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Cuban Music Lesson:Orishas

Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

If you’ve been reading these posts you might ask, “Did Cuban music stop in 1959?” Far from it. Cuban music is constantly evolving, just like any art form. In the 70’s the salsa revolution hit Cuba and changed the music scene completely. In the 80’s there was a rise in Cuban jazz, with artists like Arturo Sandoval reaching international fame. But there is another music scene we don’t hear a lot about this side of the Florida straits: Cuban hip-hop. The growing hip-hop culture in Cuba has been around since the early 80’s, but it reached international attention in the late 90’s with the super group Orishas. These fools can flow like a leaky diaper through Castro’s tracksuit.

Hip-hop came to Cuba in the 1980’s. Back then, the Cuban government was still trying to show the Russians how awesomely commie they were. Anything that smacked of American imperialist culture was suppressed. Hip-hop was seen as a decadent U.S. importation seeking to dilute revolutionary culture or whatever. So, the scene went underground. Tapes were smuggled in from Europe and the U.S. and re-dubbed for sale on the black market. It is in this milieu that the Orishas grew up. Yotuel Romero, Ruzzo Medina, Roldan Gonzalez, and Flaco Pro started rapping together in the mid-90’s in Havana. Their sound was a unique blend of salsa and hip-hop. Instead of sampling old funk or disco beats, the Orishas sampled Afro-Cuban drums and Cuban music riffs. Roldan would sing in the style of a salsa singer while the other guys rapped. It was an an awesome blend of styles. Slowly, the Cuban government started allowing more hip-hop to be performed openly and the Orishas became the biggest group around.

The Orishas were one of the first groups to discuss racial identity in Cuba. The revolution wants people to believe that racism and elitism disappeared, but this is B.S. The Orishas talked about what it was like to grow up poor, black, and alienated in Cuba. Even their name, Orishas, was a reference to the African gods of Santeria. They toured extensively in Europe, and were eventually signed to a French record label. The guys moved to France and recorded their seminal album A Lo Cubano. The record went platinum in France, Spain, Germany and England as well as Latin America. Shortly before the release of their second album, Flaco Pro was shot by gang members in Miami while trying to get to his little brother. The other guys kept going and continue to get people’s butts moving. In 2007 they won the Latin Grammy for best Urban Album. The Orishas show that music knows no boundaries. These are Cuban artists, living in France, performing American hip-hop for a multicultural audience. That’s quite the mix.

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