I think it’s fairly safe to say that, here at Agúzate, few album releases have been more anticipated than the debut from ÌFÉ, IIII+IIII. As a concept, the group seemed to come out of nowhere just a little over 15 months ago when the single and video dropped for 3 Mujeres (Iború Iboya Ibosheshé) and quickly attracted the attention of electronic dance music fans, especially followers of the global bass movement. The track was something of a digital rumba, a deeply spiritual groove that sounded like a ceremonial field recording from the future.
That song and video was followed a few months later by a second, House of Love (Ogbe Yekun). We’ve wanted more ever since. As it turns out, there is a deep connection between ÌFÉ and Chicago. The group is from Puerto Rico, and this publication’s roots were first watered there. We interviewed ÌFÉ leader Otura Mun about his spiritual and cultural journey that led to the group’s founding when we visited the island in May 2016 (read that here), then caught up with him again (read that here) just before the group made their U.S. debut at World Music Festival Chicago in September.
Some snippets of music surfaced here and there, including a third full song, UMBO (Come Down), but we were as surprised as anybody when we learned in early March that a full album would drop at the end of the month.
It was worth the wait. IIII+IIII is a minimalist masterpiece built on Afro-Cuban rumba, but thoroughly infused in a warm electronic bath. In a sense, it is nothing more than percussion and voice, like you would experience in a traditional rumba performance, but wired and sonically processed. Within that very tight framework, however, emerges a fairly expansive sound that integrates bits of R&B, Afropop, Jamaican dancehall and Nyabinghi ritual drumming, and even one certified 80s pop hit, Steve Winwood’s Higher Love. It sounds entirely authentic and lived in, the very opposite of the cultural anthropology that global bass movement often dabbles in. ÌFÉ isn’t borrowing sounds and styles. They are the thing itself.
Group leader Mun is a Babaláwo of the Yoruban Ifá religion. But he’s also a techno-savvy DJ and producer who happens to be an African-American who was born in Hammond, Indiana. Other members of the group include full time rumberos Beto Torrens, Rafael Maya and Anthony Sierra; powerful singer Kathy Cepeda and Latin Alternative musician Yarimir Cabán (MIMA). The entire album was recorded at Casa ÌFÉ, a house in Santurce that is also Mun’s residence. There are no outside producers and the album was released on the group’s own label, Discos Ifá. When they were in Chicago for the World Music Fest, they took time to stop by Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center to jam acoustically with local rumberos and bomberos, and then returned two days later to lead a percussion workshop.
By and large, the album simmers rather than boils. One notable exception is Bangah (Pico y Palo), Mun’s reflections on Ogun, the Yoruban orisha of war. The lyrics alternate comfortably between Spanish, English and Yoruban. Many of the tracks stretch out beyond the 6 minute mark, the better to let the groove take its time inviting you in to explore. They thoroughly mine the hints of Afro-Cuban rhythms that seasoned the aforementioned Higher Love, and the song’s spiritual underpinnings and positive message are brought to the fore.
That positivity may be the key to the spiritual uplift that this music provides, much the same way that Chance the Rapper’s gospel influences power his vision. In the specificity of its Yoruban cosmos, it delivers a universal and much needed message of humanity.
We still have a couple of “must-sees” on our list for World Music Festival Chicago. Still, we’ll be really surprised if we encounter a double bill as strong as the one that played Concord Music Hall on Saturday.
In a sense, the two acts couldn’t be more different. ÌFÉ is a brand new electronic music concept out of Puerto Rico that hasn’t even released their first album. Mulatu Astatke, by contrast, is known as the father of Ethio-jazz, which first flourished in the 1970s, and he is still composing, playing and recording compelling music to this day. Dig just below the surface, though, and you discover a trans-Atlantic range of sound that emerges from a mixture of Africa and the Americas, one that is showing no sign of becoming a historic relic.
The musicians of ÌFÉ come from various backgrounds ranging from dance music to rock, hip-hop and reggae, but they come together here united around a very traditional form: Cuban rumba. The distinct clave and rhythmic patterns form a foundation for a bold experiment in sound by being transformed electronically into something like a new tribal music, ancient and modern at the same time.
The group is led by Otura Mun and filled out by three additional percussionists (Anthony Sierra, Beto Torrens and Rafael Maya) and two singers (Katherine Cepeda and Yarimir Cabán A.K.A. Mima). Rather than play traditional drums, though, they employ a collection of electronic drum pads mixed with wired acoustic instruments on which they combine several variants of rumba patterns in both familiar and unexpected ways. The result is a sometimes bone-rattling, sometimes celestial experience infused with an intense groove.
It’s safe to say that the large crowd in attendance knew little about the band coming in because of the lack of recorded material, but each song was greeted rapturously. The group finished their performance by setting aside the electronics for a pure rumba session playing, as Mun remarked, the music they love and still gather to play every Tuesday night back home in Casa ÌFÉ Santurce, Puerto Rico.
There was a lengthy break between ÌFÉ’s departure and the start of Mulatu Astatke’s set, but that’s pretty understandable in light of the size and complexity of Astatke’s orchestra, which was made up of musicians from the U.S. and Europe. The leader’s main instrument is the vibraphone, but he also plays electric keyboards and percussion, all of which were arrayed in a semi circle in front of him. Add another keyboardist, two horn players, bassist, drummer and a second percussionist (Chicago’s own Juan Pastor, who leads the South American flavored jazz ensemble Chinchano) and you have a very powerful sound.
Astatke’s personal journey is instructive of the way music travels and cultures are exchanged. Born in the western Ethiopian city of Jimma, Mulatu was musically trained in London, New York City, and Boston where he combined his jazz and Latin music interests with traditional Ethiopian music. In his music, then, you have two streams of the African Diaspora flowing back to the continent from which they sprang to create something new.
There was a sizable Ethiopian contingent in the audience, gathering to enthusiastically welcome a hero, and they were especially excited when the band, on the third song of the night, reached back to the 70s for Yekermo Sew. This was no nostalgia fest, though. Astatke’s music has seen a revival in this millennium, and the man has used this opportunity to create anew, recording albums as both a leader and collaborator. The musicians for this show are working on yet another new album project. A case could easily be made for a headlining slot at the Chicago Jazz Festival (and someday they absolutely should), but tonight, hearing this amazing mix of jazz improvisation matched to Ethiopian scales and rhythms in the company of several hundred Ethiopians, Puerto Ricans and world music fans was blissfully intoxicating.
When I last spoke with Otura Mun, founder and director of the Puerto Rico-based future Afro-Caribeña group ÌFÉ, in early May, we discussed the group’s origins as well as Mun’s personal journey from being Mark Underwood, an African-American born just outside of Chicago, to Puerto Rico and finally Cuba, where he became a Babalawo in the Yoruba religion, a transformation that is inextricably intertwined with his learning of traditional Cuban rumba and further evolution of the electronic artistic concept that would become ÌFÉ. You can read that Agúzate interview here.
ÌFÉ is about to embark on their first European tour, but before they do so they are coming to Chicago to make several appearances connected to the Chicago World Music Festival, starting this Thursday at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center when Mun and other members of the group talk about their individual musical projects and how they were drawn to the concept of ÌFÉ. The evening will end in a jam session with ÌFÉ and musicians from Chicago’s Afro-Caribbean community.
Otura Mun and I spoke by phone earlier this week, so I asked him what was happening with the group, including when we might get to hear some new music beyond the spectacular one-two punch of 3 Mujeres (Iború Iboya Ibosheshé) and House of Love (Ogbe Yekun), both of which were released earlier this year.
“At this point I have enough material for an album,” says Mun. “We spent a lot of time in our home studio in Santurce, Puerto Rico laying down tracks. That’s how I write songs. We record all the drum patterns and electronic sounds, basically jamming to see what happens. Later on I comb through all of that to look for ideas for songs. I’ll take it apart, write lyrics, record the vocals and put it all back together.
“Sometimes I have a very specific idea about what I want to write about. Other times, the rhythms might suggest certain themes like freedom and what that means in the context of my Puerto Rican existence. The subject matter tends to be more spiritual and philosophical rather than political.”
A new single, UMBO, is coming out soon and there have been brief snippets posted on social media all summer, all of which makes this writer very eager to hear more.
“It was great to get invited to the World Music Fest for our U.S. debut. Many of the members of ÌFÉ have family and friends in Chicago. I myself was born in Hammond, Indiana, so it will be something like a homecoming to perform here at such an important festival.”
ÌFÉ will officially perform twice at the fest. Friday night finds them at Chop Shop paired with Chilean rocker Nano Stern, and Saturday will feature them alongside the great Ethiopian jazz legend Mulatu Astatke and DJ AfroQbano at Concord Music Hall.
It’s unusual for a band without a deep professional history, or at the very least a commercially available recording, to get booked at the prestigious fest, but Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events programmer David Chavez leads a double life as the forward-thinking DJ SoundCulture. He heard ÌFÉ’s music through the global bass community on SoundCloud, where the band gave both of their songs away as free downloads, and he realized their potential to create truly groundbreaking music.
I asked Mun about Thursday’s event at Segundo Ruiz Belvis. “All of the group members have journeys that led them to ÌFÉ. I was a DJ and producer of several groups in Puerto Rico. Other members come from more traditional musical backgrounds, but all of us unite here around Cuban rumba, which I fell in love with back when I first moved to San Juan in 1999. So, we’ll talk about that a bit, play a bit acoustically, maybe listen to a track or two as samples of our work as a demo of how ÌFÉ’s sound relates to tradition. We’ll finish with an open jam session where people from Chicago’s great rumba and bomba scenes can join us. It’ll be a lot of fun.”
ÌFÉ returns to Segundo Ruiz Belvis Saturday morning for a percussion workshop (that’s right, you, too, can get lessons from these terrific musicians) in preparation for a musical ‘Polyrhythmic Procession’ taking place the following Sunday, September 18th at The 606 and the Humboldt Park Boathouse.
While ÌFÉ will not be part of the procession on 9/18 as they continue their North America and Europe tours, local acts like Los Hermanos del Tambor and The Four Star Brass Band will lead the early festivities, culminating in more CWMF international acts, including Herencia de Timbiquí, Rocky Dawuni, and Rajab Suleiman & Kithara.
I finally ask Otura Mun about the European tour. “We’re starting small, just four major cities: Paris, London, Madrid and Barcelona. But they are important cities in a cultural sense, so we’ll build from there.”
Now, if they would just release that album, all will be well in the world.
All events are free.
Unidos por el Tambor: ÌFÉ Residency in Chicago: Thursday 9/8 at 7:30PM. Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4048 W. Armitage Ave, Chicago. Info here.
ÌFÉwith Nano Stern: Friday 9/9 at 10PM (9PM doors). Chop Shop, 2033 W. North Ave, Chicago. Info here.
Polyrhythmic Procession Workshop: Saturday 9/10 at 11AM. Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. Info here.
ÌFÉwith Mulatu Astatke and DJ AfroQbano: Saturday 9/10 at 10PM (9PM doors). Concord Music Hall, 2047 N. Milwaukee Ave. Info here.
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.
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.