With just two songs and their videos, an unprecedented level of hype was created among Caribbean, African and also Latin music enthusiasts. That’s because ÌFÉ are one of the most surprising and promising new acts coming from the Puerto Rican music scene. As their Yoruba name reflects, they are all about ‘love’ and ‘expansion’ of cultural horizons.
After the release of their second video titled ‘House Of Love (Ogbe Yekun)’ we had an interesting chat over the phone with Otura Mun (Mark Underwood), the band’s leader and project founder. The American-born rumbero, DJ and producer, who is today based in the historical borough of Santurce (in San Juan de Puerto Rico), passionately introduced us to his new rhythmic adventure.
Through his words we uncovered more about the ideas behind ÌFÉ, as well as Yoruba rituals, Puerto Rico’s past, present and future and his obsession for Jamaican dance-hall.
We started chatting about his previous musical experience and the spark which ignited ÌFÉ’s fire:
“I’ve been working as a producer for many years, making beats and music for several singers, so I was already making music behind the scenes, and I knew that I wanted to do my own solo project.
Then, one day, I had a sort of a revelation. I was inspired by the ‘Life’ magazine logo. I noticed that the logo had the colours of red and white, which are the colours of Changó in the Yoruba religion, so that was an inspiring figure for me. In fact, I’m the son of an Otun and my father is devoted to Changó, who is the Orisha of dance and drums. Thinking about that, I’ve noticed that without the ‘L’ of Life you get ‘IFE’ or ‘ÌFÉ’, which is a word that means ‘love’ but also ‘expansion’ in Yoruba. This was cool because it was a sort of a springboard for getting across what I wanted to say. It was great to link that concept with my first solo project, because expansion works on a lot of different levels”.
That’s how Otura Mun started ÌFÉ, but his musical journey couldn’t eventually carry on without the support of some skilful travel buddies:
“We’re basically five musicians on stage, and I also work with several different choral singers as well. The structure was built on a sort of African style of music that leans on call-and-response. When I first put the project together, I bought all the gear just to see if and how the idea was going to work. Once I got the gear and started to play the set, I found out that it was great! I started to call all the people that I knew that could play rumba specifically, which is one of the music genres that has this sound and style similar to a conversation.
I gave a guy called Rafael Maya a ring, he’s a friend of mine that plays rumba, so we get along quite well. I got another guy called Beto Torrens, who’s the one who sings the intro in ‘3 Mujeres’. They were playing rumba for a long time but they are also into different types of music as well, so we started sitting down and playing and we had a lot of fun together. Little by little people started to come into the mix.”
Despite Otura Mun’s passion for rumba, it wasn’t so straightforward for him to write ÌFÉ’s first tune, ‘3 Mujeres’:
“Since I’m not a native Spanish speaker, I found some hard times when I started to write new material for the project. It was indeed a challenge for me to express myself in a sort of a poetic way using that language, especially to get across what I wanted to say using as few words as possible. Kathy [Cepeda], who sings the song ‘3 Mujeres’, helped me a lot because I went to her with a sort of idea of what I wanted to say and the first chorus.
‘3 Mujeres’ is a story which talks about these three women who met Babalawo [a Yoruba figure who symbolises the sage or priest] on his way to meet a powerful and dangerous king. The names of the women are Iború, Iboyá and Ibosheshé. These three women wanted to warn Babalawo about what he’s going to find once he’ll arrive in the realm. The phrase ‘Iború, Iboyá, Ibosheshé’ is a phrase that we, as Babalawo, use to salute each other and people who are introduced to the religion use to salute us. I put that idea to Kathy and she began working on it and writing it and singing beautifully. So from that, we had another person to integrate into the group.
Then we began working with another guy whose name is Jhan Lee [Aponte] and plays percussion. He was the final addition to the team, but then he actually moved to L.A. Luckily, I met another guy in San Francisco who eventually moved here two months ago and filled that spot. His name is Antony Sierra and he’s an incredible rumbero! So we finally all live in Puerto Rico”.
Living together in Puerto Rico’s borough of Santurce was indeed one of factors which drove the project forward. However, even more than Santurce, it was Otura Mun’s house and the new studio that was used to inspire the musicians:
“When we recorded ‘3 Mujeres’, we all moved into a house together that I had been living in for a couple of years. It is called Ilé and was one of the first places where the Yoruba religion spread across the island in the 1950s and ‘60s. I didn’t actually know that when I moved in. After a year, people started telling me that.
The Puerto Rico music scene appears to be finally blooming and people start to support local musicians:
We recorded the first song there, but then we moved to another studio which we called Taller ILÉ ÌFÉ. We set up a space and started to record everything there. Both me and Antony are living there at the moment, it’s like a workspace living environment. I decided not to put any furniture in there, so we’re literally sleeping on the floor. I’m studying there during the day and we play music from 10am until 11pm and we do that for five days a week. We’re recording little bits of things and putting together an EP, which I think is going to be ready this summer. We’re pulling together new material and working really hard. It has been one month and a half right now and it’s wicked!”
Otura Mun also discussed the importance of Santurce to ÌFÉ members:
“We live in Santurce, which is an area where there has always been tons of musicians, like Ismail Rivera, who’s a salsa singer. Santurce was also the neighbourhood where Portillo lived. There’s a musical underbelly which is pretty strong there, and also because the spot where we set up Taller ILÉ ÌFÉ is on a street where a lot of people are walking by. We have become sort of known for being the guys who play rumba and Musica of the Orishas, so people are starting to stop and drop by.”
“There’s a Monday night spot that people are doing here, literally four houses away from Taller ILÉ ÌFÉ, and everybody gets together there. There’re like 30 pleneros who play this sort of traditional music from here, and that’s great! It was quite hard before to have people come out to events, so musicians were just playing bomba or rumba or plena, but now there’s finally an established night where everybody goes, everybody comes out for that night. People are finally paying more attention to Puerto Rican traditional music.
“Personally I listen to a lot of traditional music, but I started to come out to more Puerto Rican contemporary things. I guess that my favourite act right now is Buscabulla: a sort of indie soul-rock project from a woman named Rachel Berrios and her husband Luis Alfredo Del Valle. They are from Puerto Rico but living in New York and released an EP which I really like. Then there’s what you can call a ‘plena revival’, thanks to this guy called Tito Matos Y Viento de Agua.”
Otura Mun has always looked at blending together traditional influences with more contemporary sounds. He revealed us that this is his musical definition:
“For me the mix is taking something that is ancestral and has hundreds of years of practicing and developing (like the traditional drumming of the Orishas and Cuban rumba), and use that framework and dynamic to express something that is sonically new.
I’m excited about the sounds that are available to us and myself in particular as a producer. The frequencies that we use in electronic music right now are frequencies that we didn’t even really hear in music and we couldn’t translate them because of the sound systems we had. So I’m excited about the power of these new sounds. My idea is to use and interface these sounds with a structure on which I can improvise. Typically, I’m not into electronic music, because I come from a drummer background, so I like to see improvisation and hear the breath.
When I was producing hip-hop, I was using an AKAI MPC3000, which is a drum machine that has its own swing. The way in which you program the machine is that, if you want the music to breathe a little bit, you give to each sequence its own BPM and you might shift the BPM to its sample, so it can give you a little more breathing room. A lot of programs now, like Live or some of the new machines I used, don’t let you move in time and that’s really restrictive for me. I wanted to find a way to interface with electronic music, I didn’t want to change after 16 bars: if I want to speed up, I speed up: if I want to pause I pause, and so I just came up with that set up. The rumba’s framework is one that with very little you can say a lot rhythmically and there’s room for improvisation. That’s what I was going for. At the same time though, I didn’t want the music to sound retro or like a throwback, I’d want kids of 14 or 15 years to enjoy it too.”
The way Otura Mun plays his music seems to be definitely inspired by what he has heard:
“I’ve been recently listening to a lot of traditional rumba groups like Los Rumberos de Cuba, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas and Yoruba Andabo, they are some of my favourites. Then, I’ve also been listening to Pedrito Martinez, who’s an amazing Afro-Cuban percussionist based in New York, who adds some contemporary beats too. So there’s some Cuban stuff and then, next to it, Jamaican dance hall! I have a love affair with that music. Every new song that comes out, I’m on it! I listen to this guy called Robbo Ranx who used to be on BBC 1 Extra, I was just like his disciple. Then, I really like Mister Jam. The one which has passed through this show is the electronic music I’m listening to.
I usually look at the U.K. and Jamaica for everything that is related with electronic music, but I mostly listen to Jamaican dancehall. There’s an artist called Alkaline right now and everything he does is ridiculous! Novato and Popcaan: they are ridiculous. One thing that I really like in their sound is that they aren’t nostalgic. Some of these guys record 200 songs over a year and you know, out of two hundred, 50 are pretty good! They like to talk about things which are happening today and six months after a song is done you’re not going to hear about it again because the public demand newness. That’s something great to me, because it’s like you continually want to live in the present. You can understand paying homage, but you demand newness and I just love that!”