Next Tuesday, the Puerto Rican band Calle 13 will be in Havana playing at the Tribuna Anti-Imperialista. They are often branded as reggaeton, but many of their tracks are a sort of ecclectic mix of styles that at times reminds of Manu Chao and other Latin hybrids. Although they follow on the footsteps of Juanes and other pop and rock bands that have gone to Cuba in recent times as part of a “music bridges” trend, the visits by Puerto Rican musicians have normally considered “something else” (de un pajaro dos alas, etc). Most notably, Fania All-Stars played there in 1979 as part of the famous Havana Jam (facilitated by the thaw of the Carter administration). Then, however, Cuban youth were said to be more interested in Billy Joel and the Weather Report (also part of the festival) than in salsa, according to the New York Times
More recently, Cheo Feliciano played in Varadero (in 1997), and a project called De Aqui P’Allá and De Allá P’Acá attempted a musical exchange between the two “wings of the bird” But I don’t recall anything as massive as what a Tribuna Anti-Imperialist concert promises to be; a type of super concert that has been mostly hijacked by Anglo-American rock and pop (and Juanes), genres that have come to enjoy a respectability in Cuba that Latin genres like reggaeton are still far from getting.
Today the “heavy” type of reggaeton is tremendously popular in Cuba, much to the dismay of the cultural authorities. In fact, prejudice against reggaeton runs high, not only in Cuba, among the bien pensante educated middle class but also in exile. Calle 13’s trip, while not provoking the massive opposition that Juanes did, has been criticized in exiled circles, particularly after the duo showed on national Spanish language TV their ignorance of the plight of Cuba’s political prisoners. Comments in blogs have put down reggaeton musicians (as Calle 13 are often considered as such) as ignorant, and mocked the music as a genre for the uneducated masses, in a way that is reminding of what timba and, before, rumba, had to contend with. In Cuba, furthermore, reggaeton is often critiqued by the cultural intelligentsia as a commercial import that has nothing to do with the island’s musical heritage (son).
The fantastic documentary La Clave (2009) is built around the opposite thesis: that reggaeton (at least its Puerto Rican variant) is a direct product of salsa music, with its sophisticated clave and arrangements. A whole generation of reguetoneros -who are musicians of the new digital generation- are paying tribute to their salsero forebears, who are happy to collaborate with them, both in concert and in recordings. HERE is a segment of La Clave worth watching, with Andy Montañez and others showing the many points of encounter between reggaeton, bomba, and salsa.
Calle 13 come from the ecclectic Puerto Rican reggaeton tradition depicted in La Clave (they call it “urban music”). Not only they work, in most songs, over a clave base, but they also feature social and political lyrics very much like those in 1970s salsa. They call for pan-American solidarity, chronicle the plight of migrants, and highlight life in the barrio as their primary source of identity. The have recorded with a variety of Latin American musicians, including Rubén Blades, who they have branded as their maestro (see the video clip for their Grammy winning La Perla, which pays homage to the great Puerto Rican singer Ismael “Maelo” Rivera, who used to sing his “Guaguancó para La Perla”).
This is a video clip, corresponding to their 2007 song about Latin American migration to El Norte, which they performed at that year’s Grammy awards along with the Cuban group Orishas. The video clip is an anti-imperialist manifesto with an “anthropological” look. It also features a sort of pan-American geography that cuts from the Altiplano Boliviano to the US/Mexico Border without a pause. (I would call it “a post-modern geographical pastiche”)
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