to be. The minimalism is intentional.  I like the restrictions that are implied there. Set board sounds, clave, percussion as basses, no keyboards, vocal and chorus heavy, one solo acoustic instrument. There are boundaries there, but the beauty is in how you navigate them.

DM: Are the musicians and singers in the 3 Mujeres video the working band? Could we expect to see them live in concert? After all, you go through a lot of trouble to introduce them one by one.

OM: For the most part yes. One of our members, Jhan Lee Aponte, moved to LA a few months back so I convinced Anthony Sierra, a great young rumbero who I had just met in San Francisco to move from the Bay to Puerto Rico to play with the group. He’s an incredible player and we’ve had a lot of fun exploring the island while working on new material for our upcoming EP. So yes, what you see in 3 Mujeres and House of Love is the crew. We may travel a little lighter on chorus singers outside of PR but yes. This is the group. Blessed to be working with such talented folks, all leaders of their own projects who have come together to be part of this group. I’m a lucky man.
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Word has it that Chicago might get to see and hear ÌFÉ live later this year, and Otura Mun assures me that they are recording songs for a debut EP this summer. So there’s a lot to look forward to.

This evening in Isla Verde, however, there’s a final set of rumba to be played. I recognize people from the 3 Mujeres video in both the ensemble and the audience. I’m awestruck by the sheer complexity of the interlocking drums. The Orishas are invoked. Women are dancing at the bar. It’s a sweaty, sexy and, yes spiritual experience. The mojitos are strong and the garlic shrimp arepas are delicious. It’s heaven.

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