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Inside ÌFÉ's Reinvention Of Afro-Cuban Rhythms

Jul 12, 2017
Originally published on July 12, 2017 7:30 am

Note: This piece is better heard than read. To hear this review and the specific musical moments it references, listen at the audio link.

The music of ÌFÉ is Otura Mun's vision come to life: a mashup of hip-hop with Afro-Cuban rhythms and Santería chants. Born Mark Underwood in Goshen, Ind., Mun first travelled to Puerto Rico in the late '90s and now calls the island home.

Mun started the band ÌFÉ in 2015, and its debut album, IIII + IIII (pronounced "Eji-Ogbe"), was released this March. To grasp the uniqueness and complexity of IIII + IIII, it is important to understand a key principle of Afro-Cuban music: that beats interlock. Rhythmic patterns are complementary and cannot exist without each other.

ÌFÉ's sound on IIII + IIII is informed by Mun's desire to avoid relying on technology to create those rhythmic patterns, and instead to embrace the human elements of chance and improvisation.

"I've seen so many MCs improvise over beats, but I never heard the beat improvise over a singer," Mun says. "I wanted to find out how to make [the music] breathe in the same way a jazz combo can breathe."

To achieve that, Mun and his bandmates inserted electronic triggers just under the drum heads of their traditional congas and batá drums. That way, the vibrations don't produce a natural drum sound — instead, they trigger electronic sounds programmed by the band.

The result: a reimagining of tradition informed by jazz's improvisatory sensibility and by Mun's ear for beats from his past as a hip-hop DJ.

The beauty of ÌFÉ's music lies in the details, such as on "House Of Love." The song's underlying groove is based on a rhythmic pattern used in Afro-Cuban rumba — but fused with the resonating echo of Jamaican dancehall. So when a clap happens on the fourth beat, an echo makes it shimmer and ripple into the next beats, creating a moment of sonic subtlety.

Another way ÌFÉ puts its own spin on traditional Afro-Cuban rhythmic music is through treating vocals with electronic effects that make the ancient sound futuristic. This is particularly pronounced on "Preludio" ("Prelude"), a prayer for a Santería ritualistic symbol called eji ogbe.

IIII + IIII is an album that experiments with tradition, which can be sticky territory: Some take offense, while others embrace it with enthusiasm. But for Otura Mun and ÌFÉ, respect is at the foundation of everything they do. While they are careful to honor the spiritual origins of their music, they still celebrate the musical possibilities inherent in ageless chants and rhythms.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The bandleader Otura Mun had a musical vision. He imagined mashing up hip-hop with Afro-Cuban rhythms and chants, and so he started a band that brought that idea to life and called it IFE. Alt.Latino host Felix Contreras says their album is one of his favorites this year, so he explored the band's musical DNA.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANGAH")

IFE: (Singing) Ha (ph).

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: To understand exactly what IFE did on their album "IIII + IIII," I need to give a quick lesson on Afro-Cuban rhythms. The most important thing to remember is that the beats are interlocking. The rhythmic patterns complement one another, meaning one could not exist without its accompanying partner. Now with that basic principle in mind, let's meet bandleader Otura Mun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANGAH")

IFE: (Singing in foreign language).

CONTRERAS: Mun was a hip-hop DJ in Texas when he moved to Puerto Rico in 2012. That's when the culture there sparked a discovery that a reliance on technology had removed the very human element of chance and improvisation.

OTURA MUN: I've seen so many emcees improvise over beats, right? But I've never heard the beat improvise over a singer. And I wanted to figure out how to make it breathe in the same way a jazz combo could breathe.

CONTRERAS: Otura Mun and his bandmates fixed that by inserting electronic triggers just under the drumheads of their traditional congas and bata drums so the vibrations didn't produce a natural drum sound like this...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ODUDUA")

MILTON CARDONA: (Singing in foreign language).

CONTRERAS: ...But instead triggered an electronic sound programmed by the band.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRAYER FOR ODUDUWA (PARA MERCEDITAS)")

IFE: (Singing in foreign language).

CONTRERAS: The result is a reimagining of tradition with a jazz sensibility for improvisation and a DJ's ear for beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF IFE SONG, "PRAYER FOR ODUDUWA (PARA MERCEDITAS)"

IFE: (Singing in foreign language).

CONTRERAS: And the beauty is in the details, for example, the track "House Of Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF IFE SONG, "HOUSE OF LOVE")

CONTRERAS: The underlying groove is based on a rhythmic pattern that is used in Afro-Cuban rumba, and it's fused with the resonating echo of Jamaican dancehall. Otura Mun explains in a way that only a musician can.

MUN: (Vocalizing) And I'm giving you that ka-ka-ka (ph), which is a four, you know. But it's sort of disguised as not a clap. But it's there, you know.

CONTRERAS: What he means is the clap happens on the fourth beat. But the echo makes it shimmer and ripple into the next beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF IFE SONG, "HOUSE OF LOVE")

CONTRERAS: The other major factor in traditional Afro-Cuban rhythmic music is the vocals. The band treats them with electronic effects that makes the ancient sound futuristic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRELUDIO")

IFE: (Singing in foreign language).

CONTRERAS: This track is called "Preludio," or prelude, and it's a prayer in the form of a chant.

MUN: And the prayer, in traditional Yoruba, the very end of it is (chanting in Yoruba). And so I took that end of that prayer and just sort of looped it and tried to make a mantra that would sort of take you somewhere with the invocation of that prayer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRELUDIO")

IFE: (Singing in Yoruba).

CONTRERAS: Messing with tradition is tricky. Some take offense while others consider it with much more enthusiasm. For Otura Mun and IFE, respect is at the foundation of everything they do musically. They're careful to honor the spiritual origins of their music while celebrating the musical possibilities inherent in ageless chants and rhythms. I was so impressed by their take on tradition that my only regret is that I'll only get to be amazed by hearing it for the first time just once.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRELUDIO")

IFE: (Singing in Yoruba).

INSKEEP: Felix Contreras is host of NPR Music's Alt.Latino. He joins us from time to time to explain the musical DNA of some of the music on that podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.