Catch ÌFÉ live, Saturday, July 28, 2018, at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, CA
"I've heard a lot of rappers freestyle over a beat, but I've never heard a beat freestyle over a rapper," Otura Mun tells me with a slight smile, and I shake my head and make some kind of sound from my chest to recognize the innovative spirit beneath this clever quip. We're talking about improvisation, something that many of us don't expect to hear in electronic music. But ÌFÉ, Mun's electronic fusion group based in Puerto Rico, goes well beyond the expectations of genre, technology, and tradition, bringing an otherworldly dimension of play to a modern musical form that often relies heavily on programming.
I don't use the term "otherworldly" lightly here. ÌFÉ puts its reverence for Yoruba spirituality on full display, from the title of its debut album, IIII+IIII (pronounced Eji-Ogbe), to the prayerful lyrics of many of their songs, to the ritual-inspired white clothing the group wears in performance. As a student of anthropology and music, never satisfied with simple definitions and labels slapped on sonic experimentation and encounters with unseen forces, I was especially intrigued when I first learned of ÌFÉ's genre-defying style: ancient yet modern, respectful to the orishas yet appealing to a 21st-century audience. So I sat down with Mun prior to his appearance at World Café Live on July 15, to learn more about how he negotiates these tensions.
But first, I asked him to describe ÌFÉ's instrumentation. He began by explaining that the "nuts and bolts" of the group are two musical forms he learned after moving to Puerto Rico two decades ago: Cuban rumba and batá. As a drummer and a lover of jazz (especially John Coltrane), he wanted to emulate the living, communicative experience of jazz and Afro-Caribbean music, but with a contemporary, even futuristic flavor. "How can I make something that's going to be modern in its sound, but be able to move and breathe with improvisation on a level that's going to catch the listener and be able to draw the listener into many levels of conversation?"
He solved this problem with the innovation that gives ÌFÉ its distinct sound and, arguably, its mass appeal. Attaching sensors to congas and covering up their skins, Mun found a way to bring new sounds out of old instruments without forcing the group's rumberos to change their approach. ÌFÉ's percussionists - Rafael Maya, Beto Torrens, and Anthony Sierra - speak the language of rumba, and, thanks to Mun's electronic hijacking of their instruments, they don't need to change their language in order to achieve a sound for a younger generation. Mun acknowledges that some people might hear IIII+IIII and think they're hearing programmed beats, but even a slightly trained ear will notice the live, performative, conversational element within these captivating rhythms.
Watch their Tiny Desk Concert and see this fusion of drums and electronic sampling for yourself.
Speaking of performativity, I asked Mun (fka DJ Nature) if his experience as a turntablist had any particular influence on his production and direction of ÌFÉ's music. The number one thing, he said, "is the idea of building a story as you're playing… how to take the listener some place. So that's definitely what I tried to do on the record itself: create a vibe and give an overall feel about the thing." But being a DJ also attuned him to the limits of the technology he was working with. As sound systems have improved to accommodate a wider range of frequencies, Mun recognized the need to utilize these frequencies in order to catch the attention of younger audiences. What is perhaps most impressive is that he found a way to do so without compromising the feel that has drawn generations of listeners toward Afro-Caribbean music.
"It's about modernity - that's the thing, you know? Can it sound modern? And the idea with adding improvisation is, we're gonna use a structure that's ancient - I mean, I can't invent a language overnight. The sounds are there; the language is also there. So how do we meld those two things together? And I suppose I found a way, but people are gonna find another way to do it as well."
Learning the language of rumba was a challenge, but one that Mun took very seriously after shedding the DJ Nature moniker and producing under his birth name, Mark Underwood. But in addition to this new musical path, Mun set out on a journey into the world of the orishas.
"I felt that I had my understanding of the world very much in my hands - except that I felt that there was an invisible side to the world that I didn't know how to engage with, a spiritual side that I felt like I was lacking in my life."
Over time, and under the guidance of a babalawo (a priest in the Yoruba religion), Mark Underwood became initiated into this spiritual practice, undergoing a death and rebirth as Otura Mun, and eventually becoming a babalawo himself. In this role, he divines through the Ifá oracle, offering guidance and various ceremonial assistance to those who seek help from the orishas. The language of Yoruba is used throughout these practices, and can be heard in much of ÌFÉ's music.
In my ethnographic fieldwork, in conversations with friends who have been initiated into this practice, and in my own consulta with a babalawo, I have gathered that "religion" is a word that doesn't quite capture this divine tradition. I asked Mun about this, wondering aloud if even the word "spiritual" is insufficient to describe the relationship between initiates and their orishas. He prefaced his response with the disclaimer that he has only been a babalawo for three years, and there is a diversity of opinions on this particular choice of words.
"Religion, to me, it's something that's about repetition. It's about daily ritual…. You go the library every Friday? You go to the library religiously. And so we're talking a bit about integration of repetition and practice into life. And Ifá is certainly that. Consulting the Ifá oracle is something people do regularly… that gives us an opportunity to see ourselves in a much deeper, profound way."
He acknowledged that some people get hung up on the word "religious" because of its association with hierarchical institutions, but as he himself is a priest within a hierarchy, this aspect of religiosity is not a problem for him. Rather, he draws a distinction between Yoruba religion and Christianity, which he grew up with and later rejected, in terms of the latter's association with colonialism. "Although there are many great things, I think, to be gleaned from the practice of Christianity, I was unable to benefit from it because I just saw it as a means of control. I was unable to access some of the positive things about that practice."
As Mun continued explaining how his spiritual journey has changed the way he sees the world, and how this evolution is reflected in ÌFÉ's music, I couldn't help but think of his work as a uniquely modern vessel of an ancient message, perhaps breathing new relevance into a tradition that much of his younger audience has dismissed as old-fashioned or superstitious, if they've ever encountered it at all. On the other hand, some purists might see the electronic vessel as irreverent or unworthy of the religious content, but many Yoruba devotees welcome this futuristic expression of their spiritual lineage. Indeed, as I could tell from the overcrowded Club 77 in San Juan last Thursday night, ÌFÉ's mystical message is resonating with quite a few people, young and old.
But Otura Mun wanted to end our conversation by making one thing clear, a powerful statement that challenges common distinctions between ancient and modern, between magic and real:
"I don't believe in magic, either. I believe that the Yoruba understood something about the natural phenomena in this world that we do not accept. And we're still asking ourselves if it's real, while they're not asking if it's real at all. They know it's real, and they know how to manipulate it. Right? And so, while we'll call it 'magic,' they're just working inside the world that they understand."
Hear the whole interview here: https://soundcloud.com/onefoundation/interview-with-otura-mun-of-ife