Nuevo Culture

‘Even in Your Darkest Hour, This Too Can Be Turned Around’: ÌFÉ on Death and New Beginnings

0000+0000, the new album from the artist Otura Mun — who performs as ÌFÉ — stands in direct contrast to his acclaimed 2017 debut, IIII+IIII. As Mun describes it, the projects are yin and yang, capturing two opposing energies embedded in Ifá, the religious practice in which Mun is a babalawo, or priest. Both album titles refer to signs in the Ifá tradition: While IIII+IIII represents new beginnings, light, and openness, 0000+0000 connotes darkness. “It’s the night, it’s the storm, it’s contraction,” Mun says. “It means death is at your doorstep.”

0000+0000 came at a time of massive changes for Mun. He’d been living in Puerto Rico for more than 20 years when the pandemic hit. As a diabetic, he was worried about what Covid-19 would mean for him, and when his landlord told him that his living situation would be changing, he decided the best move would be to pack up and go to New Orleans, a place he’d always thought about living in. “People say you move to New Orleans and New Orleans might kick you out. I don’t feel like that was the case for me,” he says on a phone call from his newfound home. “I had a lot of confirmation that I was making the right decision.”

Almost immediately, collaborators began appearing in his orbit. One of the first people who called Mun once he’d settled in the city was the New Orleans percussionist Bill Summers, who was a member of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters in the 1970s. He and Mun played together repeatedly; eventually, Summers’ drumming made it onto the album’s finale, “Closing Player.” In this way, 0000+0000 feels like a memory book of the people Mun has crossed paths with recently. The New Orleans singer Lex lends his vocals to the opener “Preludio II”; Robby the Lord, a member of the Congolese sapeur society, lays down an unexpected verse on “Fake Blood.”

The collaborations widen the sounds on the record while also representing an evolution for Mun. “I felt like I’d reached a musical ceiling with what I was capable of doing as a musician, to a certain extent, in San Juan,” he says. “Once I hit that ceiling, I was like, ‘Okay, I can become a better singer, I can get better at drumming — but I can’t learn to do jazz improvisation on another instrument. If I want to reach out further, I need to dialogue with someone who has a skillset that I don’t have.“

While it marks a personal and creative step forward, 0000+0000 is also deeply linked to the chaos and turmoil of the world it was made in. You can hear it clearly: The percussion is more aggressive, the tones are dark, Mun’s voice is louder and more focal than ever before. The force behind the project is inextricably linked to the weight of 0000+0000 as a religious symbol; in divination, the idea is that one should embrace death fearlessly as part of a natural life cycle. Mun was thinking about the idea of embracing death as he watched unrest in the world — the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd, the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, ecological destruction, the capitalistic structures that create racial and economic hierarchies in Western society. So much in the Western world, he feels, needs to be tore down and rebuilt anew.

“There’s a vision of the world that is in decline, and we have to not fear its decline,” Mun says. “It’s got to be better than this — it has to be better than billionaires owning everything and us not being able to feed ourselves or take care of ourselves when we get sick. Race is a hierarchical system that’s not real, and if we can let it die, we can move on to something that could possibly be more meaningful.”

Mun is daringly honest and confrontational on the record, both in terms of themes and sounds. “Fake Blood,” for example, examines the debate around gun violence and the lack of transparency that keeps real conversations and action from taking place. “Wednesday’s Child” is one of the most intense moments on the album, grappling with the idea of generational trauma and Mun’s own personal experiences with patterns of abandonment in his family. As weighty as the themes are, the song is buoyed by an uplifting, almost soothing energy that lingers throughout the arrangement — and the project as a whole. “In Ifá, the practice tells you there’s no negative, there’s no curse that can’t be uncursed, there’s no negative that can’t be turned into a positive — which is an extremely hopeful outlook,” he says. “It lets you know that even in your darkest hour, this too can be turned around.”