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April 12, 2005

Orishas's El Kilo a solid effort, if not worth that weight in gold

It took me a little while to get into this one. El Kilo, the third installment from Cuban rap superheroes Orishas, maintains the group's ability to create beautifully melodic hip-hop from traditional Cuban sounds, but it doesn't have the same immediate bite as previous albums.

Orishas began as the brainchild of French hip-hop producer Niko Noki (who had previously worked with the monumental Bisso na Bisso, a Paris-based group that fuses hip-hop with traditional African sounds) and Liván "Flaco-Pro," one of Cuba's first emcees who had relocated to Paris. The concept was to combine rap with rumba, son, and guanguaco. Rather than base the project in Cuba, the pair decided they could find everything they needed in Paris. They enlisted Cuban rappers Yotuel and Ruzzo, who were in Paris to play a festival as rap duo Ameneza, and put them to work with Roldán Gonzalez, a well known singer and guitarist of Cuban traditional music who was on tour in France.

EMI signed on for the first release, A lo Cubano, in 1999. A lo Cubano went platinum in Europe and immediately brought Orishas international recognition. It was a brand new sound with a cool, melodic flow that appealed to people outside of the hip-hop circle and even to those who cannot understand Spanish. The second release, 2001's Emigrante, represented maturity in production and themes (the album revolved around the members' experiences as immigrants in Europe) and won a Latin Grammy for Best Rap/Hip-Hop Album and a nomination in the Latin/Alternative category at the Grammys.

The third album, however, does not show any real progression, and maybe this is why it is not as immediately striking as the first two. Still, after listening to it a few times, I realized it is probably as good as Emigrante, although A lo Cubano remains their classic.

Yet again, we are privileged to hear the unmistakable Cuban sound and a rhythmic lyrical flow that nods heads, even if you don't speak Spanish.

El Kilo is what Cubans call their one-cent coin; it would be used, for example, to buy a kilo of rice or potatoes. Orishas used this title because music is their staple earner (although I imagine they've put together quite a few kilos by now). The album kicks off with a dance-floor banger, "Nací Orishas," full of blaring trumpets and a booty-shaking piano groove over the beat. Tracks "Distinto" and "Amor al Arte" stand out for their use of African influences: "Distinto" uses the organ sound from Raï and other North African pop music, and the Congolese rumba-style guitar in "Amor al Arte" is especially interesting because Congolese rumba has been heavily influenced by its Cuban counterpart.

Orishas have always stressed their connection to Africa. The group's name belongs to the Yoruba gods of nature, imported to Cuba (and elsewhere) by African slaves, who are still worshipped—primarily through music and dance—in the Afro-Cuban Santería religion. Like many rappers outside the U.S., Orishas feel entitled to hip-hop through the African heritage they share with African Americans. The soft guitar and vocals on "Reina de la Calle (Queen of the Street)" make it sound like a love song, but it is written to a prostitute, sympathizing with her situation but tenderly urging her to give it up. These guys aren't trying to be pimps or gangsters; there is even a song on their second album about women's rights ("Mujer").

Orishas don't glamorize violence, either. This is generally true of Cuban hip-hop; they have chosen not to inherit this aspect from the U.S. "Bombo" is probably my favorite track, with an electronically altered rumba loop. Thematically, the lyrics of "Bombo" recall the themes of Emigrante, about the cons of emigration to Europe, while admitting that Cuba has its share of problems, too. The last track, "Quién te Dijo," features Cuban-American rapper Pitbull, who has recently released his own album, 2004's M.I.A.M.I.

El Kilo was recorded between Liege, Madrid, and Paris. The group's members themselves are now scattered across Europe: Roldán and Liván live in Paris, Ruzzo is in Milan, and Yotuel is in Madrid. What happened to Cuba? How can the group base their music on their Cuban identity when they have not lived on the island for several years? To their credit, this is something they are aware of: "No està fácil…/Partir siempre de lejos cantar como el primero" ("It's not easy…/ To always come from far away but to sing like at first"), they sing on "Nací Orishas."

Although political back in their Ameneza days, Orishas have not tried to comment on the political or social situation in Cuba, but have been honest enough to speak from a personal perspective as Cuban immigrants in Europe. But this might also explain why El Kilo has lost some of the intensity that existed in A lo Cubano. As the only internationally-known Cuban hip-hop group, Orishas are seen by many as ambassadors for their country's youth, but they are perhaps becoming less and less relevant as role models. Some Cuban rappers feel that Orishas have sold out by making their music more commercial, and this album is certainly the most commercial of the three.

Without a doubt, though, Orishas have brought attention to the island: For example, a couple of excellent low-budget documentaries on the thriving Cuban scene have been made in the last few years: Cuban Hip-Hop All Stars Vol. 1 and Intentos: Hip-Hop Cubano, both co-released with albums featuring the artists filmed. While Orishas may be growing further from their roots, they remain a huge influence on rap from Cuba, and in the Spanish-speaking world as a whole. Thanks to Orishas, Cuban hip-hop may be about to explode. Keep your ears peeled.