Orishas, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Hip-hop's boast that it is a worldwide phenomenon remains undermined by a lack of global players outside the US. France's MC Solaar has gained respect, but is hardly a superstar. Now a trio of Cuban expats are making the leap from cult following to wider acceptance.

Hip-hop's boast that it is a worldwide phenomenon remains undermined by a lack of global players outside the US. France's MC Solaar has gained respect, but is hardly a superstar. Now a trio of Cuban expats are making the leap from cult following to wider acceptance.

From their 2000 debut on, Orishas have seamlessly fused hip-hop beats with Afro-Cuban rhythms. Now they're taking their shows to the next level by introducing musicians to add variety to performances that relied on their vivacity and the island's feel-good factor.

This mirrors a change in the group's recording habits. After two albums of salsa-infused rap, for this year's El Kilo Orishas added a live band for a richer, more layered sound. Judging by the audience at this gig, the new direction is working. Among the chic Latinos and grey-haired Cuban solidarity campaigners were a few kids who looked like they were more at home with Jay-Z than Ibrahim Ferrer.

Not that Orishas showed any interest in their mainstream potential. Although they formed in Paris, they rapped in Spanish and spoke in that tongue to a noisy crowd that danced out of their seats throughout.

Despite this, it's clear that Orishas' strength remains their ability to cross genres effortlessly. The crooner Roldan Rivera and his rap compadres Ruzzo and Yotuel were comfortable with the same perky rhythms and showed true class when they came together on harmonies. It was altogether more seductive than your typical hip-hop thuggishness, even with the evening's "Hey, ladies" moments. The trio pulled girls from the crowd to dance, but with genuine smiles rather than lascivious grins.

Their set relied almost entirely on the current album, which was fine as it was their most fully realised work to date, ranging from the dramatic, whispered "Stress" to the carnival mayhem of "Tumbando y dando". With sprightly piano figures and vibrant brass stabs, there was a party feel even around the more melancholy numbers, apart from the anaemic R&B boy-band balladry of El Kilo 's title track. The backing was so pristine, in fact, that you found yourself yearning to glimpse the band that had laid down such catchy tunes.

The two musicians who did make it on stage were not quite enough. Over Orishas' regular percussion and scratching, a bassist occasionally aided the changes in pace, especially with the cooler reggae feel he injected into slower numbers "Distinto" and "El Kilo", while "Stress" had the depth of a cavernous dub plate. Shame that the bass player could not work his magic on more tracks, for he often had to help out with percussion, as Orishas had lost the breathtaking services of the Buena Vista Social Club associate Anga Diaz. The trumpet-player's jazzy solos got lost in the mix, too.

Still, Orishas are proving that they can update Cuba's musical strengths and show the US superstars how to perform live. With a big band, they could be great.

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