ÌFÉ Synthesizes Shamanistic Powers with Contemporary Dancehall

Watch his new video for "House of Love," and read our conversation about initiating into a declining Yoruban tradition, and promoting his faith through music.

Feb 29 2016, 3:23pm

In 1999, a two-week trip to Puerto Rico turned into a nearly two-decade stay that lead Mark Underwood to become Otura Mun, a priest in the Yoruba faith (a predecessor of Santeria). In his early days on the island, Mark spun hip-hop in San Juan as DJ Nature, playing parties at spots like the Cave in Camuy, which, during a rave, I can only imagine looked like it was culled directly out of The Matrix. He’s now a mainstay in the San Juan music scene, having recorded and toured with the Puerto Rican reggae act Cultura Profética. His latest project, ÌFÉ, fuses shamanic-levels of spiritual depth with dancehall influences from guys like Movado and Vybz Kartel. I’m about as spiritual as a can opener, but the music has a certain otherworldly quality that’ll resonate with even the most secular ear.

Last year, Otura traveled to Cuba to complete his initiation into Ifá, part of the Yoruban tradition brought to the Caribbean from Africa. Religious practices like Yoruba were nearly wiped out by slavery, colonialism, and good old proselytizing from the West, but in the Caribbean, there’s a growing movement to revive the faith. Otura is a black American who came to the island, learned Spanish, and adopted a tradition on the decline. It’s an effort to reclaim roots that most people of African descent in America have been almost entirely severed from. These elements are all on display in the video we’re premiering today, which is directed by Luis R. Vidal and Otura himself and draws visual inspiration from his faith.

I talked to him about the video, the tragedy that brought him to Puerto Rico, and how he’s marrying the traditional influences with contemporary sounds to make something completely original. Check out the premiere for "House of Love," as well as my conversation with Otura Mun below.

NOISEY: Can you talk a bit the video itself? How did the concept come together?
Otura Mun
: I guess I should start by saying I’m a Babaláwo, which is a high priest in the Ifá side of the Yoruba religion. I went through my initiation in Ifá in Cuba this past year in April. Leading up to initiation, I went through some lower initiations. One in particular, I went through while living in that house where we shot the video. So, during one of those initiations they revealed who my ruling Orisha was, or who I was the son of. Each person has a ruling Orisha, in my case I'm a son of Ochún with a destiny that leads to Ifá. And I was also studying rumba and coming up with what I wanted to do with ÌFÉ and I knew I wanted to make the group a musical expression. So I was living in this old, 100-year-old wooden house, and I had lived there about a year and a half and after that second initiation a friend told me, “You know, you’re living in an old Yoruba temple.” That blew me away. Even as I was walking by it, before I lived there, it always caught my attention. Once this news came to me, I kind of started thinking, “How did I end up at this place?” And they actually told me that the person that lived there was a son of Oshun as well. Am I going to these places out of will, or destiny? How did I get here? I kind of wanted to talk about the experience living in that house and having dreams and revelations I had about what my future was going to be, and so I thought about the video as a dream.

Are any of the things you’re doing in the video— like getting your head shaved for example— are those parts of the initiation process?
The initiation process is a sacred ceremony, so I really can’t talk about the process itself. But, there are things that people who have gone through it would understand. And I want to speak to them as well. Because what we’ve been initiated in is something beautiful and I want to acknowledge that. Especially as an African-American, I want to create a dialogue about what are the limits of that expression. I struggle a lot with that. America tries to tell you what’s black and what’s white and what’s this and what’s that. A lot of times, it’ll blow people away when I tell them I’m not Latino. I want to create a dialogue about what is this diaspora music.

Has living in Puerto Rico and being away from America changed your outlook on what it means to be African-American?
Absolutely. I’ve been enriched by my experience here. In the United States, we live in kind of a racial caste system, which is oppressive. It’s liberating to be outside of it at times, and any African-American who travels outside the US will feel that way. It’s combative. In 1993, when I was at the University of North Texas, we had segregated lunch counters. There wasn’t a sign, but all the black students had one section, all the white kids had another. That’s so American. So, in a way it’s liberating to be here, but then again, Puerto Rico has a laundry list of things they’re dealing with too. The Civil Rights Movement and the “black is beautiful” movement that happened in the US helped us believe in ourselves. When I came here for the first time I had an Afro, and Puerto Ricans would laugh at me. That’s because they never went through that, where having an Afro would give you pride. Being an African-American, you know we had that taken away from us from the get. Enslavement in the US was just brutal. Our culture was sort of crushed out of us. And the way that Spaniards treated that, from a historical standpoint, allows for some preservation, especially in Cuba, you know. And so yeah, I was really impacted by that dialogue and that power.

I’m trying to figure out how to move beyond race. For me it’s a system of control, and it’s a control that if I choose to play, then I have basically chosen to be a second-class citizen. So, that’s kind of something I’m trying to work through with this music.

Why did you want to leave the states?
I had a death in my family. My brother passed away. That was, uh… I have two sisters. A younger sister and an older sister there. So, my brother was 2 years younger than me, and that hit really hard. My way of dealing with that was to become a bitter person. The first year, I had a lot of anger I had to deal with, and I was burning bridges in Texas. I just felt like I needed to remove myself from my surroundings and away from the people I loved so that I wouldn’t hurt anybody. In a way, I came down here and tried to reconstruct my life. From the language on up.

And that’s what this song is about?
So, House of Love for me was a song where the first lyric is "Dime hermano soy tu servidor" or "Tell me my brother, I'm your servant", and talks about my brother that past away. I wrote the song as a message to my ancestors, and my brother in particular. I’m talking about his spirit being with me. Every day when I wake up, I give my ancestors a little cup of coffee and light a candle and give them rum. We have a relationship about speaking and about offering and about giving and about receiving. So, I just wanted to talk about that relationship. In the last verse, I say this thing to my grandfather: “Dime Abuelo soy tu servidor” which means, “Tell me grandfather, I’m your servant.”

“Tu bendición, quiero ser mejor”… “Give me your blessing, I want to be a better person.” So I’m sort of talking to these spirits, these ancestors and telling them like you know please walk with me, please protect me, please commune with me.

The second verse, I say "Te adoro, eres unica", I kind of flipped it in a way that I’m talking about I adore someone. You’re one of a kind. The next line, "Quédate un minuto mas". “Stay with me, one minute more.” You know, I’m speaking to my ancestors that have passed away, but you can interpret it like a lover that’s no longer with you. Just having them that one minute more.

And how did the broader Ife project come together?
I’ve always kept up with dancehall, and Jamaican dancehall has the kind of thing where people who really follow that music want to hear the newest, newest, newest stuff. Sometimes you can play a record, and in six months, the crowd won’t even dance to it. Dancehall is something where people want to know what came out this week. That community has an understanding about paying homage, but they demand newness, and that’s what I love. You know, with guys like Alkaline, Movado, there’s just like an idea of, “We’re gonna keep this about today.” And I love that about dancehall. You know, from the very first time I listened to that kind of thing. So, when I started thinking about what I wanted to do as a solo, the two things I listened to nonstop were Cuban Rumba and dancehall.

I started the ÌFÉ process from the word itself. The word in Yoruba means love, and it also means expansion. And if I was going to talk about love or expansion— particularly expansion— I felt that whatever I was going to do or to say had to have the impact of modern music, cause I love what technology can do right now… And so yeah, I…said fuck it, man, I’m gonna drill some holes in here, add electronic sensors to the drums – and that way, anybody I know that plays Rumba, that has that language already in their hands, that can use the practice, can just sit down and then set up – and right off the bat, I’m gonna give you 808’s and fuckin’ claves and all that stuff that maybe they wouldn’t have thought to express with – but their swing is already there. You know what I mean?

You didn’t want to make something that was just purely nostalgic or purely throwback, and this feels completely contemporary, but it also feels like folk music. It has traditional elements in that way. Is that something you’re seeing in Puerto Rico more? Is there are movement to reclaim those roots that is broader than what you guys are doing?
With ÌFÉ, I would never say that I’m playing Rumba First of all, that music has its own sort of rules and structure, and the people that play that take it very, very seriously. I’m using things that are inside of Rumba language, for sure. And I definitely am paying homage to that music, and I know where it comes from, and I can give you the list of people that I studied to get where I got. But I wouldn’t say that it’s Rumba.

I think what you’re listening to in the sound is the framework. The framework is what is ancient, you know what I mean? It’s the musical framework that sounds like it could have come from 100 years ago, but it’s being expressed with a different alphabet. Now, there is a movement in Puerto Rico that is based in plena that’s a kind of music from out here. Plena is kind of having a moment. There’s been a plena revival in the past year. And I hadn’t connected ÌFÉ to that, until… well, until last night actually. I think people are more receptive to traditional music. The drums in particular, and I thought it was interesting. I also believe in synchronicity. I don’t think I have a bunch of original ideas. I think the ideas that are out there that I’ve been able to pull together and other people are pulling them at the same time.

Zach Goldbaum is a correspondent for Noisey, appearing in our recent documentary 'Noisey Bompton.' Follow him on Twitter.