On ÌFÉ’s Debut Album, Songs of Yoruba Resistance Nourish the Soul

Photo by Mariangel Gonzales. Courtesy of IFE

Otura Mun does not believe in coincidences. The young babalawo — a priest in Ifá, a branch of the Yoruba religion — is also the director of ÌFÉ, the Puerto Rico-based group whose full-length debut weaves electronic beats into Yoruba praise songs, Cuban rumba, and other Afro-Caribbean rhythms. In English, Spanish, and Yoruba, the album traces Mun’s own process of confronting a total overhaul of his worldview, a journey he started around six years ago.

Yet IIII + IIII is released today, amid a marked upswing of young diasporans reclaiming santería and brujería, and a fresh wave of artists ushering Yoruba culture into greater consciousness, from Beyoncé’s imagery of the deity Oshún in Lemonade to Princess Nokia’s Santería chant and the explorations that follow on “Brujas.”

Structured by sacred symbolism, the album is purposeful and meticulously crafted. But timing of its unveiling, preceded by two years of collaboration with a handful of Puerto Rican musicians, is not. For Mun, when and why it exists is divine destiny.

IFE. Photo by Mariangel Gonzales. Courtesy of IFE
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“It’s a very personal record,” he says. “But I tried to make it in a way that was open enough that it’s sort of like a glass half-frfull, in the sense that the things that I’m talking about and the way that I’m presenting some of these issues and themes, people are going to be able to pour their experience and their spirit and their souls into this as well…hopefully, there will be a connection that I’ll be able to make. That’s really all I wanted — to inspire and make some sort of connection with people on a musical and spiritual level.”

“People are going to be able to pour their experience and their spirit and their souls into this.”

When we spoke, Mun was in France; the group is touring the UK a second time (the first was last year) until mid-April, during which Paris will serve as their home base. Traveling the world with his music is a mission that was confirmed to him during the final initiation in Ifá, held two years ago in Cuba at the shepherding of his padrino.

“There’s a prayer we do in the beginning of every obra, or act, that we do where we name down spiritual houses. We start in Puerto Rico, then trace back to Cuba…so it made sense to go there,” he says.

Born in Indiana, Mun relocated to Puerto Rico in 1999 after vacationing on the island just two years prior. He studied at the University of North Texas in Denton before that, beginning on a drumline scholarship and later delving into African percussion. The college town’s strong DIY music scene laid the foundation for his career as DJ Nature, the moniker he adopted in San Juan on the decks for Cultura Profética and as a member of the underground hip-hop group Ciencia Fixión (featuring Carlos Santiago, formerly of Davila 666, and his Füete Billēte co-MC Felix Hilera). Mun produced and wrote for Puerto Rican folk singer MIMA and dancehall artist Young Ragga, too.

Photo by Laurence Heinz. Courtesy of IFE
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Back then, though, he wasn’t Otura Mun. That “man from Indiana,” he says, died in Cuba.

“I was spiritually reborn there with another name and entirely new purpose, and that purpose is as a servant, and I take that with the utmost sincerity. It’s my job here to study and to serve, and that’s my purpose on this planet,” Mun affirms.

His education and history, however, afford the many complexities of meaning in the album the smoothest of deliveries. It’s more than that, really: IIII + IIII feels almost like practice by proxy, like Ifá seeping into your soul.

“3 Mujeres (Iború Iboya Ibosheshé),” with vocalist Kathy Cepeda at the forefront, is based on a babalawo greeting rooted in a pataki, or story, of three women who present warnings to a babalawo as he travels toward a consultation with a king. “House of Love,” both the track and corresponding video released last year, is wholly sleek, stylish. It’s a suave and slow-burning R&B number, yet it’s elevated, entwined with personal significance — years before he’d was told he’s a son of Ochún, Mun already had a painting of the deity on display in the house where he wrote the song. While trading music with a santero friend, he learned that house was an early Yoruba temple, established in the 60s by the first babalawo to arrive in Puerto Rico.

Unpacking all that meaning isn’t easy for the listener, because much of it is so personal for Mun — but that doesn’t mean the impact isn’t felt, and deeply. Especially for Puerto Ricans, though, digging into all the intricacies can be an affecting effort. The album is named for the symbolic representation of Ejiogbe, “the king of all signs” that bears meaning highly pertinent to what’s happening on the island now.

IIII + IIII feels almost like practice by proxy, like Ifá seeping into your soul.

“When that symbol comes out in divination, one of the things that it means is spiritual awakening, and golpe de estado, which means state overthrow. Specifically, it says ‘rey muerto, rey puesto,’ so a king dies, a king takes his place. So we’re talking about a change of the guard, and we’re also talking about separation, because they’re two parallel lines that never meet,” he explains.

Purest light, a beginning, birth — these meanings are also tied to the sign. On “Bangah (Pico y Palo),” the relevance for Boricuas, now facing a heightened colonial state with the U.S.-appointed Fiscal Control Board whose austerity measures put debt repayment to vulture hedge funds leagues ahead of the well-being of Puerto Rican people, is even more specific. At first beat, Mun knew it was a song of war — but not in the Western understanding of the word.

“War, to me, comes out of a nationalist rhetoric, and it’s a way to get poor people to go and fight to protect the interests of rich people. So that’s what I feel war is; I don’t believe in that. But I do believe that conflict is real, and inside of the Yoruba pantheon, there’s an Orisha that is the owner of war. So if I’m going to begin to reflect on what war means in my life, I would start with Ogún,” he says.

Ogún, the blacksmith of Yoruba, wields both a machete and el yunque — the former recalls Los Macheteros fighting for independence in the late 70s, and the latter literally means the anvil, but is also the name of Puerto Rico’s national rainforest. In the religion of Palo, developed in Spanish colonies in the Caribbean by Central African peoples and also known as Las Reglas del Congo, Ogún’s energy translates as Sarabanda, the king of the forest. That’s where the non-coincidental connections meet, and where the Islamic greeting heard on the track —“As-salāmu ʿalaykum,” meaning “peace be upon you” — factors in.

“You end up with a population that needs healing more than anything else.”

“[In Palo they] literally use this Islamic greeting between initiants to greet themselves. I’ve always loved that greeting, just for the beauty of it: that message, peace be upon you. I just love it, and I think it’s the kind of message that I would love to see in almost everyday speech,” Mun says. “Maybe in the way in the 90s people used to say peace when they hung up the phone. It’s something we did in a moment, and I think….[with] the end of the apartheid days and a lot of the racial struggle that we had to deal with in the 90s, that peace made sense. And I think that phrase….makes sense right now.”

Although his aversion to the nation state means he doesn’t share the same form of independence end-goal as many Puerto Ricans, Mun says freedom is paramount, that “the colonial situation in Puerto Rico has to stop.”

“You have two powers, or two parties [in Puerto Rico, Partido Nuevo Progresista and Partido Popular Democrático], that have been giving us snake oil for the last 60, 80 years, so that they’re able to take control of public funds and do what they wanna do with their rich cronies,” he says. “[They’re not] preparing the groundwork for a free, independent Puerto Rico. And so that’s what our job is, to take those guys out of power now…and organize on a level where we’re going to be able to build infrastructure to free ourselves.”

Beyond that, the effect of hundreds of years of colonization — dating back to Columbus’ arrival in 1493 — is psychologically devastating, Mun stresses. “You end up with a population that needs healing more than anything else. Because we just have…I don’t even know how many years…of people telling us that we aren’t qualified to run our lives, and that’s just — that’s sad. We gotta get rid of that,” he says.

Before Ifá, Mun says, he couldn’t see more than a year down the line in life. Now, he envisions 20 years forward; by then he’ll have his own spiritual house. For now, as a young babalawo, IIII + IIII is an engaging, moving introduction to what will undoubtedly be a lifetime of positive guidance.

ÌFÉ’s IIII + IIII is out now.