The Ideal Nafta

Historically, hip-hop and Latin music have meshed about as well as the Aztecs and Corts. Hip-hop is NAFTA at its ideal, but in Latin America, the music (like the actual NAFTA) travels only from north to south: the hemisphere's rappers import the latest East/West Coast beats but curiously don't incorporate Latin music's influence. And so the results pelan—weak attempts at menace and bounce that no poseur, Latino or otherwise, would ever bump from his tricked-out Chevy. Even the best groups, like Mexico's Control Machete and Molotov and La Mala Rodrguez of Spain, shoehorn but a stray mariachi horn here or an accordion whine there into their otherwise stellar music.

Really only one group has ever reached Latin hip-hop's incandescent potential—and they're Cuban exiles living in France. Orishas—lead singer Rolando Rivero and cohorts Russo and Yotuel—have lorded over the Latin hip-hop movement since 1999, when their stirring debut, A lo Cubano (The Cuban Way), won them a fanatic following typically reserved for messiahs and firefighters.

Their renown has only grown during the past six years: not just because they continue to release innovative, sensuous/serious records but also because few American fans have seen them live. Problems with visas and logistics kept Orishas from visiting the U.S. until this Wednesday, when they make their first-ever Southern California appearance at Anaheim's JC Fandango.

Orishas' reputation rests on an invigorating alchemy of old and new Latin and North American sounds. The group tosses zippy turntable tricks and vibrating bass lines against congas, timbales, deep-voiced guitars, horns and pianos. But rather than merely sample those acoustic instruments, Orishas enlist masters of Cuba's rich and varied musical heritage as their backup band. This supporting cast seamlessly grafts hip-hop onto such complex Cuban genres as the stately rumba, the fast-paced guaguanc and the slow danzn, as well as frenetic beats from Santera, candombl and about a dozen other Caribbean religions. The tension between modern and ancient, electronica and acoustic, and Latino and American makes for music at its fullest.

While Russo and Yotuel rap like most other rappers—Russo is staccato and terse, Yotuel growls like a lawn mower—Rivero assumes the role of a sonero, the improvisational singer integral to Cuban song. Soneros are the original rappers, improvising based on whatever beats roll out of the accompanying musicians.

Orishas' last album, Emigrante, was a dark, grooving tale of nostalgia for Cuba, with jabs at the big boys of Latin American problems: social injustice, world poverty and—dare we say it?—Castro. But their latest release, El Kilo, is more positive. It accepts that Orishas' homeland is forever changed but doesn't allow this fact to taint their love for the island.

On the opening track, “Naci Orishas,” or “I Was Born Orisha,” a lazy trumpet strolls through the intro, then the three members shout out, “I was born Orishas/In the underground.” After this, the song slows to a slinky beat as the three trade off greetings to Havana's musicians. There are shout-outs to friends, a lot of Havana slang even this Mexican can't decipher and muchomusical gymnastics—for instance, hear how Rivero's voice tumbles out almost as fast as the traditional guitars that open “La Calle” (“The Street”), a tune that decries the plight of the world's homeless.

Orishas handle other heavy topics on El Kilo, like prostitution and race relations, but the guys know that the audiences are more receptive to a political lesson if it's danceable. And so you will see the ladies grooving, the activists whooping, the musicians marveling—and JC Fandango empty. No one likes Latin hip-hop, after all, but just give Orishas some mainstream love, and that world-view will surely change.


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