facetime | otura mun of ife

May 10, 2017

Globetrotter's Ifeanyi Awachie got personal with Otura Mun - lead man for ÌFÉ, the Afro-Caribbean ensemble serving Puerto Rican rhythms and Yoruba spirituality. Otura takes us on a transatlantic journey.

words by: Ifeanyi Awachie

The first time I heard “House of Love (Ogbe Yekun)” by electronic Afro-Caribbean project ÌFÉ, I immediately put the track on loop. I can only describe the song’s three repeating chords, the video’s minimalist aesthetic, and the rhythm of both the song and video as hypnotic. I found myself craving a white tunic and black Ray-Bans so I could serve looks like the musicians in the video. “House of Love (Ogbe Yekun)” showed me this spiritual lifestyle I'd never seen before, one that was hip and performative, whose acolytes smoke weed, play drums, and look and sound damn fly.

The creative director and frontman behind the mesmerizing music and visuals of ÌFÉ is Otura Mun. You might clock the lanky artist, with his trademark cap, shades, and white shirt, and peg him for a transatlantic cool guy with roots in NY or LA. But in the 80s, Mun was Mark Underwood, growing up in small town Indiana. At the time, his primary interest was music. While in college at the University of North Texas, Mun was a regular at an open mic hosted by his classmate Erykah Wright - who we now know as the goddess Erykah Badu. Erykah’s open mic “opened my mind to the unlimits of what black expression might be,” Mun says.

In 1998, Mun’s brother died. “I burned bridges,” he says of his response to his deep loss. Mun started buying white flowers and taking them to the ocean, lighting a white candle, and sitting by the water for the whole of his brother’s death anniversary. The next year, an airline error earned Mun a free ticket to anywhere. A longtime fan of dancehall, Mun chose Jamaica. The airline told him no, subsequently rejecting his requests for St. Thomas and St. Croix. He landed, at last on Puerto Rico - a last-ditch effort to get to the Caribbean - and flew to the island with $150 in his pocket and a two-week plan. When he ran out of money, he traded mixtapes.

Puerto Rico was where Mun came face to face with Yoruba religion for the first time. While DJing a party in PR, Mun came face to face with Yoruba religion for the first time. He met a group of guys playing songs dedicated to the orishas (Yoruba deities). A fellow DJ from Nigeria was blown away by the drummers’ performance - he understood them perfectly. These Puerto Rican musicians were singing in fluent Yoruba. It hit Mun then - this music and language had survived the Middle Passage and lifetimes of slavery; generations of Africans had preserved and passed them down. Yoruba religion, as practiced in Puerto Rico, made Otura feel represented in spiritual practice for the first time. “I kept [the religion] at arm's’ distance for a while,” he says. “But then I wanted to know.”

Mun decided to move to Puerto Rico. Learning Spanish allowed him to rebuild his world, broken by his brother’s death, through language. He decided to make performing music a central part of his life. At the same time, he felt called to the Yoruba faith. He says, “I decided, if I go back [to Puerto Rico], let me dedicate one side of my life to [music] and one side to spiritual practice. I thought both would be ways to better myself as a person.”

As he studied Yoruba religion more deeply, Mun discovered that parts of his daily routine, things he did intuitively, were completely in line with the practice. Buying flowers for his brother? “[That’s] something done for Egun,” he says. “One of the first things I did in Puerto Rico was go to the river - that had to do with Oshun, but I wasn’t aware of her at the time.” Soon, Mun started hoping to become a priest, but you don’t choose the priesthood - the priesthood chooses you. When chosen for initiation, Mun received his sign, or life path, Ogbe Yekun, which is characterized by a divisive nature. Ogbe Yekun fit Mun perfectly: “No soy un billete de cien, I’m not a hundred-dollar bill - I either mix with people or I don’t.” Mun released ÌFÉ’s first singles in the same year that he completed his initiation, fusing his dual dedication to music and spirituality.

In “House of Love (Ogbe Yekun),” Mun reflects on his late brother, his practice, and his distinctive sign. The lyrics are partly addressed to his brother:

Dime, hermano, soy tu servidor / El mundo frio, siento el dolor
Tell me, brother, I’m your servant / The world is cold, they won’t touch me

The video’s black and white format symbolizes the balance of light and darkness, life and death, that is characteristic of Ogbe Yekun. Mun wanted to make the song as personal as possible while also speaking to a broader audience, including other Yoruba religious. “You don’t need to know the religion,” he says, “but if you do know, there’s a rich world of codes that I’m opening.”

Mun’s fashion sense, cultivated since his small town years, blooms in the “House of Love” video. “I wanted people to look a certain way,” he says. “I bought everyone’s clothes. I wanted Kathy [Cepeda, singer in ÌFÉ, dressed in black in the video] to look vintage, glam. I knew the glasses were gonna pop, the hats were gonna pop.” Style was so key to Mun’s vision for “House of Love” that he reached out to a fashion photographer, Luis R. Vidal, to shoot the video.

Mun knew putting out “House of Love” would be controversial. He was putting on display a religion that, in the Caribbean, has been practiced mostly in secrecy. Now, not only is Mun posting Yoruba symbolism on Facebook and YouTube, where it can be viewed and shared with an endlessly multiplying audience, he’s also portraying the religion in a new, contemporary way - one that might not jive with the entire Yoruba faith community. However, Mun has found that the stories he has to tell are vital: “There have been babalawos who have hit me up and loved it. [They say], ‘Keep making music videos - this shows people how I feel about the religion.’”

Between nailing his vision and completing a world tour within a year of starting ÌFÉ, Mun’s been pretty successful. “I never doubted I was capable, but I don’t think my band felt that way,” he says. One night after a show, one of ÌFÉ’s drummers, Rafael Maya, happened to board an elevator with a keyboard player who had allegedly performed with Nigerian legend Fela Kuti. The keyboardist, and everyone else in the elevator, began to applaud. Maya was stunned. Mun wasn’t. He knows - and we agree - ÌFÉ is headed for big things.

Sample ÌFÉ above, and whet your appetite for the full-length record from Otura Mun’s project, with its fresh, new inflections of spirituality, style, and art.

All images c/o IFE