Ruzzo, Roldan, before there was Orishas, you guys played in bands like Amenaza and Rico Son. Tell us a bit more about that period.
Hiram Riverí Medina aka. Ruzzo: "Amenaza was a band that I started back in 1995 and which helped to lay the foundations of Cuban rap."
In those days rap and hip-hop were still seen as subversive music in Cuba, no?
Ruzzo: "Yes, absolutely, but it wasn't just rap, it was all western music really; even The Beatles we a big no-no in Cuba. It wasn't until Cubans started forming hip-hop bands themselves, that things slowly started to change. With Amenaza we used rap to criticize the government, but we always did it with a lot of humor and double entendres in our lyrics (having initially tested the Cuban government's tolerance for freedom of expression, the genre is now backed officially, through the Agencia Cubana de Rap, which provides a state-run record label and hip-hop magazine, red.). A bit to our own surprise we started to gain the respect of the government after a while, and finally we triumphed at the Festival de Rap Cubano de Alamar, a festival organized among others by Nehanda Abiodun, herself a member of the Republic of New Africa, a movement with close ties to the Black Panthers."
Roldan, being immersed in traditional Cuban music from a young age, your musical background is totally different.
Roldán González Rivero aka. Roldan: "Well, for starters Cuba is a very musical country and children learn to dance, sing and play instruments from a very young age. Personally I was very much influenced by my father who was an amateur singer and guitarist. He really had a beautiful voice. I started singing when I was only eight years old; of course not on a professional level yet, just at home or with some of my friends at school. I eventually ended up studying classical guitar and around that same time I joined a couple of bands. When I left Cuba I was singing with a band called Rico Son. During a European tour with that band, I decided to stay in France and a couple of years later I met Ruzzo there. A that time my knowledge of rap and hip-hop was still very limited; I had always been involved in traditional Cuban music and was a stranger to that scene. We really met by chance in a Parisian nightclub."
Ruzzo: "I arrived in Paris to perform at the XXL hip-hop festival in Bobigny. At night we'd often hang out at La Coupole, a Parisian nightclub famous for playing Latin music."
Roldan: "When we started with Orishas, at first we experimented for a bit, to find out what could work and what wouldn't; mixing traditional Cuban music with hip-hop hadn't been done yet at that time. We hadn't signed with a record label yet, but nonetheless we started working on our first album with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, convinced we'd stumbled onto something massive. On a personal level I wasn't quite convinced from the get-go, mainly because I had no feel for the hip-hop market, but after a while I realized that what we were doing would become huge!"
Once you signed with EMI things went very fast for you guys.
Roldan: "Make that "too fast"! (laughs) You have to take into account that we arrived fresh from Cuba, a country that resembles a museum, and that we had no experience whatsoever with the business side of music. In Cuba it's quite hard to make a name for yourself as a musician, because almost everyone plays music there and even though rap and hip-hop are tolerated now, rappers still have a bit of a negative image. The first three years with Orishas, when success fell in our laps so to speak, were like living in an alternate dimension!"
Who in the band came up with the name Orishas and why?
Roldan: "Orishas are demigods in Afro-Cuban religion (Santería is a system of beliefs that merges the Yoruba religion, which was brought to the New World by enslaved West Africans sent to the Caribbean to work on sugar plantations, with Roman Catholic and Native American traditions, red.)"
Ruzzo: "We chose that name because it's a term that reflects something authentically Cuban and at the same time also hints at Cuba's African heritage. Of course it also seemed quite funny to present ourselves as musical demigods! (laughs)"