DJ, producer, percussionist and composer Otura Mun was born Mark Underwood in Goshen, Indiana. A drummer fluent in R&B and jazz (and the youngest member of the renowned University of North Texas drumline in his freshman year), Otura Mun took his first life-changing trip to Puerto Rico almost 20 years ago. He now calls the island home, and it’s where he and his ensemble ÌFÉ create electronic music that channels the musical and spiritual worlds of the African diaspora throughout the Americas and the Caribbean.
The ensemble and the music they make are also connected to Mun’s desire to study the Cuban rumba—which led to his initiation as a babalawo, or Yoruban high priest. The perspective now orients both his musical and his personal life.
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As Otura Mun explains it, he chose the title IIII+IIII for ÌFÉ’s debut because it marks “the beginning of a new era, a change in the guard, a spiritual awakening,” a path an individual can take on their divine destiny.
To talk with Otura Mun is to become caught up in a heady whirlwind of ideas about music that’s constructed with layers upon layers of aligned signs and evoked meanings. We caught up with the San Juan-based Otura Mun via Skype to get a glimpse of the wondrous, spirit-filled world that informs his music.
The journey that took you from Goshen, Indiana to San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been amazing. What’s still with you today from those early years in Indiana?
I suppose what I bring with me to Puerto Rico, and into the project ÌFÉ, is that Black American experience that’s just sort of ingrained in me. I mean, quite honestly, I didn’t have the best experience in Goshen, Indiana. I’ve been in Puerto Rico 18 years, and I was born and raised in Indiana. So for the first years of my life, that’s what I knew. I guess it’s a part of just growing up black in America, which can be vicious, and wasn’t very easy in Indiana.
I took the idea of the cruelness of racism and the racial caste system that we [have] in the United States, and what that can do to someone, and I was able to empower myself to a certain extent by moving to Texas and linking with a like-minded group of black individuals that were able to help me along my artistic expression to be able to find myself as a person.
Moving to Latin America in 1999, I’ve been able to create a cultural bridge, with language as the nuts and bolts. By learning the Spanish language, I was able to begin to understand a little bit more about what Latino culture was all about. In Indiana and in Texas, because of my own cultural upbringing, that opportunity seemed out of reach.
Are there any musical influences from Indiana that turn up on ÌFÉ’s new album?
I did a listening party for the video for the song ‘House of Love’ when it came out. I was talking about my influences for the project, and I always say that my influences mainly are Jamaican dancehall and Cuban rumba and the music of the Orishas. So, one of the gentlemen that was in the audience said, ‘Well, I hear D’Angelo in your music.’
That was funny, because D’Angelo is a huge influence of mine, but I never thought to name that in the music that I was making. I said, ‘I suppose there’s definitely a very large R&B element there, because that’s the music that I grew up listening to and playing and love.’
Like, I would never be able to sing like a rumba singer per se, because I didn’t grow up singing that music, and so I just don’t have that in me. I’d have to learn that by studying it. So my way of approaching singing inside of ÌFÉ is more from an R&B corner.
So, that’s in me. I can’t shake that loose. I love jazz music, that’s in me, I can’t shake that loose, either. And I cut my teeth as a musician playing funk drumming. Now, in this project I’m consciously walking away from American music and towards a more African expression, and so I’m taking away things that we as Americans typically grasp onto, like the idea of putting a snare on two and four. That’s funk, and that’s American music. And I’m taking those elements and I’m stripping it away a little bit, because I’m walking in a different direction. But that is where I come from, and there’s just things that I’m going to do that I can’t change about myself.
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In ‘Higher Love,’ the R&B influences seem really explicit. But the way you transition so seamlessly out of R&B-ish grooves into Afro-Cuban grooves—how did that musical idea develop?
I can tell you exactly when I got that idea! ‘Higher Love’ was a song that I started playing when I started playing drums in the fifth grade! I was 10 years old, and my father was a meter reader for the gas company in our little town in Indiana, so he was always walking through the streets. It was his job during the day. He used to have a Walkman radio, and he would buy tapes all the time.
When I first started playing the drum set, one of the first songs that I played to on the drum set at my teacher’s house was a Steve Winwood song. My father heard me playing the Steve Winwood song, and one of the first tapes he gave me was Steve Winwood’s Back in the High Life, because he was a fan of Traffic.
And then I heard it [the song] again maybe two years ago, but I had already initiated in the religion and knew more about the Orishas [spirits that reflect aspects of the Supreme Divinity, in Yoruban religion—ed]. I was thinking a lot about the idea of divine love in my life and the name of the group and the concept that I was trying to develop.
Now, ÌFÉ, the word itself means ‘love.’ But it can also mean ‘expansion.’ I developed the sound of the group around the word—I had the word first, and then tried to figure out what love and expansion would sound like.
So after already having worked through those ideas, I heard the Steve Winwood song again. It immediately spoke Ochún [one of the most popular and venerated Orishas—ed.] to me, because I’m a son of Ochún in the religion. I was thinking about Ochún’s divine love, and my love for her, and that was it! I said, ‘I can definitely tape this song and it has a totally new meaning to me. And it would be cool to rework it with that meaning in mind.
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There are nuances in other songs that seem to born in the Americas. For example, in places like the Dominican Republic, workers developed rhythmic chants to avoid accidents cutting the cane in the sugar fields. Certain qualities of the song ‘Bangah (Pico y Palo),’ seems to almost have an association with sugar field work chants…
Well, ‘Bangah’ is a reflection on the Orisha named Ogún. Ogún is the owner of war in the religion. His main tool is the machete; when he dances, he usually dances with a machete. There’s a cutting and slashing sort of aspect to the dance.
When I first heard the beat—before I had the lyrics—I knew it was going to be a war song. I don’t believe in war as a way to solve conflicts, but conflict is real. So when I began to think about how to write a song about war, I immediately began reflecting on Ogún [another Orisha—ed.] who is the owner of war, and Ogún’s tools, and how Ogún approaches war. And Ogún’s major tool is the machete.
The machete also has a political connotation in Puerto Rico, because there was a group of freedom fighters called the Macheteros. They were a freedom-fighting force in Puerto Rico and so the machete is a symbol of liberation in Puerto Rico.
So I started thinking about Ogún as sort of the divine Machetero. I don’t believe in the nation-state as a way to organize ourselves—I feel that it’s a way more to get poor people to fight for the interests of rich people than anything else, another wall between unity. But Puerto Rico is in a really vicious colonial system that we have been in for 500 years. I do feel that the effects of colonialism itself have been nothing but bad for the people with whom I live. So, regardless of whether I believe in a nation-state or not, I do believe in freedom, and freedom is what we need to be working for both on an individual level and then on up.
And I began thinking about how we work for freedom, and who can give that to us, and the level of dedication required to achieve it, all in the idea of work. Now, Ogún in the religion lives with another Orisha named Ochosi who is the hunter and hunts with a bow and arrow. Ochosi and Ogún work together, because Ochosi can point and target something, and then Ogún with the machete clears the way to that prey.
It’s like the idea of naming a goal and then working towards it with the sort of conviction that, ‘This is what I want I’m going to work for and you’re going to have to kill me to stop me from attaining my goal.’ And it’s that kind of determination, that will, that is required to free oneself in a circumstance.
And that’s the sense of the work chants that seems to be a part of ‘Pico y Palo’?
The work chants are ways to get a team to sort of work together, right? It’s the same idea when you’re talking about liberation. You’re going to work yourself into this state where you’re going to move in in a way that is unstoppable to get to your goal tirelessly, to the end.
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There also seems to be an Afro-Futurist, Sun Ra kind of vibe to the album—particularly in a song like, ‘Umbo (Come Down),’ with the line ‘This ship can be flown.’ It has the sense of a music that is both ancestral and forward-thinking, and also the hopes of traveling to a place where you can be free. Was that intentional?
It’s quite intentional. A lot of times during the record, I’m making reference to a world that that we can sense, but that is somehow invisible to us, and the idea of where that invisible world is. Does it exist? How do we access that?
In science fiction we think about space travel in the ship, but a ship can also be our bodies and our minds. Our souls can also be a vessel. So when I say, ‘the ship can be flown,’ I’m thinking about all of those connotations.
The idea is that things can change, they can progress, we can move from one point to the other. Bad can become good, negative can become positive. It’s a reoccurring element in the record itself—the idea that we can change.
I had to work through a lot of sadness and loss in my life, and I’ve actually actively been working to change the person that I am—what I have been in the past—to become a better person. That’s something I’ve been focusing on, and that’s definitely one of the things I’m trying to communicate in the record as well: we can change, you can progress.
If you were speaking to yourself, a young ‘Mark Underwood’ in Goshen, being where you are today, what would you say to him?
In a nutshell, I would just say, ‘Break out of all boxes. Don’t let anyone define you. Break out of any box anyone tries to put you in. And remember that our home is Africa, that’s where we’ve come from, but the journey was also through the Caribbean. And we have brothers and sisters that are in the Caribbean, in Mexico and Colombia and Venezuela and Brazil and that’s all part of our family as well. And so our history, when we trace it back to the source, we cannot forget about the Caribbean and Latin America because that’s part of our journey as well. And the walls that people put between our communities can be broken down.The idea of you picking up and going to Brazil or going to Mexico or going to Venezuela is just as real as you going to Indianapolis or going to New York or any of those places! The world is open, and it’s open for us and we can explore it.’
My story is not an anomaly, I’m not an anomaly, I’m nothing special. I just decided to take a risk and anyone can do it. I encourage everyone to do that. The language is just another barrier to be broken.
My favorite picture of Malcolm X is the one where he’s standing in front of the pyramids and he’s in a suit and tie. And to imagine an African American just picking up and going to Egypt to see the pyramids! That was crazy talk to me as a kid!
But it’s real. This is our world and it’s here for us too.
—Catalina Maria Johnson