Reporter's Notebook
1:23 am
Fri February 8, 2013

Puerto Rican Hip-Hop Icon Tego Calderon Mixes Prose And Politics

Originally published on Tue May 21, 2013 11:02 am

When the Morning Edition team arrived in Puerto Rico to report our series on the island's difficult situation, one of the first things we noticed was, strangely enough, the sound of the coquis — tiny frogs whose mating chant goes on throughout the night.

In fact, the sound of music — whether by the coquis, from stores, or blaring from passing cars — accompanied us continually. The island seems to always keep moving to the sound of various beats.

It would be too easy to arrive at a location as a journalist and shuttle from one story to the next — crime, unemployment, exodus. But Puerto Rico kept reminding us at every turn that this is, in fact, a place of tremendous beauty and soul. And part of that was the music and joy of living that the people exuded, even during their most troubled time.

We wanted to make sure we did justice to this place's name — "the island of enchantment" — and finish a series on a very difficult topic with a discussion about some of the things that make this place so charming. Undoubtedly, that is its musical richness.

In addition to hearing some of the island's traditional bomba music, we paid a visit to one of the most legendary rappers in Puerto Rico, Tego Calderon. He is responsible for some of Latin hip-hop's most danceable music, but is also vocal about Puerto Rican independence — his lyrics are some of the more politically deep ones in Latin music.

For more music from Puerto Rico, check out NPR's Alt.Latino for a special Puerto Rican music edition.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We've spent much of this week on the island of Puerto Rico hearing about hard times, massive debt, drug violence, people leaving for the mainland. Well, we couldn't end the week without talking about some of the things people love about the island, and that includes the music. One member of our traveling party was NPR's Jasmine Garsd. She hosts the NPR music program Alt.Latino. And on a Saturday night she brought me to Music Central, a salsa club.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: We are kind of in an alleyway in the Old San Juan, in el viejo San Juan.

GREENE: Well, let's head into this club and see what they're playing in there.

GARSD: Yeah, let's do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: We were listening to a style of music that's called bomba. It's related to another style heard a lot on the island - salsa. And music is part of the fabric of Puerto Rico. Jasmine explained how Puerto Ricans have often used music to tell difficult stories in an exuberant way.

GARSD: Sometimes when people listen to those lyrics, it's this happy, upbeat dancing song about being in jail or immigrating and missing your home country.

GREENE: So an uplifting feeling but with lyrics that really tell a sadder tale.

GARSD: Often, yes.

GREENE: And as we've heard this week, people here could use a lift now more than ever.

GARSD: Music is everywhere. I mean you hear it blasting out of the cars, street centers, everywhere. You know, even to the coquis, the little frogs, making their own music.

GREENE: (Unintelligible).

GARSD: Yeah.

GREENE: When we were getting ready for this trip, you said there was one musician who we absolutely had to meet. Who is he?

GARSD: Tego Calderon. He's a rapper-slash-reggaeton artist. So - oh, there's some reggaeton.

GREENE: Nice.

GARSD: Do you hear that beat? That's reggaeton.

GREENE: Tego Calderon - he is someone a lot of people are turning to these days. We had barely met the musician outside his studio when he got stopped by a fan.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Spanish spoken)

TEGO CALDERON: (Spanish spoken)

GREENE: A girl in a school uniform lept out of an SUV, snapped a picture with him, and then jumped right back in the waiting car.

CALDERON: It happens a lot, everywhere I go.

GREENE: Tego's 41. He was wearing a purple T-shirt and he kept pushing his long dreads away from his oversized sunglasses. We were on the sidewalk outside his studio in Santurce. It's an area of the capital, San Juan, where paint is peeling off houses. It's just a few blocks from a neighborhood that's known for drug violence. It's not the kind of place you'd go looking for an international music star, but Tego was born nearby and he wanted his studio here, to send a message that this place isn't dying.

CALDERON: It's a poor neighborhood but it's growing. There's a Wal-Mart from a block now. There's a Walgreen's. But back in the days it was very important for the music in Puerto Rico. But it fell and now we're building it up.

GREENE: Building back a place known for its rich culture and music seems to capture a lot of what this island is going through. Do we hear about this neighborhood in some of your music?

CALDERON: Yeah, a lot. There's a song called "It's Easy."

GREENE: The song is about his studio and this neighborhood. One lyric is my sacrifice and the reward.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S EASY")

GREENE: What do you think of people leaving and going to the mainland right now to get away from all of this?

CALDERON: Oh, we don't need them. They can leave. I don't want them here.

GREENE: As he lit a cigarette, he spoke about a community center he wants to build in the neighborhood, maybe even a school.

CALDERON: I love my island. This is where I'm from. There is where I can talk. This is where I got the power to say things.

GREENE: One thing he talks about a lot is politics. Last fall, a majority of voters here said they want Puerto Rico to become a state - almost as many voted to remain a territory. But Tego is in a vocal minority pushing for independence, for Puerto Rico to be its own country. He believes a better Puerto Rico is not going to come from outside help but from within. Tego also feels like the troubles on the island, including the wave of violence, have been exaggerated.

CALDERON: How I see it, there is a rough time. So keep it simple, stay home with your family, do what you got to do, and don't put yourself in risk being out at certain hours.

GREENE: Are you optimistic for the future of Puerto Rico?

CALDERON: I'm optimistic about the new generation, about the kids I'm raising. I think that the generation that's coming up, going to be better than us.

GREENE: And you could see that belief in the younger generation right on the walls of his studios. We walked inside from the street.

CALDERON: This is where I rehearse.

GREENE: That's your kids at work?

CALDERON: Yeah.

GREENE: Tego has four kids and they're actually featured on a song he said he'll be releasing soon. The lead singer - his five-year-old son. He's singing about how these groceries aren't that heavy at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

GREENE: That's like the cutest thing I've ever heard.

CALDERON: It's crazy. Everybody loves that song, but I'm not forcing it.

GREENE: Sounds like your family is very important to you.

CALDERON: Yeah, it is. Everything I do for them. I don't want to be famous. I don't want to be rich. I got these kids into this world so I'm going to try to take care of them the best way I can, and that's basically it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

GREENE: That's musician Tego Calderon. And Steve, that's the final voice we'll hear on our series on Puerto Rico this week.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Well, David, thanks for the series. Took us to a place that a lot of people overlook. I heard the optimism there by Tego. And there's some beautiful images in this series. I think of the grandmother dancing with her grandson underneath the bare bulb. Beautiful images but a lot of grim news. What were your impressions?

GREENE: I think very much that - beautiful images and really a grim situation right now. I mean I'll tell you one moment that sticks with me: there was one evening near our hotel in the neighborhood of Condado in San Juan. It's, you know, there are hotels, restaurants - it feels safe. And I was, you know, having a late dinner. And it was surreal. I felt like I was sort of on a movie set, because there I was in the cafe, you know, and there was sort of a border of the cafe and cocktails and music and great food. But then police officers out on the street just guarding everything, you know, almost to make sure that this violence didn't, you know, didn't come inside. Just really strange.

INSKEEP: Constant reminder that things are scarier than they can look. Now, give us a sense of what happens next.

GREENE: Well, you know, I think everyone in Puerto Rico's waiting to see what happens next. There's a new governor. The last governor, he had a severe austerity program to try and turn things around. He laid off government workers, he sold off the big international airport, privatized the highways. And the new governor campaigned against all of that. I mean, just talking about this, it sounds like a lot of what we heard about with Greece, you know, last year. But Puerto Rico's going through these big questions about how to handle their debt, and I think everyone's waiting to see what this new governor does.

INSKEEP: Also questions about the status of Puerto Rico in the future. People have once again voted on statehood or not, and the results were a little confusing.

GREENE: Real political limbo. A lot of people want statehood. They think it could be a huge economic benefit for the island. Some want it to remain a territory and see if they can get out of these big problems. But others think that being an independent nation would just sort of free up Puerto Rico to be able to make its own decisions and that that would help a lot. So it's been really interesting to see. And Steve, one thing I do want to say. We had two photographers from NPR - one in Florida, one in Puerto Rico. They have great photos up at our website, NPR.org. And also there's a special Puerto Rico music edition of our music program, ALT.LATINO, you can listen to.

INSKEEP: Outstanding. Thanks very much, David Greene, on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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