Calle 13 brings its urban Latin sound and fiery politics to L.A.
René Pérez, lead singer of Puerto Rican alternative urban group Calle 13, knows a thing or two about teeing people off.
Since the release of Calle 13’s self-titled debut album in 2005, the band (founded by Pérez and his stepbrother Eduardo Cabra Martínez) have riled politicians with their call for the independence of Puerto Rico (the Caribbean Island has been a territory of the United States since 1898), placed themselves on the radar of American authorities with their screed against the FBI’s killing of Puerto Rican revolutionary Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, and baffled the reggaetón music scene from which they rose by pairing requisite raunchy, party lyrics with lines about poverty and police brutality.
Given the feedback that the band’s videos generate on YouTube alone, Calle 13 are either brave, patriotic artists or the Antichrist.
Southern California audiences will have the chance to judge for themselves when Pérez and his brother (using the artistic names of Residente and Visitante, respectively), take to the stage at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on Sunday.
“Obviously, the occasion lends itself to bringing up the subject of immigrants in the United States, because many of the people who come to our shows are immigrants,” says Pérez, 34, one recent afternoon by phone from Buenos Aires, now a second home to him.
“And we also bring a different kind of music from what awards shows or shows about Latinos normally present,” says Pérez, who’s won 19 Latin Grammy awards and two Grammys with Calle 13. “They do not necessarily reflect what is happening in Latin America in the world of music.”
Like many Puerto Ricans, the singer-songwriter was heavily influenced by music from America until he had an awakening, he explains. It stems from the 2007 album “Residente o Visitante” (Resident or Visitor), which was partly recorded around Latin America. Traveling throughout the region, Pérez and his brother were exposed to different sounds and instruments, which they then incorporated into their music. “Tango del Pecado” (Tango of Sin), for example, mixes Argentine tango with reggaetón, and “La Cumbia de los Aburridos” (The Cumbia of the Bored Ones) has elements of Colombian cumbia.
“It’s not only a matter of traveling to these countries, but getting to know them,” says Pérez.
To his detractors on political and social issues, Pérez contradicts himself by remaining an American citizen who makes his living in dollars, yet plays in communist Cuba, as he did in 2010. The track “Latinoamérica,” from Calle 13’s most recent album, “Entren Los Que Quieran” (Enter Those Who Want To), celebrates the Latin American region while blasting U.S. intervention in the area. On one of the track’s more politically powerful moments he raps: “La Operación Cóndor invadiendo mi nido, ¡Perdono pero nunca olvido!” (Operation Condor invading my nest, I forgive but I never forget!)
Would he be willing then to give up his U.S. passport and citizenship, as a handful of Puerto Ricans have done in the past? “You can do it but, in the end, it’s just something symbolic,” Pérez reasons. “People say, ‘Oh, but which passport do you use?’ Well, I don’t have a choice. I have to use the American passport.”
René Pérez Joglar grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of Trujillo Alto, the son of an actress. He resided on 13th Street, hence the name Calle 13. Having studied visual arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design, he teamed up with producer and instrumentalist Eduardo Cabra to make music, yet he never expected things to take off the way they did.
But take off they did with their debut album and its catchy, humorous and provocative lyrics, in which social issues and coarse language go hand in hand. Success came fast with the singles "¡Atrévete-te-te!” (Dare To!) and “Se Vale To-To” (It’s All Fair Game). Ironically, as Calle 13’s standing in Latin America has risen, along with Pérez’s political activism, radio in this country has played their music less and less frequently.
“Perhaps Calle 13 is not yet as big in the USA as they are in Latin America … but that does not render the group any less powerful or necessary,” wrote Miles Solay, frontman for Outernational, in an email. His New York-based band of activist rockers collaborated with Pérez/Residente on its new album, “Todos Somos Ilegales/We Are All Illegals.”
Gregory Acevedo is an associate professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service in New York City. As an educator of Puerto Rican descent, he’s focused his work on the political, economic and socio-cultural circumstances of Latinos in the United States.
Calle 13’s “critical thinking, their letras [lyrics], as an academic, a teacher, really inspired me,” says Acevedo. He believes that “their popular appeal across Latin America will grow and grow and grow.”
Pérez, who hopes Calle 13’s appeal will also grow in America, has plans to write more songs in English. He’s also contemplating a move to New York City.
But for the moment, he’s busy making a new Calle 13 album (slated for next year) and a forthcoming documentary from the group’s performance in Cuba. One field he is not contemplating is politics. His music, he believes, is his call to action.
“I think that, personally, I achieve more with my art,” he says. “I reach more people, and they listen to me in an entertaining way. Plus, there is that direct connection with the audience, and I don’t want to lose that.”
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