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Enriched Rap

Orishas backs its lyrics en espanol with conga drums, piano, harpsichord, brass, strings and a Cuban guitar. There's not a gangsta riff to be found.


Since the beginning of the rock era, records from England and the United States have had a profound influence on Latin American music.

During the '60s, Latin artists tried to emulate the Beatles and Bob Dylan. In the '70s, they imitated progressive rock, and the new wave of the early '80s inspired such rock en espanol groups as Caifanes and Soda Stereo.

It was inevitable, then, that hip-hop would sooner or later result in a new subgenre, rap en espanol.

During the '90s, outfits such as Molotov, Control Machete and Illya Kuryaki & the Valderramas gained popularity in attempting to transpose the hip-hop aesthetic into the Spanish vernacular.

It was a difficult task. Except for El Gran Silencio, which fused rap with the rancheras of its native Mexico, none of these groups managed to create a distinctive musical statement.

Now someone has finally taken Latin hip-hop to another level: the Cuban collective known as Orishas.

Based in Spain and France, the quartet, which plays tonight at the Conga Room, has created a highly original musical stew by combining equal measures of rap and Afro-Cuban idioms.

"We have destroyed a lot of preconceived ideas of what Latin music is supposed to sound like," says Yotuel "Guerrero" Manzanares, one of the group's rappers. "We've combined hip-hop with the most sublime, authentic elements of Cuban son, timba and funk."

Manzanares and fellow rapper Ruzzo were members of a Cuban hip-hop group Amenaza. While on tour in Paris, they hooked up with MC Livan Aleman and singer Roldan Rivero, a member of a group playing traditional Cuban music.

Cuban Rhythms and Sounds

The four joined forces and recorded their debut album, "A Lo Cubano," with noted French hip-hop producer Niko. Instead of relying on the genre's standard loops and samples, Orishas created richly layered backing tracks using piano and harpsichord, trumpets and trombones, the small Cuban guitar called the tres and a string ensemble.

But the most important guest musician was Anga Diaz, a ferocious conga player and one of the most gifted percussionists to come out of Cuba in the last decade.

Lyrically, "A Lo Cubano" covers a variety of themes. On "Represent," the rappers express a sweet longing for their homeland. "Madre" is a love letter to their mothers. And the bouncy "Atrevido" is a cautionary tale about men who prostitute their women to the tourists who visit Cuba looking for cheap sex.

"We might be very poor, but we still know how to read and write," says Manzanares. "The fact that we live in a Third World country doesn't mean that we're out of touch with reality."

If there is an underlying message that defines "A Lo Cubano," it's one of of positivity, in both music and lyrics.

"The Cuban ghetto might be different from the American ghetto, but it's still the same [expletive]," says Manzanares. "If you've made mistakes in your life, you have to do your best so that the following generations won't do the same things you did."

Which is why Manzanares is perplexed by the aggressiveness of some of the rap coming from the U.S.

"I don't understand," he says. "They talk about inciting violence, killing your friends, treating women like whores. It's bizarre. In America, there's rappers shooting one another, while some white guys are wearing Malcolm X caps."

Manzanares thinks the power of hip-hop to communicate a message cannot be underestimated.

"Rap is like a school where your fans listen to the stories you have to tell," he says. "That's why I don't like gangsta rap. If that's what rap is all about, then I'm not a rapper. I make a different kind of music."

* Orishas, Friday at the Conga Room, 5364 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, 10 p.m. $15 and $35. (323) 938-1696.

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