How a pair of Puerto Rican jokesters became the alternative icons of a continent
Just as the midsummer twilight began to fade into night, the flags shot up into the air.
It was one of the closing concerts of the annual Latin Alternative Music Conference, and thousands of fans were packed into Brooklyn’s Prospect Park to see Calle 13. René Lopez (alias Residente), the band’s rapper and lyrical mastermind, was sweating his way bare-chested through a set the group’s classics. Behind him, a 12-piece band containing everything from samba drums to accordions roared. “Que viva Latinoamérica!” (“Long live Latin America!”), he shouted. The flags danced in response. Not just Puerto Rican flags, but Mexican. Colombian. Dominican. Salvadorian. Ecuadorian.
It’s hard to say exactly when or how Calle 13 transformed from a jokey, potty-mouthed reggaeton duo into the champions of cool kids, leftist students and rebel youth across the Spanish-speaking world. Yet today, the two Puerto Ricans easily pack stadiums from Santiago to Bogotá, rapping about revolution, sex, and the sublime in a voice both humorous and deadly serious all at once. Their super-fans are even known to tattoo entire song lyrics on their bodies in a display of their devotion.
“It was cool to see so many different flags,” says Timothy Bisig, a tour manager from Chile (Ana Tijoux, Bomba Estereo) who attended the Prospect Park concert. Bisig says that at most Latin concerts in the US, concertgoers only break out the flag representing the performer’s home country. “But for Calle 13, there was a flag for every country. It’s like they are here representing all of us. More than any band, they have a Pan-Latin vision.”
That Pan-Latin vision is the result of many miles spent running up and down the Americas playing shows. Calle 13 started touring abroad on the success of their self-titled 2005 debut album, back when “I want to drink from your chocolaty well” was a typical Calle 13 lyric (“I was having a lot of sex back then,” explains René with a shrug.)
The group began as a collaboration between two step-brothers, René who did the rapping and the writing, and Eduardo Cabra, a talented multi-instrumentalist who made the beats. René lived in gated neighborhood in Alto Trujillo, so when Eduardo came over to work on tracks, he had to announce himself as a “visitor or a resident.” When the time came to choose rap aliases, Eduardo naturally became “Visitante,” and René, “Residente.” It was the early 2000s, at the height of the reggaeton craze, and the brothers decided to try and do something different with the genre. For their first album, they signed to White Lion, the premier indie label pushing the sound in Puerto Rico and home of Tego Calderón.
Traveling around South America opened the minds of both René and Eduardo. Eduardo began to absorb the continent’s instruments and rhythms. Soon, the reggaeton beats were swapped for updates on Colombian cumbia, Argentinean tango, and Uruguayan candombe. What started as a hip-hop group became something much harder to define. “I like to mix Latin American folk with contemporary music and electronic instruments,” says Eduardo. “You hear new sounds, and you make new recipes.”
Meanwhile, René absorbed Latin America’s enchantments, but also its injustices and historical scars. All the humor and sex didn’t go away, but they were joined by dagger-sharp criticisms of oppressive governments and lyrical portraits of the struggling poor.
“When you make art, you have to write about everything that affects you and surrounds you. It’s like the dark period of Goya, which was affected by what was happening in the politics of Spain at the time,” says René, who holds a master’s degree in visual arts from the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. “That’s why I write about politics, but I also write about religion, about partying, about love — about everything.”
Even as Calle 13 has gotten more politically-minded over the course of their four studio albums, Rene says he’s tried to maintain the trademark sense of humor that made him famous on early tracks like “Atrévete-te-te” or “Suave.”
“It’s like back in the day, the jesters used humor to talk about very, very complicated things,” says Rene. “Everybody paid attention to them because it was funny, but at the same time they were telling the truth.”
Rene says that it’s a hard to strike a balance between highlighting social issues and not being preachy. “I don’t want to be boring, either,” he says. On the song “Latinoamérica,” the Pan-Latin anthem off the 2010 album Entren Los Que Quieren that features folk legends Susana Baca and Totó la Momposina, he says he tried to find a way to write an ode to a continent without coming off as a cheeseball. “So I just tried to describe very simple things about Latin America, things that not everyone pays attention to. Things that are beautiful and important and not boring at all.”
“I think that the fact that they are bringing these issues to the table is really interesting,” says Nadia Reiman, a producer for the NPR show Latino USA, who also attended the Prospect Park show. “If anything, it is making people all over Latin America aware of the politics around them. And in an age where every artist can just stay focused on themselves, their riches and their world, the fact that they use their spotlight to try and draw connections with the rest of the continent is definitely worth paying attention to.”
On tour, the group is known for populist initiatives that would give a record exec night tremors. Last year in Argentina, where Calle 13 is particularly beloved, they cancelled a show in the town of Comodoro Rivadavia after finding out that vendors were charging up to 500 pesos (around $100) for tickets. Also last year in El Salvador, they held a concert in which the entrance price was set in bags of rice and beans, to be donated to families affected by the brutal rains that had been devastating the country at the time.
Then there are other stories – like the time René was playing in Santiago, Chile in 2010, and had to get to the city of Puerto Montt for a show about 1000 kilometers to the South. Not a fan of airplanes, he published a tweet saying “I don’t have a car to get to Puerto Montt, so if somebody is interested in taking me, I’ll pay for gasoline and food.” He ended up choosing one of the fans who responded to drive him and narrated the journey through Chilean Patagonia to his 4.5 million Twitter followers.
“I couldn’t even imagine a less famous person doing that,” says Timothy Bisig. “After that, he stayed in Valparaíso for a week and you’d see him walking in the streets without bodyguards, you could go up and say hi.”
Although the music labels don’t know exactly what to do with them, Calle 13 has been a force in the Latin industry. They may lack the robust sales of, say, Shakira, or regular radio play on Latin stations in the US, but they’ve also managed to win 19 Latin Grammy Awards – the most of any artist in history - as well as two regular-old-Grammies. In 2011 alone, they took home nine Latin Grammies, including awards for “Album of the Year” and “Song of the Year.” And, as an illustration of just how genre-bending Calle 13 is, they won the awards for “Best Urban Song,” “Best Tropical Song,” and “Best Alternative Song,” all in the same year with songs off the same album.
“They are showing that you don’t need to do the mainstream thing, the way that other artists do things just to get radio airplay,” says Roberto Issac, Director of Music Programming at NBC’s bilingual music channel mun2. “But they have been authentic, and they are finding an audience that is reacting to that authenticity.”
“I think it’s interesting that their essence has stayed intact through all of this,” says Li Saumet, the vocalist for Colombian psych-cumbia band Bomba Estereo. “With so many garbage lyrics in music today, it’s great that they’ve gotten to the top of the charts and won Grammies without talking about tits and asses, while speaking their mind and making good music at the same time. And they continue supporting new artists and sharing the stage with them, and participating in independent festivals.”
Having become an alternative icon in Latin America, René has moved on to bigger projects recently. In June, he arranged a meeting with Argentinean president Cristina Fernández to ask her to lobby other leaders to include Puerto Rico in Latin American summit meetings. Calle 13 has been a very public advocate for Puerto Rican independence – a position that has made them controversial at home, where, for the last referendum in 1998, only 2.6 percent of Puerto Ricans voted in favor of independence. A new referendum is scheduled for later this year.
“I would like to be like you guys, with one flag instead of two,” says René. “Not everybody thinks like me back home, but a lot of people do, and it’s important to let the world know that not every Puerto Rican wants to become a state.”
Neither brother lives in Puerto Rico currently – René spends most of his time in Argentina with his model girlfriend Soledad Fandiño, and Eduardo lives mostly in Cuba with his wife, the Cuban singer Diana Fuentes. Soon, however, René will be re-locating to Bushwick, Brooklyn. The idea behind the move is to improve his English towards the end of eventually recording an English-language album, which may come as a surprise to those accustomed to hearing him rail on the US over the years.
“I’m not against the people here,” says René. “I have my comments about the government here and the way they have done things around the world throughout history, but the people from here aren’t guilty of that. And that’s something I want to talk about in English.”
Although English-language turns have meant big success for some Latin artists (see: the aforementioned Shakira), a bad English rap album could be a potential career disaster-in-waiting. But who knows? René is unarguably a talented lyricist, and if it works, it could open a huge new audience to hear his message.
“For me, this is all about connecting and communicating with people,” says René. “It’s very important. It’s like magic, when you write something and that thing you wrote affects somebody else’s life.”