Almost 20 years ago, Orishas, a trio of expat Cuban musicians, set the music world on fire with their A lo Cubano debut album, and Latin music was never the same again. Orishas' seminal blend of Afro Cuban roots rhythms and melodies fused with hip-hop-infused grooves has marked several generations of Latin musicians, arguably creating the Latin urban genre and setting the stage for beats that in the last few years have been breaking musical records in the U.S.
After a decade of successes, Orishas took a hiatus, which lasted nearly another decade. The group reunited in 2016, and returned to Cuba for a triumphant 2018 concert in Havana. Recently nominated at the Grammys for best Latin rock, urban or alternative album for Gourmet, their fifth studio album and first album in 10 years, and fresh from the release of a concert documentary on HBO Latino focused on that legendary Havana concert, we caught up with Yotuel Romero to talk about Latin urban music today, from the perspective of one of the genre’s founding bands.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you see Orishas’ legacy, as true musical pioneers in Latin urban music?
When people say “pioneers” that seems almost comical; it’s sounds like it’s not in style anymore, but quite the contrary! We co-founded a genre, and I’m including Tego Calderon, Daddy Yankee, Vico C -- an urbano movement in which each of us added their vision. For Orishas, that vision was always to fuse traditional Cuban music with hip-hop, as well as to share music like that of our Compay Segundo, in our “537,” or Sonora Matancera which we sampled in “Represent”. I feel so much satisfaction, almost 20 years later, that what we created with so much love from Paris, has become trendy music -- not just Camila Cabello but also Cardi B -- they’re like recovering that Orishas sound and making it more popular and bigger. For us, it’s a great satisfaction and it’s also, knowing that we did things right. Of course, we were quite ahead of things for our times. When we did that 20 years ago, people thought we were crazy to mix up rap with traditions. I don’t think we were as crazy as people thought we were!
And this return to the stage and recording, after that 10-year break, what’s it been like?
When we disbanded, I came to the USA to do what I do and know best: composing and producing. After some time, I started a record label, Chancleta Records, and when I went to Cuba to look for new talent, my wife told me, “what you’re looking for is Orishas.!” -- women, with their sixth sense, they know so more than men! So Orishas was the first group I signed. And I was ready to take the band to a dimension that we hadn’t achieved. And we’re in the middle of it all! We took off with this new album, Gourmet, nominated to the American Grammy -- it’s bringing us so many blessings, it’s what I call a “classic,” and people are listening to it and are amazed at the high level of Urban Latin music. I think that’s what’s missing, a little bit more ‘gourmet’. We have seen the Latin Taco Bell, the Latin McDonalds -- what we need to see is the good Latin ceviche, the good bandeja paisa -- the Latino filet mignon.
Like a more sophisticated type of music?
I don’t see it as sophistication, musically. I see it as creating better dishes so that they don’t only see us as like, "Latinos are about ‘move your butt, and that’s it." They need to see the feelings of the Latino. Right now, only a part of us is visible -- like, the ‘fiesta and party’ side. We need to show our feelings as Latinos. In the American industry, you can also find the American McDonald's, but also Beyoncé, Bruno Mars -- the filet mignon of the Anglo-Saxon musical industry. And all of these, at equal levels of popularity to the McDonalds. What is different for Latinos is that what’s becoming popular is McDonalds. But the filet mignon should have the same popularity -- both musics have to coexist. I’m going to give you the perfect example, it’s like if in the Latin film industry, there would only be a Rambo and no room for a Roma.
And as a part of that, in twenty years of music creation, Orishas has always had the most danceable music, but always with a message.
Yes, many of our songs have all had a lot of social and political content. Songs like “El Kilo,” “Mujer” or “Reina de la Calle,” in which we speak directly to sex workers. Orishas has always been a band that has never minced their words, we’ve always spoken our minds clearly.
And in these 20 years, what are some of the lessons learned?
The biggest wisdom gained has been to understand Orishas’ legacy, and to keep fighting to make music at a certain level, and in the right way, making good music so that this legacy keeps growing and nurturing the souls of all our fans and all Latinos.
And after a triumphant return to a Havana stage, how is Orishas’ relationship to the homeland today?
It’s improving so much! It has been a re-encounter with my country, with my people, despite that I have for my whole lifetime -- more than two decades -- I’ve always been singing to Cuba, but it wasn’t until 2018 we were given the opportunity to return to our island to be able to sing to our people. I feel happy because, of course, to be able to sing to your own people, to take your message to the people of the barrio, to be able to say to your own Cuban people, ‘Look, for more than twenty years we’ve been making Cuban music tied to defending and speaking of each one of you on this island, with honesty, with elegance, with diplomacy, with sophistication.’ And also, to give Cuban youth who are making Urban Music the idea that, yes, you can become huge doing things well, correctly and with elegance. You don’t have to go directly to what’s vulgar, commonplace, crude -- just because it’s in style, and try to make it big like that -- no, no, Orishas has been defending our music for 20 years, doing shows, making a living with what we like doing -- music -- and we never fell for the easy thing, nor vulgarity. Not like being preachy, but saying, “Look, you can also become successful doing it this way.”