Based in Spain and France, Orishas is an Afro-Cuban hip-hop group that represents a new generation of Cuban music. The lyrics on their first CD, “A lo cubano,” rapped in Spanish and French, are a celebration of life, with a good dose of reality.
“We have destroyed a lot of preconceived ideas of what Latin music is supposed to sound like,” says MC Yotuel “Guerrero” Manranares. “We’ve combined hip-hop with the most sublime, authentic elements of Cuban son, timba and funk.” Their live performances find people dancing, Cuban style, alongside others just moving their heads hip-hop fashion.
“We’re basically focused on social issues, which almost always have a political relationship,” explains Roldan, who brings traditional son influences to the group. “In 14 songs, we tried to cover as much social ground as possible. In a track like ‘Atrevido,’ it talks about the sexual tourists where tourists come into Cuba, Cuban men lend out their girlfriends or wives and rob the tourists silly.
“‘A lo cubano’ talks about the way we party, our own way of making a fiesta. ‘Barrio’ talks about a poor kid who walks out of the house in the morning in search of food or money, comes home at 3 a.m., drunk and with no money.
“‘Mistica’ talks about the mystical quality of the Cuban woman. ‘Madre’ talks about a single mother and how hard it is for her to raise a child in Cuba and keep him away from negative elements. There’s a lot.”
There is also an African influence, in the Santeria drumming on songs like “Canto para Elewa y Chango.” The band remains proud of their African roots.
“The connection is Africa,” Yotuel explains, “It goes all the way back to the slaves. Rap comes directly from the music of the slaves. So does son and conga. It was obligatory that once young kids in Cuba heard Run-DMC, Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, we would need to investigate it our own way.
“Rap is like a school where your fans listen to the stories you have to tell. That’s why I don’t like gangsta rap. If that’s what rap is all about, then I’m not a rapper. I make a different kind of music.”
About some of the rap coming from the United States, “I don’t understand,” he says. “They talk about inciting violence, killing your friends, treating women like whores. It’s bizarre. In America, there’s rappers shooting one another, while some white guys are wearing Malcolm X caps.”
“Basically, we wrote this album for Cuba,” Yotuel points out. “It’s based on each of our realities that we grew up with. But we don’t have songs that are too profoundly critical. We don’t want to destroy. We want to make constructive criticisms.”
Internationally, Orishas’ CD sells well, but getting it in Cuba is difficult. Yotuel explained why there’s a resistance to their music: “Not because it was about politics, even though we did tell truths about social issues, about hunger, about things that affected the youth. But we were doing hip-hop and that was the music of the enemy. We had a hard time even because of the way we dressed-baggy pants, backwards baseball caps.”
However, by 1999, Cuban Minister of Culture Abel Prieto acknowledged hip-hop as part of Cuban culture. No doubt their global success led to Orishas being given due notice with an award at this year’s Cuba disco festival in the pop-fusion category. And their music is heard in Cuban streets where youth gather. You, too, can listen and judge for yourself
An Orishas streaming video extract can also be seen on-line: www.mcm.net/live/orishas. -P.M.
From Socialist Action (Canada), Fall 2001.