Yoruba is having a musical moment

In the U-LAB Podcast, Otura Mun from Afro-Caribbean electronic group IFE, talks about mixing Yoruba spirituality with contemporary music.
25 May | 9:49 AM EDT


Mark Underwood arrived in Puerto Rico from Texas in the late 90s and quickly became a fixture in the local music as a DJ and producer under the moniker DJ Nature. As an African-American living in the island, he started learning Spanish, Latin rhythms such as salsa and rumba, and understanding the different context race played there - very different from the white/black paradigm in the mainland. "Coming to Puerto Rico was inspiring to me because the rules of the game were not the same," he says on this episode of the U-LAB Podcast. "It seemed the Spanish language itself lent to emotions on a level that English didn’t."

Trained as a drummer, Underwood is now a an Ifá priest in the Yoruba religion and goes by the name Otura Mun. He leads the group IFE, a fusion of Afro-Cuban rumba, electronic and hip hop sounds with Yoruba spirituality. Yoruba and Afro-Cuban religions are becoming more and more visible in mainstream music as evidenced in the French-Cuban group Ibeyi and even on Beyoncé's Lemonade, but Otura points out that this is not new. "There's a cosmic hard drive that people are pulling from. I don't think that what I'm doing is necessarily original, mixing Yoruba spirituality with contemporary music; that happened in the 70s with salsa, in the 90s with Orishas, the rap group, an artist called Osun Lade," says Mun. "The difference between them and what I'm doing is the technology. I chose to solve a problem, which is how do we free up this music and let it improvise."

In Yoruba, IFE means love and expansion, but the band's debut album IIII+IIII also deals with conflict and war and with philosophical questions such as "freedom as conviction", which in the context of the colonial and economic crisis in Puerto Rico are very visceral and immediate. I spoke to Mun about his musical background, his love for the island and his religious and musical renassaince. Listen to the conversation above and subscribe to the weekly U-LAB Podcast on iTunes.

IFE is playing in Chicago on May 28th and in New York City on July 12, with more U.S. dates to be announced.