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Why you should listen to ‘Nací Orishas’

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Bristolatino joint editor-in-chief Rosanna West gives us Orishas, a musical trio that changed the face of Cuban hip hop.

Two-time Grammy award winning Orishas, a trio of Paris-based Cubans, have dominated the Cuban hip hop scene since their 1999 debut. Their reputation rests on their creation of a truly new and exciting sound, which combines both old and new Latin American rhythms. The group have proven themselves to be masters of Cuba’s legendary musical heritage, but their originality lies in their ability to effortlessly fuse popular hip hop with complex and unusual genres such as the stately rumba, classical Spanish guitar and the frenetic rhythms of the Caribbean.

The group were first signed in France under the name Amenaza (“threat” in Spanish), where the then four members were living as part of an international studies programme. Following the failure of this deal, they reformed under the name Orishas, which refers to a set of Gods worshipped in certain African-based religions in the Americas, a name chosen to connect the band with the African diaspora. They were re-signed in Paris, and quickly gained popularity with younger generations in parts of Europe and Latin America – which, of course, included their homeland, Cuba. Although influenced by the US hip hop movement, the group’s incorporation of traditional Cuban music rendered their debut album A Lo Cubano both cutting edge and ground-breaking, and gave them a certain level of popularity amongst older generations. This being a first, they earned the reputation of being “the music of the future of Cuba”.

Instead of insulting their contemporaries, the trio decided to turn their attention to issues such as social injustice, world poverty and even the polemical nature of their nation’s President Fidel Castro (who in fact threw them a party, which was incidentally the first time the Cuban government had shown its support for hip hop music). Their second album, Emigrante, was a harrowing nostalgia trip for Cubans, but their third, released in 2005, El Kilo, had a more positive tone, both musically and politically, as it suggested that despite Cuba’s being forever changed, they would not allow its problems to taint their love for the island. The opening track, Nací Orishas, begins with an atmospheric, lazy trumpet, and is followed by all three members chanting the chorus, which contains the song’s title, meaning ‘I was born Orishas’. The track slows to a smooth, sensuous beat, and in come the raspy, dream-like vocals of Roldán González, who assumes the role of sonero, the improvisational lead singer who is integral to Latin music, and who gives the group its urban soul feel. Rappers Ruzzo Medina and Yotuel Romero lend their lyrical weight with their respective distinctive styles, Medina being staccato and terse, and Romero almost growling his verses.

The song Nací Orishas is a perfect example of their signature invigorating blend of old and new Latin music, as rap and a vibrating baseline are supported by the familiar sounds of a leaping piano and a Havana-style trumpet. Despite Orishas’ handling of heavy topics such as prostitution and race relations, the group were aware that audiences would be more receptive to political messages if they could be danced to. This exceptional trio have therefore managed to use their love and passion for Cuban culture to bring joy out of the dark situations they write about, and so with their music, Cubans can rejoice, and the rest of the world can dance along with them.