I’ll admit, my very first impression of Calle 13 wasn’t positive. I thought of them as just another chauvinistic reggaeton group from Puerto Rico, and admittedly, reggaeton wasn’t my fave. I’d envision two vainglorious dudes with plucked eyebrows flaunting their sweaty muscled bodies onstage, which I usually avoid. I then got especially annoyed when my dick-headed ex-boyfriend would put “La era de la Copiaera” on repeat, and then shout, “¡Porque no me chupan el pito, repito!” Every. Single. Time.
But then something happened. I began to see differently and understand that not all “reggaeton” can be bad. In fact, it doesn’t all have to be called reggaeton because it comes from Puerto Rico. Actually Calle 13, is not entirely reggaeton to begin with. In fact, Calle 13 is one of the most outspoken, imaginative, diverse and original groups on the face of this earth. And to top it off, I now ultra dig “La era de la Copiaera” along with a bunch of others. Oh and by the way, they just broke the record for most Latin Grammy nominations in one year. In this interview, I speak with Visitante (aka Eduardo Cabra Martínez) via telephone about religion, immigration, piracy, and what you don’t hear on the news.
In the beginning of your music career, journalists classified Calle 13 as reggaeton. Today, Calle 13 is nominated for the Latin Grammys in all genres offered: best tropical, urban, alternative, and hip hop song of the year. Would you personally classify your music within those genres?
In our approach, we are not thinking in terms of genre, or of what’s popular at the moment, or hitting the streets, to then work on that. We are mixing music where we can find our own original sound. In the beginning of our career, journalists would classify us as reggaton perhaps because the songs that were used for promotion [in Puerto Rico] were under that genre. Our debut played on the radio because it had a big reggaeton influence. After that, we began making other works. But the songs in the first album were almost all reggaeton. After that, things changed and we began to use other sounds, and started promoting other styles, and so the people started to see that we are not just a reggaeton band. We definitely have an urban approach, and narrate urban themes. In terms of the sound, we are not just urban but we mix a bunch of sounds.
In your song “Calma Pueblo” the lyrics say, “Mi disquera no es Sony mi disquera es la gente.” How do you manage being critics of the industry and still be a part of it?
Look, piracy has been very important for Calle 13’s career, because it has been the people who have shared our work. That’s why we say, “My label isn’t Sony, my label is the people.” The reality is that we make music for the people. There are others who make music for their labels because they trust in the label and in their critiques. What we make is the contrary — we make music for the people and for us. We are not trying to trash our label either. Our label supports what we do in such a way that they don’t get involved in our creative process. We simply turn in our work and they publish it. In that level, there is respect, and they trust in the work that we do. Another reality, too, is that the label is living in another time. It’s not like before. The priorities have changed. There’s desperation and labels don’t want to accept that. We are cool with that because our priorities are different. Our priorities are to make music and play it live, and that’s very important to us.
PIRACY HAS BEEN VERY IMPORTANT FOR CALLE 13’S CAREER,
BECAUSE IT IS THE PEOPLE WHO SHARE OUR WORK…
OUR LABEL ISN’T SONY, OUR LABLE IS THE PEOPLE.
In that same song, lyrics also say, “La mafia mas grande vive en el vaticano.” Puerto Rico being predominantly Roman Catholic, what are your personal views on religion?
We were raised in a Catholic family. But in terms of the Vatican and with powerful organizations, the reality is that there is always someone who takes advantage of things. It has been known that there have been lots of violence through the church for the sake of victory since the holy inquisition, and lots of assassinations in the name of God. Those lyrics are not against religion, it’s more about those 500 years of violence via Church organizations, about humans being condemned in the name of God. We always have to be alert. There is nothing against God, but the institution and the errors that they commit. In fact, my stepmother goes to religious communities where she helps people in need and who are addicts. She feeds and bathes them though a church organization.
Puerto Rico has a very peculiar political system tied in with the US. How do you view your music as a means of initiating political and cultural change amongst youth in particular?
We voice what many people are not accustomed to hearing. Besides, music is at a time where everything sounds the same, and all those themes are about love and intimacy. Our take is quite the opposite of all the monotony that’s heard throughout radio stations. Not all songs get airtime, and maybe those that do become somewhat more mainstream. In our proposal as musicians, there’s a larger discourse, we put out songs where the public can receive other information [commonly unheard via the mainstream], though it’s clear that it’s at a minor scale as oppose to massive outlets of information. But it’s cool to have this opportunity, and to teach a kid who’s starting to make music that there is another way to create a discourse — that they can talk about what they feel. I believe Calle 13 talks about this in a genuine manner, as we talk about what we believe and feel. This is what there should be more of on the radio; this is what the radio needs. The radio can respect other alternative discourses, and the public can listen. We should all have the same rights to use our minds, especially for educating others. For this we have to educate ourselves and be open-minded. The last five years that I’ve been traveling, it has definitely expanded my horizons. I learned a lot from people, and from traveling. It’s very important to travel, but I can also be in this little island thinking of the center of the universe. However, we do need to get out of this little island and educate ourselves. That’s why from the sweet commemoration of El Grito, it was an intent to be independent, and in fact it became independent for about an hour. But here in Puerto Rico, that matters and people see that. And these outlets [of music as a source of information] are important because school does not teach you this.
In your documentary Sin Mapa you guys travel to many countries in South America. So how did traveling affect your music?
The documentary we made was an opportunity for us to travel and it served as the fuel to many of our creative works. From the people we met, and music they introduce to us. It started as a small ball of snow that rolled down a big hill.
BLACK HUMOR IS REALLY IMPORTANT….
IT COMES FROM THE WAY WE WERE RAISED.
In many of your tracks such as “Pa’l Norte,” and “El Hormiguero,” you guys touch on the issue of immigration. Specifically, what would you want Americans to take away from your music?
Who? The gringos in the US? Well, the notion of North America emerged from the immigrant. And to start off, they are productive. Also, they’re in a land of different cultures and different roots, and it gets complicated. We do not only talk about the migrant in the US, but everywhere. We as human beings should have the facility to move where we want to go, and it shouldn’t be that complicated to do so. Though, I’ll tell you that I am living this experience in my own flesh with my Puerto Rican people. It’s complicated being an immigrant because I’ve lived it and my wife [who is Cuban] lived it. And sometimes one has to make sacrifices. Maybe it’s because my wife’s family cannot come here, you understand? Because of laws that have not been facilitated; this should not be like that. I married her for love, and we should all do things for love. But like I said, it gets complicated, and none of us should be experiencing these troubles, and try to make things less complicated. The human existence gets complicated for these factors. I don’t know what motive there is in others who put borders, suppress music, to put a genre and all these surrounds us but it’s something that we have to learn to do.
Your music is also known for the humorous vulgarities in the lyrics. Is that a personal style that comes from the way you guys grew up talking?
I believe my brother [Residente, AKA René] uses that form of writing to be a bit more funny, so then he can go on and be more serious. I think black humor is really important, and my brother uses it for his music. But that’s his personal style and he feels more comfortable that way. I’m sure it’s part of the diversity of his writing, sometimes he gets really serious and sometimes really humorous. But this also comes from the way we were raised. We also have our other brother Gabriel who always voices his opinions and is very intelligent, yet very funny too. They find a cool way to carry a message, and that message comes in that manner.
I heard you guys are planning on an English album?
We talked about this and we are still talking about it. It is something we want to do.
What are the next creative steps for Calle 13?
We are featured in my sister’s album, which is really important for us. We are also launching a live album. And we are preparing for this US and Argetinean tour. There are a lot of things happening in this circle.
What artists do you admire the most musically today?
Musically, The Beatles have been a very big inspiration.
How do you guys prepare before hitting the stage?
Before I go on and play, I always call my wife. I tell her that I’m about to start performing and she always wishes me good luck and to have a great show.
If you had a visitor in San Juan where would you take them as a cool, local, non-tourist place?
In Puerto Rico, there’s a little island and it’s called Culebra, which is a great and magical island. It has impressive beaches. It is my favorite place here. I would recommend for them to get a little boat and to cruise around the beaches. Very chévere.
Please name me all the different types of guitars, and instruments you play
Well, I play guitar, accordion, piano, bass, mandolin, charango…. Well, what happens is that when I play an instrument, I can make out some sounds and from there, we go.
What’s your favorite place to visit when you’re outside of home?
Well I have two homes. One here in San Juan and the other in La Havana, Cuba. If I’m not here, I am there. It’s a great place.