A Cuban band purveying hip hop and rap to rock audiences? It doesn't sound auspicious - so the opening track of Emigrante, the new CD from Orishas, comes as a big surprise. The spare percussion knocks out a hard dry beat, while the rapid Spanish rap gives way to a vocal solo of quintessentially Cuban grace. The distant violins that usher in track two provide the foundation for a laid-back, lilting groove, which could have been caught in some dusty barrio 50 years ago, and the singing is imbued with languid sweetness.
We were given a clue to the intentions of Orishas when they launched their debut album, A lo Cubano, three years ago. After pointing out that rap came directly from the music of the slaves - as did son and conga - the Orishas rapper Yotuel explains that once young kids in Cuba had heard groups such as Run-DMC, Public Enemy, and Wu-Tang Clan, they would "need to investigate it their own way". "Rap is like a school where your fans listen to the stories you have to tell," he says. "And 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." He quite simply didn't understand the rap that was coming from the United States. "They talk about inciting violence, killing your friends, treating women like whores. It's bizarre. In America, there's rappers shooting one another."
So this album was written for Cuba. "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." And those criticisms worked a treat: the album went gold in France, Spain and Germany, and even though American radio stations virtually ignored it, it sold 50,000 copies in the States. The band began to get a following as a live act, playing at jazz festivals and sharing the stage with people such as Iggy Pop and Cypress Hill, not to mention Cachaito and the percussionist Anga Diaz, who had been drafted in from Buena Vista Social Club to help record their CD. Eventually Orishas made a triumphant return to Cuba, where they galvanised a new generation of fans. After the success of Buena Vista Social Club, it was a novelty for young Cubans to discover that they had some stars who weren't old-age pensioners. It was also a novelty to find their country's music celebrated by a group who didn't fit cosily into that category described by Boyd Tonkin in these pages recently as Heritage Communism (as Buena Vista clearly did).
One of the Orishas lives in Paris, one in Madrid, and one in Milan, but all hailed from Havana, where their singer, Roldan, studied classical guitar, and where the others came, as their manager puts it, "from the street", before graduating to Orishas via a Cuban band called Amenaca ("Menace"), who had been the first to introduce hip hop to their native land. While the first album addressed local Cuban concerns, this new one looks to the outside world, both in its incorporation of other styles and in its subject matter. …