Burgos doesn't look like a hotbed of hip-hop. Situated on the plains of northern Spain, this picturesque city is known for its quiet streets, 13th-century cathedral and as a stop on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route.
But behind the picture-postcard facade is a less manicured place, where joblessness, petty crime and drugs are as common as in many other Spanish towns. This is the Burgos that Ricardo Pisa Hernández, or “Cardín” as his friends call him, knows and for him and many of the youngsters he grew up with crime was the obvious career path.
Like many of them, Cardín ended up in prison – in his case, with a six-year sentence for robbery, assault and drugs-related offences.
But although the future looked bleak, there was an upside to incarceration. Cardín was reunited in Burgos jail with two childhood friends, Vanderley Almeida (“Vandy”) and Daniel Borja Hernández (“Dino”). As kids they had invented and performed their own raps together on the streets of Burgos, aping their African-American heroes like Jay-Z and Tupac Shakur. In prison, they continued where they had left off, making up rhymes and calling themselves Flow Kaló.
Earlier this year they recorded a CD, titled Irrepetible, or "unrepeatable", which is due for release in the coming weeks. The first album ever to have been made in a Spanish jail, it was recorded in a makeshift mini-studio installed inside the prison with a professional producer at the controls. Several local rappers and singers also feature as guests.
Music has helped the trio get through the long days of their sentences and given them hope of a crime-free life after prison.
“It’s a release for us, it’s helped us in a lot of ways and it’s changed us,” says Cardín, of the recording project.
Dressed in a hoodie and baseball cap, he is a shy, skinny 25 year old of Romany ethnicity.
“Before, we weren’t as interested in music, we were just involved in crime, in stealing, in smoking marijuana, taking drugs and so on,” he says. “But now it’s all about the music, we’re calmer and living our lives.”
Having served four years of his sentence, Cardín's security status has been relaxed, so he can leave the prison each day to take part in a training course, before returning to jail each evening. He talks to The Irish Times in the offices of a local Gypsy association, the Unión Gitana de Burgos, which encouraged the trio's music (two-thirds of the group are Romany) and oversaw the recording of the CD. Two local charitable foundations funded it.
Kelian Borja, an educational worker, has masterminded the whole project. Having known Cardín since he was a boy, he is delighted at what it has done for the three prisoners.
“They went from spending eight hours a day in the prison courtyard without anything to do to having the chance to make a record,” Borja says. “That was a huge boost for them personally and it also got them recognition from the prison authorities.”
He adds: “And people outside the prison, above all people who already knew them, have seen how their friends, despite being behind bars here in Burgos, have managed to make a CD. That’s a huge boost – it’s given them wings.”
Nonetheless, jail is still a challenge for them, as songs like Entre rejas ("behind bars") testify, with its description of the harshness and loneliness of prison life. Other songs tell of the trio's vices before imprisonment, like Maldita droga ("Damn drugs"), in which Cardín raps: "You've spent three days shivering in bed/while your mum keeps asking what's the matter?/How come you've changed from one day to the next/when you used to have it all and now you've nothing?"
Flow Kaló’s lyrics also touch on political issues and Cardín is particularly riled by the anti-Gypsy feeling he says is present in Spain.
Racism against Gypsies
“Gypsies don’t get the same opportunities as other Spaniards,” he says. “Things have got better, thanks to these kinds of association that exist, but I think there’s still a lot of racism.”
He blames the conservative government for failing to help the Romany and other marginalised communities.
“If there’s a family of four and you only give them a €300 handout, they’re not going to be able to make ends meet. And then people say ‘but that lot are always stealing’. What do you expect them to do?”
Cardín has two years left to serve of his sentence, and he is expecting to be released before his friends Dino and Vandy. But while he is now planning a solo project, he insists they will also feature on it.
“In one of our songs, I say that even though we’re prisoners, we’re still hanging in there,” he says. “The three of us were together before and we’re still together now.”