Catalina Maria Johnson

International radio broadcaster, bilingual cultural journalist, music curator

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“As an African American growing up in the States, we live in a racial path where we’re not encouraged beyond our our own perceived cultural boundaries”, says Otura Mun, explaining why he took his first trip to Puerto Rico almost 20 years ago. That trip was the beginning of Otura Mun’s definitive relocation to the island, a base from which he has created extraordinary music both as a DJ, Producer and now with his own ensemble, ÌFÉ.

It all started in Goshen, India, he explains, where Otura Mun was born as Mark Underwood. He had started playing drums at 10 years of age, and been around music his whole life, including at the church where his mom played the piano.

At 18, he won a drum line  scholarship to North Texas University (Otura Mun was the Drum Line’s youngest member at the time) and in Texas, as a DJ, he came to know and admire the culture of the Latino B boys, and when someone thought he was Puerto Rican, he decided to find out more about Latin culture and took that first life-changing vacation trip.

So began a process of what Otura Mun calls “cultural bridge-building” and as a DJ well-honed in his craft, he describes that he “slipped right into the San Juan scene”. At some point, wanting to transition into making his own music rather than playing other people’s records, Otura Mun got into production and worked with rap ensemble Cultura Profética and indie singer-songwriter Mima’s extraordinary album El Pozo, which featured songs by Rita Indiana.

At that point in his musical career he decided to finally spend some time – two years-  to studying Cuban rumba, something he had wanted to do for quite some time, declaring: “Before I could fiddle with the rules of the music, I needed to really learn it.”

Another transformative experience in his life came about, says Otura Mun, when he decided to undertake studies and went to Cuba to become initiated as a babalawo, or priest in the Yoruba religion, “It was renacer on every level”.

The change, which Otura Mun calls “monumental”,  resulted in the creation of the ensemble that we’ll hear at Chicago’s World Music Festival, called ÌFÉ.

House of Love, for example, is ÌFÉ’s second single, which as Otura Mun describes, includes a homage to his deceased brother in the lines algo pa’ ti, algo pa’ mí, which refers to a morning ritual in which he dialogues with the ancestors:

In response to what makes a composition like House of Love so uniquely textured, Otura Mun comments, “I might be the only person that loves dancehall like I do but that also speaks the Cuban rumba!”

He continues to explain that he is able to see the similarities between the beat structures of these two genres, as well as taking something like the diana from the rumba (a call at the beginning of a piece which adorns and “warms up the situation”) for the purposes of his own compositions.

Weaving together how spirituality and grooves come together in his music and his life, Otura Mun gives the example of seeking the name for his band.

He found the word ÌFÉ, which means love and passion, to be a powerful starting point to build the concept of what he wanted to create, declaring: “It has a spiritual sensibility and fuerza that is inextricable from the project. My life’s purpose has changed. I have to write these songs. I have a message that I want to put out.”

ÌFÉ’s concerts in Chicago include a residency and workshops Sept. 8 and Sept. 10 at Segundo Belvis Cultural Center and performances, as well as concerts Sept. 9 at the Chop Shop and Sept. 10 at Concord Music Hall.

Check Catalina’s Beat Latino radio show for a weekly exploration of Latin music, past, present and future.