In the opening minutes of "Sin Mapa," the new documentary about Calle 13, the camera pans across a small group of curanderos (shamans) from Amantani, a tiny island in the middle of Peru's Lake Titicaca, who are gathered for a special ceremony. They brandish coca leaves, kantuta ("flowers of the earth") and a llama fetus adorned in the colors of the Peruvian flag. Their guest of honor is Calle 13's MC Rene Perez, a.k.a. Residente, come to escape the shallow trappings of overnight success.
The shamans say their prayers to the Three Worlds of the Andes; Perez, 31, invokes the name of his girlfriend, 2001 Miss Universe beauty queen and off-Broadway actress Denise Quinones; and the fires begin to burn into the night. "In that moment, my mind was filled with promise," Perez's voice-over intones. "With the energy of the fire and the power of music, I could continue to communicate with the people."
The scene recalls director Walter Salles' 2004 film "The Motorcycle Diaries," about the young Che Guevara's search for the real soul of Latin America -- except this time the protagonist is a wisecracking, tattoo-laden Puerto Rican rapper with a two-person video crew.
"Sin Mapa" ("Without a Map") takes its name from a Calle 13 paean to Latin American immigrants called "Pa'l Norte" ("To the North"); the song fades constantly in and out during the documentary, which premiered July 29 at the New York International Latino Film Festival and was just released on DVD. Juxtaposing encounters with indigenous people from Peru, Venezuela and Colombia and scenes from the band's touring life, the film details Perez's ambivalence about fame and fortune and shows him fulfilling his desire to connect to a Latin America that is almost never seen.
Fronting a band that includes his half-brother, Eduardo Cabra (Visitante), and his sister Ileana (PG-13), Perez and his formidable rhyming skills took the Latin music world by storm with Calle 13's self-titled debut in 2006. Though the band was classified as a reggaeton act, Perez and composer-instrumentalist Cabra always insisted they were much more.
"Calle 13 has this kooky, trendy, hipster, not exactly street kind of flavor," said Raquel Z. Rivera, co-editor of the anthology "Reggaeton" (Duke University Press). "Sometimes Rene uses this free-flowing imagery with sweet lyrics that almost remind me of [Cuban folk singer] Silvio Rodriguez."
A self-proclaimed champion of middle-class Puerto Ricans who are "too poor to be rich and too rich to be poor," Perez grew up in a relatively comfortable San Juan suburb, got an MFA from Savannah College of Art and Design and frowns on the wannabe gangster aesthetic that dominates conventional reggaeton.
"We're conversant in the language of two social classes, and for that reason we reach a diverse audience," said Perez during an interview with Calle 13 in a New York hotel last month.
During 2007, Perez took time off from touring, setting out on a journey to explore remote regions populated by Latin America's indigenous and African-descended minorities. "Some people like Shakira have foundations where they build schools," he said. "I'm not criticizing that, but I like being directly in contact with the people. You can see in the film that we're learning and the people are also learning along with us."
One of the keys to Calle 13's success is its ability to graft Perez's idiosyncratic Puerto Rican slang onto an eclectic mix of hip-hop, samba, cumbia and other Latin American styles in a way that appeals to a broad audience. An early sequence in "Sin Mapa" shows a Peruvian fan reciting the tongue-twisting "Atrevete-te-te," as Cabra searches for local instruments.
"On that trip," recalled Cabra, "I bought a quijada [scraped percussion instrument], a charango [stringed instrument] and a bombo leguero [drum], all of which we used on the song 'Lllegale a Mi Guarida' ('Come to My Lair')."
The song, which along with "Pa'l Norte" originally appeared on Calle 13's second album, "Residente o Visitante," was partially inspired by the trips Perez and his fellow musicians took for "Sin Mapa."
On (and off) the road
The film was directed by Colombian national Marc de Beaufort, who in 2004 had traveled around South America with fellow Colombian cinematographer Alexandra Posada on a videotaped expedition to study long-forgotten routes of waterways that connected parts of Peru, Venezuela and Colombia.
"We were originally thinking of doing a kind of reality show thing with me working at a factory job somewhere in South America," said Perez. "The idea kept changing and Marc knew a lot, so we decided to do this trip. It was a collaboration that flowed very naturally."
De Beaufort is seen coaching Perez on climbing steep hills (at Macchu Picchu), snapping the neck of a hen in a ritual feast in Colombia's Palenque de San Basilio, inhabited by descendants of escaped slaves, and calming him in the film's most disturbing sequence, which takes place in a Peruvian mining town called La Rinconada.
"It was a really high elevation, like 20,000 feet up," recalled Perez. "I'm kind of a hypochondriac, so when they told me that recently a doctor that had traveled up there had died because of the elevation, I began to get scared because I was already pretty dizzy. So I think, 'I'm going to die here on the road, there's no hospital, there isn't anything.' Then the electricity went out and I said, 'This is a disaster, let's get out of here.' "
But staying true to the semi-surrealist Calle 13 aesthetic, the scene is played for humor as well as pathos, and Perez, who clowns throughout the movie, can seem laughably vulnerable when distressed.
He also can be coyly self-deprecating. In one sequence, dizzied by the klieg lights at an award show in Mexico City, he tells the camera he's going to have plastic surgery to enhance his small manhood. Later, he sheepishly lounges in his hotel room wearing nothing but a bath towel, looking uncomfortable in the lap of luxury.
"I think that some Latin American countries, as well as the U.S., are extremely spoiled," he muses in the film, back in the bus, making the descent from La Rinconada. "We live a comfortable life. Way too comfortable!"
Che couldn't have said it better himself.