The growing popularity of Spanish-language hip-hop has created a new music style, Latin urban, and even a new U.S. radio format with a name only the mother of a marketing man could love: Hurban, for Hispanic urban. Though it may seem like a recent pop phenomenon, especially in light of the reggaeton explosion, the style has roots in underground movements from the 1990s.
In Cuba, rappers risked governmental wrath for performing what officials labeled "the music of the enemy." Among Havana's pioneers was the group now known as Orishas, named for the gods of Afro-Cuban religion. On Wednesday at Anaheim's JC Fandango, the group made its first Southland appearance in four years, proving that its competitors have yet to surpass the bar they set with their soaring brand of Cuban hip-hop.
Backed by a live percussionist and a wizard of a DJ, the thirtysomething singer-songwriters offered an ample selection from three studio albums they've put out in six years, an astonishingly rich repertoire. They opened with "Que Pasa?" from their stirring CD "Emigrante," a 2003 Latin Grammy winner displaying the group's fusion at its peak.
That song has all the elements that turn their rap into art -- the contrasting but interlacing vocals, the sweet and emotional Cuban melodies, the gritty rap attack in a cascade of syncopated Spanish syllables, the irresistible Afro-Cuban rhythms.
In person, we get to see which Orisha embodies each distinctive voice -- Roldan Gonzalez Rivero, the classic Cuban \o7sonero\f7; Hiram Riveri Medina (Ruzzo), the high-speed rapper with the nasaly, almost cartoonish tone; Yotuel Romero Manzanares, the strong backup rapper with the model's physique.
When they sang in unison, they soared like a church choir, although booming lows from recorded tracks sometimes overpowered their live vocals. It's hard to believe these guys harmonize so well while living separately in Milan, Paris and Madrid.
Lesser Latino rappers can learn from Orishas' stage attire. Not an oversized football jersey or backward baseball cap in sight. The group hasn't lost its national, ethnic and racial identity while absorbing outside musical influences.
So they don't just copy the now-cliched gangsta gestures of their African American hip-hop counterparts. Instead, they proudly exude that tropical Afro-Cuban swing -- derived from modern mambo and historic rumba -- that has for years made the world move like them.
It's a shame more people didn't come out, especially since Orishas is the first Cuban group in many moons to break through punitive visa restrictions that have barred their peers from the U.S.
Discerning music lovers still have a chance, though, to catch this great act in action tonight at the Conga Room.
No self-respecting Hurban should miss it.