The burgeoning Urban Latino genre has come of age with the arrival of reggaetón-heavy Spanish-language radio stations, Urban Latino magazine, and even a Rough Guide compilation disc. The catch-all phrase — used to describe traditional South of the Border music inflected with everything from hip-hop and R&B to funk and rock — is being pushed as a new, buzzworthy trend, but it's actually decades old. Latin fusion has been a big part of the Bay Area's live music and DJ scenes, crossing over from strictly Latin audiences in recent years to dancehall and hip-hop crowds, indie-rock refugees, and cumbia-embracing hipsters.
Given that Latinos are California's fastest-growing demographic, it isn't surprising that a diverse music scene has developed from that community — after all, the Bay Area was instrumental in the Latin-rock phenomenon of the '70s, and live Latin jazz can still be heard here almost every night of the week. What's interesting is that despite its progressive stance, this latest blend remains firmly rooted in tradition, running contrary to most contemporary trends.
A short list of notable Nuevo Latino locals includes bilingual MCs Los Rakas and Deuce Eclipse, genre-bending singer Femi, Latin funkmeisters Carne Cruda, and Erick Santero — a DJ, MC, and ordained Santeria priest who recently released his second album, El Hijo de Obatala. During a break at "Voodoo Wednesdays," his weekly Latin-themed club night at Luka's Taproom in Oakland, the Guatemala-born, Oakland-based Santero says he works within a music community hailing from locales all over Latin America. "Some of us are from the ghettos of Panama," he says. "Some of us are from the barrios of Mexico. ... We're all contributing our spice to the soup."
Latin music's various subgenres — among them reggaetón, salsa, cumbia, and merengue — are connected through a shared cultural history, which can ultimately be traced back to Africa. "It's all variations on versions," Santero explains. The urban part of the equation, he adds, is "the reality we're living in."
While ocha, or Afro-Latin sacred music, is readily available in its traditional form, Santero wanted to update this folkloric template. "I had to do an album for the orishas," he says, referring to the West African elemental deities syncretized with Christian saints. "I needed an orishas track I could drop in a club."
Adapting ocha music into an urban format wasn't a difficult task for Santero. "We interact with orishas in our tradition through a tonal drum language," he says, which "can also be translated into snares and kick drums and hi-hats."
El Hijo de Obatala seamlessly infuses traditional Latin rhythms and ocha music alongside electronic beats, lending contemporary flavor to an ancestral style. Call-and-response chants and heartbeat drums remain at its foundation, along with clubby electro keyboard stabs, turntable scratches, brassy horns, lilting flutes, and reggaetón, salsa, and cumbia rhythms. Santero's staccato lyrical delivery cuts like a machete through "Ochosi" and "Checherengoma," while guest vocalists Femi, Omega, Krudas Cubensi, Orlando Torriente, and Deuce Eclipse make the album seem more like a collective effort than a solo project. The orisha-affirming aspect is reinforced throughout the disc. It's in the title — a reference to Obatala, the orisha governing creation — as well as in Abba Yahudah's colorful artwork for the CD booklet, and in the song "Agua del Mar," an ode to Yemaya, goddess of the oceans.
El Hijo de Obatala helps bolster Latin music against its popular but predictable cousins, hip-hop and dancehall reggae. Santero's East Bay record release party, at the monthly "Baylando" event, could be called a minifestival for the scene, with rappers, DJs, and two full live bands. Santero is going one step farther, too, bringing the ritual-myth tradition of orishas into the clubs, creating not just an Urban Latino classic, but what could rightfully be called folklore for the dancefloor.