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Inside ÌFÉ's Reinvention Of Afro-Cuban Rhythms

ÌFÉ's new album, <em>IIII + IIII</em>, is out now.
Mariangel Gonzales
Courtesy of the artist
ÌFÉ's new album, <em>IIII + IIII</em>, is out now.

Note: This piece is better heard than read. To hear this review and the specific musical moments it references, listen at the audio link.

The music of ÌFÉ is Otura Mun's vision come to life: a mashup of hip-hop with Afro-Cuban rhythms and Santería chants. Born Mark Underwood in Goshen, Ind., Mun first travelled to Puerto Rico in the late '90s and now calls the island home.

Mun started the band ÌFÉ in 2015, and its debut album, IIII + IIII (pronounced "Eji-Ogbe"), was released this March. To grasp the uniqueness and complexity of IIII + IIII, it is important to understand a key principle of Afro-Cuban music: that beats interlock. Rhythmic patterns are complementary and cannot exist without each other.

ÌFÉ's sound on IIII + IIII is informed by Mun's desire to avoid relying on technology to create those rhythmic patterns, and instead to embrace the human elements of chance and improvisation.

"I've seen so many MCs improvise over beats, but I never heard the beat improvise over a singer," Mun says. "I wanted to find out how to make [the music] breathe in the same way a jazz combo can breathe."

To achieve that, Mun and his bandmates inserted electronic triggers just under the drum heads of their traditional congas and batá drums. That way, the vibrations don't produce a natural drum sound — instead, they trigger electronic sounds programmed by the band.

The result: a reimagining of tradition informed by jazz's improvisatory sensibility and by Mun's ear for beats from his past as a hip-hop DJ.

The beauty of ÌFÉ's music lies in the details, such as on "House Of Love." The song's underlying groove is based on a rhythmic pattern used in Afro-Cuban rumba — but fused with the resonating echo of Jamaican dancehall. So when a clap happens on the fourth beat, an echo makes it shimmer and ripple into the next beats, creating a moment of sonic subtlety.

Another way ÌFÉ puts its own spin on traditional Afro-Cuban rhythmic music is through treating vocals with electronic effects that make the ancient sound futuristic. This is particularly pronounced on "Preludio" ("Prelude"), a prayer for a Santería ritualistic symbol called eji ogbe.

IIII + IIII is an album that experiments with tradition, which can be sticky territory: Some take offense, while others embrace it with enthusiasm. But for Otura Mun and ÌFÉ, respect is at the foundation of everything they do. While they are careful to honor the spiritual origins of their music, they still celebrate the musical possibilities inherent in ageless chants and rhythms.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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