“Nosotros nomás cantamos from the heart, sometimes it´s about love, or anger, or political issues, or just party”, says Raka Rico, who along with cousin Raka Dun make up the hip hop duo “Los Rakas”. We are conversing at SXSW shortly before their showcase, and the cousins are describing to me how they make their music.

From Panama, they came to become Los Rakas almost by chance. Raka Dun began entertaining at a young age, dancing with a folkloric troupe in Panama,  whereas Raka Rich started his path directly with music, lip-syncing to merengue tunes in neighborhood contests. As teens, the two coincided in the Bay area, and at some point were brought together in performance as part of a youth organization. This first musical collaboration was so well-received they decided to continue creating music.

Their potent reggae-tinged hip hop along the way pays homage to their homeland’s cultural icons. Even their name comes from a thoroughly Panamanian term, “rakataka” which denotes the culture the ghetto, hip hop, street-savvy culture of their music. As Raka Rico explains, “If we wore tighter clothes and chains, that would be different, that would be  ‘yeyo’. By way of further explanation, they sing a bit of one of their tunes:

“… Parqueo con shatas
Puro lapecillo que le gusta la plata
nada es laca, lo yeyo ya paso
ahora viene lo raka”

At this point I realize I am in need of some translation, so los Rakas give me a fascinating lesson on their Panamanian dialect and its mixes of Spanish and Jamaican patois and Caribbean terms. For example, in the verse above, “shatas” is “shooters”, “lapecillos” is “little homies”, and “Nada es laca” means “No te estoy mintiendo, I’m keeping it solid” .

Los Rakas attribute their use of  this melodic Panamian dialect as part of what makes their sound unique.  The other part, they add, is the immense richness of the musical influences from their homeland, a geographically crucial crossroads that birthed many genres, including Spanish-language reggae. To this they add what they have picked up from Bay area artists that rap in English.

But perhaps what makes them most unique is their desire to manifest the richness of the Panamian culture they love so much. Every part of their expression, from their music, to their fashion to the designs of their CD covers, is tied to Panama. Their upcoming EP, “Chancletas y Camisetas Bordadas”,  is named first,  for the ubiquitous flip flops which everybody wears. ‘“Without them, your feet will be all tore up”, says Raka Rico. Secondly, Rico continues, showing me under his t-shirt, is the camiseta bordada he is wearing – a white undershirt with the sleeve holes and neck hole embroidered with brightly colored yarn (check it in the video greeting to Chicago). They also mention the symbol of their group, wildly painted buses known as “diablos rojos” (red devils) named so for crazy driving, tight rims, neon lights and loud music.

Los Rakas’ fierce and proud claim to their experiences and roots is a big part of the message they want to share, declares Raka Dun: “We want people to feel comfortable with themselves. A lot of Afrolatinos don´t feel comfortable with being black. Indigenous Latinos don´t feel comfortable either. You GOT to love yourself, and your roots and where you come from.”

On Sunday, April 17, 2011, 8:00pm at Lincoln Hall
Address: 2424 N. Lincoln Ave, Chicago , IL | Cost: $20

Share this! (You know you want to.)

Got something to say? Say it loud!