Orishas - A Lo Cubano

Orishas is the brainchild of one of France's best known hip hop producer Niko and one Cuban MC who amongst other things worked on the Sergeant Garcia album. Long time fans of the traditional music of Cuba, the duo hit upon the idea of forging a marriage between the two worlds. Rather than rely on samples however they decided that the only way to approach the project was to keep it real and get a flavor of the real Cuba.

A strong feature of France's nightlife, the Cuban clubs could have been their first port of call. Or maybe they could have contacted the hugely popular Latin radio station Latina Radio. Instead Niko and Livan opted to check out a traditional Parisian brasserie called La Coupole. The reason was simple. This is where the Latin population of the French capital city congregate to enjoy the traditional music, and it was here that the duo met up with Roldan, who was performing with one of Cuba's classic traditional bands.

The final part in the Orishas jigsaw fell into place with the arrival of Cuba's premiere hip hop outfit Amenaza in Paris. As the first people to create homegrown hip hop Amenaza were already legends in their home country. When in Paris however, the band's rappers Ruzzo and Yotuel agreed to record some demos with Niko, Livan and Roldan. It was the first time the collective had worked together but they instantly felt a bond between them. Orishas was thus born, with producer Niko, who let himself being led by Roldan the traditional voice of Cuba, and the contemporary side of urban Cuba courtesy of Ruzzo and Yotuel.

The name Orishas comes from the Cuban religion Santeria, which was introduced into the Cuban culture by Nigerian slaves. Orishas is the term given to the half-Gods of Santeria, as such it acts as a code between all Cubans in the world. In the religion everyone is given their own Orisha according to their characteristics. Within the band Ruzzo and Livan are sons of Elewa, the God that opens or closes roads in life. Roldan and Yotuel are sons of Chango, the God of war. Surprisingly for a band who deliver songs which positively drip sensuality, none of Orishas can claim to be the son of Ochun, the God of River and Beauty.

One listen to the glorious combination of the seductive hip swaying grooves of Cuba's street music and downlow hip hop on the crew's debut album 'A Lo Cubano' ('In the Cuban Way') confirms Orishas to be worthy of their chosen name. They are indeed Gods of what they call 'Rap Cubano'.

Its with 'Intro' and 'Canto Para Elewa y Chango' that the Santeria religion comes to the fore. The former combines traditional Cuban percussion with the voice of a Santeria priest (a Babalawo) presenting a ceremony in the Nigerian language of Yoruba. 'Canto Para Elewa y Chango' on the other hand is a slice of prime b-boy funk where Bootsy bass lines combine with rolling pianos, ebbing percussion and samba's carnival horns in a joyous celebration of the band's two Gods; Elewa and Chango.

The real skill in A Lo Cubano comes in the way that Orishas have combined the disparate sounds of the separate cultures to create something which sound perfectly natural. On cuts like 'Represent' and '' they bring the full artillery of Cuban musicianship to the hip hop hoedown, while also delivering their own personal manifestos. 'Represent' offers the bands' own history, talking of the tough lives the Cuban trio lived while growing up in the tough Havana neighborhood of Cayo Hueso and their eventual escape into the Orishas project. '' on the other hand explains the true aims of Orishas; to present their perception of Cuban music of the moment rather than simply recreate the past. Their use of classical styles is merely a tool for delivering their own spin. Cuba itself is very traditional, however Orishas have been very well received in their home country, not least because they show respect for the traditional musical style rather than simply take samples or create US style hip hop with Cuban vocals.

Perhaps the most obvious example of the old world and new world coming together can be heard on 537 C.U.B.A. where the traditional song Chan Chan is completely overhauled. The original was performed by an old countryside musician called Compay Segundo, who appeared in the Buena Vista Social Club movie playing a four string guitar called a quatro. The original song, created in the 'Son' style is the chosen street anthem of the people. Quite literally every Cuban knows this song. The Orishas version turns 'Chan Chan' into a ghetto anthem for Cubans worldwide, talking as it does of the expatriate experience. Both Roldan and Ruzzo now live in Paris while Yotuel chooses to stay in Madrid. The title itself comes from the international dialling code for Cuba - 537.

Communicating with Cubans all over the world is a central theme to A Lo Cubano. On 'Connexion' they talk about this spiritual bond, while elsewhere they talk of common experiences and concerns. For example 'Atencion' discusses life on the streets of Cuba where youngsters are forced into finding creative solutions to their poverty, while Atrevido (someone who does things without concern for risks or possible effects) talks of Cuba's growing industry in sex tourism.

The Cuban experience isn't all about a hard street life however, there's also the all important romantic side to the country. On the title track Orishas celebrate the atmosphere, the cigars and the girls. "We are dancing on the beach", they sing in a joyous celebration of all the good things that make Cuba what it is.

The irresistible music of Cuba's streets recently gained huge acclaim thanks to the Buena Vista Social Club. The languid samba beats and celebratory melodies seemingly speaking of unparalleled joie de vivre and a never ending party - a fact not lost on the carnival seeking tourists who flock towards Cuba in ever growing numbers. Look a little deeper however and you find lyrics which speak of pride in the face of eternal struggle.

Similarly French hip hop works on two levels. The French sound, as typified by laid back funky beats, jazzy interludes and subtle influences drawn from the musics of the huge African population, was a major influence of the nascent Wu Tang Clan. Indeed, following The Clan's success producer RZA has joined the many world renowned hip hop leaders (Chuck D, Ice T etc) in celebrating the ground breaking skills of France's premier producers. Like the music of Cuba however, French hip hop may sound like a soundtrack to the best party in town, but it also speaks of oppression and despair in the face of one of Europe's most fiercely segregated cultures.

And that's Orishas. Bridging the gap between two distinctly different sounds from entirely different locations, each tied into a shared history of offering voices from the urban jungle. A Lo Cubano is the sound of two worlds melting.

"In what we are saying and doing," concludes Ruzzo, "We are showing what we are. We are victims of our own originality and good taste.".

Orishas - hip hop in a Cuban way. Cigars optional.

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