As most everyone knows by now Havana Cultura exists to showcase Cuban artists, but today we’re making a rare exception (in fact, our first exception) for Calle 13. Back in March this internationally acclaimed band from Puerto Rico performed for the first time in Cuba, and the concert was no less than historic. Introducing the band to half a million people crowding into Havana’s Anti-Imperialist Plaza, Cuban crooner Kelvis Ochoa – who had fulfilled a long-time dream of bringing Calle 13 to Cuba – shouted, “This is a party for you!” Calle 13 and their Havana fans proceeded to party to the band’s undeniably danceable but lyrically ambitious tunes, music that might be dismissed as “reggaetón” but only if you haven’t been paying attention. “Alternative reggaetón” is how some music journalists have described it, but whatever you call it, Calle 13 in Havana were a fuego, as in off the hook, as in you should have been there. (If you weren’t, you can console yourself by watching some of the concert here on this website.)
When Kelvis saluted Calle 13 as “our brothers from Puerto Rico” he knew what he was talking about. The band consists of two half-brothers from San Juan who call themselves Residente (born René Pérez Joglar) and Visitante (born Eduardo José Cabra Martínez), and they like keeping their music in the family. Their sister Ileana (known as PG-13) sings on some of their songs, as does their mother, the actress Flor Joglar de Gracia. But Kelvis Ochoa was also referring, no doubt, to the fraternal relations between two Caribbean island nations with similar histories but very different destinies.
Calle 13 are known for their support of the Puerto Rican independence movement, and it’s not uncommon for independentistas to feel a deep kinship with Cubans who have gone it alone for the past 51 years while Puerto Rico has effectively remained a United States colony. When Calle 13 sang "Querido FBI", the Havana crowd went wild. Remember that reggaetón band your little sister used to like so much? Well, they would never have written a song like “Querido FBI”. It’s a tribute to Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, the Puerto Rican separatist leader who was gunned down when US federal police tried to arrest him at his home in 2005. The song was composed, recorded and released (for free on the Internet) within hours of the killing and helped propel Calle 13 to international stardom. They became as celebrated for their politics as for their musical prowess. In 2009 they were invited to Quito by Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa to perform at an event that included speeches by Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, ex-Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, Cuban president Raúl Castro and Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega.
As potent as their political message may be, Calle 13 don’t renege on their obligation to entertain. They clearly like to have fun, and to poke fun at other musicians (P. Diddy in “Pi-Di-Di-Di”, 50 Cent in “La Crema”) and at the record industry itself (“Atrevete-te-te!"). Over the course of three albums – Calle 13 (2005), Residente o Visitante (2007), and Los De Atrás Vienen Conmigo (2008) – they have racked up no fewer than 10 Latin Grammy awards. During one of his acceptance speeches, Residente – the group’s singer and chief lyricist – exclaimed, “I’m so happy I need to take a piss!”
This past spring in Cuba, where Calle 13 received a Cubadisco prize from the Cuban Music Institute, Residente appeared more subdued: “It’s amazing to think that all these people are here to listen to what you have to say. You feel like what you’re doing is somehow getting through.”