In the Yoruba faith there is a thing called fate.
The story of how Mark Underwood, an African American from Indiana, arrives in Puerto Rico and becomes Otura Mun, a Babaláwo priest of the Yoruba faith is a highly unlikely story. Even more, he created a musical niche with his group FE which quickly kicked off international tour dates after releasing just two songs.
There is no separation between man, music and his spiritual mission. Recently released ÌFÉ’s new album, FE, IIII + IIII has a hypnotic atmospheric sound that mesmerizes from the first note with an emotional voice fueled by synthesized polyrhythmic rumba influences and a strong Yoruba spirit.
Otura Mun’s journey began with a combination of flights between Texas and Indiana and a chance trip to Puerto Rico with a voucher that opened the world to him. But for Mun, nothing is due to chance. Leaving behind the pain of his brother’s death, Puerto Rico has become his home. There was music everywhere. And strong, ancestral African traditions he hasn’t been exposed to in the Midwest.
Seeing a very different black experience in Puerto Rico was a shock. There was no “racial caste system” where people define and defend their identities based on race, as he notes in the Americas.
“I don’t like the box,” he said. “The idea of drawing boundaries around each other and having to defend those boundaries based on race. And I don’t like the idea that once I’ve done that, I got into a game that I haven’t set the rules for and where I’ll always be a second-class citizen.
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Otura Mun immersed himself in learning Yoruba traditions and practicing congas and rumba for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. He worked as a “Nature DJ”, sampling early music. “I would start with a piece of a song, sample it and cut it in a very hip-hop way,” he says. As he transformed, so did his sound.
Recently, Otura Mun took a break from her tour of Europe to talk to NBC Latino about releasing her full album, the magic behind her niche music, and becoming a Babaláwo Priest.
Describe your sound and the influences behind it.
If Jamaica and Cuba had a child today, that’s probably what it would sound like. The drum and the spiritual foundations come from Cuba. The dance hall, the electronic sounds, the club vibe and the idea of paying homage and demanding novelty come from Jamaica.
There is a deep spiritual component to your music reflecting the Yoruba religious practice that came to the Caribbean from West African slaves. It also seems to be a cornerstone of your sound and your life right now. Can you give us a very basic introduction to help us understand the music?
We get most of our knowledge about it in Cuba. There are two Afro-Cuban Yoruba style houses: Ochá and Ifá. The priests on the Ochá side are Santeros / Santeras. The Ifá priests are Babaláwos (called Babalau).
I was initiated as a Babaláwo priest two years ago. I’m just a baby in religion. Many elements of ÌFÉ’s music go through my Ifá lens. [The music] do i work through the changes i see in my world as i grow inside religion. That’s where my name comes from, Otura Mun. As Babaláwo, I have dedicated my life to Ifá and the practice of helping others. Everything I do is imbued with this practice.
Tell me about the language of drums and the role of the African inspired call and response voice in ÌFÉ’s music.
Most of what we do is built on the rumba clave [a sort of musical pulse that guides the music.] Rumba itself is percussive music; there are no melodic instruments, just drums and vocals. So I took some drum machines that you can sample rumba sounds with, and made them the brain of my electronic sound.
To do this, I then drilled holes in the congas and added electronic sensors, then connected them to this brain. And now the drums that we play in our version of rumba are the electronic sounds that we make; you don’t actually hear the drum heads.
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Is this where the spiritual meets the musical?
We have the ability to communicate with the Orishas in a very literal sense. And the musicians who are responsible for bringing these deities to earth to commune with the religious community are drummers. Each deity has their own songs and dances. The songs are played on batá drums. Thus, the conversations between the three drums imitate the songs which are incantations of these deities.
ÌFÉ means “love” and “expansion”. That must be what makes your music so powerful, that divine aspect.
Prayer for Odudua (Para Merceditas) is an electronic version of a traditional Orisha prayer song for the Orisha Odudua and Obatala. And the conversation you hear in the drums are the real drum patterns for Odudua in a ritualistic sense. What we did was change the drum sounds.
The undercurrents that are there are just levels that some people will hit and some won’t and that’s OK because I’ve written for many different groups at the same time. The heart that is behind the music is there with you, and you might not feel it the same way everyone feels it, but its power is there and it will be with you from the moment you press. play, until the last song.
What was the response to your music? I think it will explode.
All over the world, it’s pretty amazing. On two songs, we were able to tour in Europe and North America. We are back in Europe for a month now. It was my dream to travel and play music and I do it on my terms. It’s incredible. All I wanted was to be able to communicate and hopefully send someone inspiration. So that was great. I am blown away.
I can’t wait to finally hear people’s reactions throughout the record, as most people only heard the first two or three singles. So I’m really happy to have a body of work – and people don’t wonder what I’m trying to do anymore, ha ha! The album itself is what I wanted it to be … it hits the hardest if you listen to it from number one to number nine. I’m trying to put you somewhere. So, I hope you will take something positive out of this experience.