La Música

Calle 13 in the House!

This week, Calle 13 released its new video for the song “La Bala,” which protests against the proliferation of guns in cities across the Americas. They will also be playing in San Juan this December 15 for the first time in four years, something made even sweeter because of the defeat of Mayor Santini–whose administration had blocked some of their previous attempts at staging a concert there–in the November 8 elections. Recently i interviewed Residente (René) and Visitante (Eduardo) for the  “Latino Hot List” section. Although I did the interview just a few weeks ago, some of the answers, about the December 15th concert in San Juan and the opposition from the now-deposed Mayor Santini, and the plebiscite, have to be read in an entirely new context. Here is a partial transcript of the interview:

EM: What’s going on with Calle 13 lately?

Visitante/Eduardo: These days were reorganizing the music because we’re in the last phase of the last record, Entre Los Que Quieren, so we have some big shows in Mexico. So since we’re in that last phase, I’m doing new versions of the songs we haven’t played in a long time, and we’re rehearsing that. In November we’ll be starting the last part of the tour, there are about 12 shows something like that. We’re going to also play here in Puerto Rico, on December 15, and it’s been a long time since we played here and we’re like super-emotional. And it’s a bit of a problem playing here in Puerto Rico. I think that it’s about to be set up. I think next week the ticket sales will start, and we got this kind of parking lot, and we’re going to mount like a super stage there, because in Puerto Rico we haven’t played in the open air much. And I think that it’s special here in the open air than in other places. In other countries in the Caribbean we’ve played and we think it’s super-special to play in the open air and doing it here is cool. We always play the Coliseum here. But it’s like you feel that feels a little confined and I think playing outdoors gives people a little more freedom and they tend to let loose a little more.

EM: I’ve read about the conflicts between René and the mayor, is that complicating things?

Visitante/Eduardo: It’s been complicated because of that and I think that those people have made declarations here, on the part of the municipality. But anyway we have extended ourselves and announced the date without knowing the location. It’s a little bit risky on our part. We’ve had to push a little so that it could happen.

EM: When I was last in Puerto Rico people say you guys get more support in the rest of Latin America than you do from your home island.

Vistante/Eduardo: I think that in terms of the people of Puerto Rico, we get the same support as we do from other countries. I’ve been here for two weeks and it’s been the most time I’ve spent here for a while. And I go out to do food shopping and take my daughter to her music lessons, and you can feel that people are pumped up. They’re emotional with expectation, and people stop me and ask me what location we’re going to play at, and all that, but I don’t know it seems the city seems they’ve tried to ignore the proposal, and I think it’s going to get a little complicated. It could be the recognition of the people and we have done the same that these people, and we’ve actually done more than people who look for recognition. I’m not looking for recognition either but sometimes you think, this is a little strange, why do these people continue to, I don’t know. Everyone knows the deterioration of things, that’s in You Tube, up to the last declaration on the part of the city on Calle 13’s proposal. I think that there are very few people left who don’t understand our proposal. Maybe there are people who don’t know. They think we are doing this on the fly but it’s super-organized in our heads.

EM: What kind of things are you planning for the next album?

Visitante/Eduardo: The next album we will be working on the first few weeks of the new year, and I hope that the first few songs will be out in May and the album we hope will be out in August. It’s been simply we play, do interviews, all at the same time. This is going to be great. The Ileana record that we’ve been working on is coming out super-great. I hope the first half of next year it comes out. René has some things written but I haven’t listened to any of it. I’ve started to work on music, I’m thinking about everything we’ve done and I’m trying in a certain way to simplify, not simplify—to listen to the first things we’ve done, and try to create a similar plan that was done to make the first one but not to sound like the first one. Maybe the way we worked on the first record was maybe a more simple approach, I’d like to go back to that. After everything I’ve done musically, I’d like to go back to the beginning. I prefer like to experiment locked up in a room. I’m in the conceptual mode right now. More or less some ideas but nothing concrete. Rene has more concrete things. I’m always writing and Rene is always writing. He writes lyrics and I give him music, sometimes it works both ways.

EM: I guess you could say you’re doing a kind of streamlining of Calle 13’s musical approach.

Visitante/Eduardo: It’s going to have to be refreshed—minimalize the creative process. It’s the process that maybe we’re going to minimize. Right now René’s in LA, we’ve been talking about maybe working on the album over there, it’s a possibility. He’s on this trip to learn English and stuff like that. That’s cool. Let’s see. I haven’t visited him yet. I like Brooklyn. I like it but I’m not totally into it. The people are super-chic. In my case I like more space.

EM: What kind of music are you listening to lately?

Visitante/Eduardo: I’m not listening to music lately, man. In the times when I’m working, we’re working our sister’s record, I tend not to listen to music. I do it on purpose. I don’t like to in those moments listen to something and it stays in my head and would become a direct influence on the work I’m doing now. So I think that I shouldn’t just listen to anything. About two months ago I was listening to some stuff, old stuff, not into listening to new stuff, I prefer to look for things that are the roots of what is out there now and later mix it with contemporary music and then come up with this. Every album has had its own particular identity. The first one—the one that sold most—was an album that I think was kind of a demo. It was an introduction to what would happen later with other records. Those had more of an identity. The second one has its own identity, the third one has a way of mixing the sound of the first and second and then there was also a maximum expression. We stabilized the arrangements, had a more solid direction. That’s what I think is going to happen with the next record. Instead of looking for a particular sound, I think the next record is going to try not to do what we’ve done before and and it will have another direction.

EM: The last couple of shows I’ve seen of Calle 13, René seems to be giving Ileana more space to shine onstage.

Visitante/Eduard: It’s not so much that Rene is giving more space to Ileana, it’s that Ileana is growing more on the stage so she is shining more. Rene is not ceding the stage to her. The last tour was pretty rigorous, which will be good training for what is coming for her now that she will be alone. We have the first song and want to do a record with her. Her voice is kind of like old, so we’re looking for sounds like that. That old spirit and we’re looking for a sound that goes with that.

EM: René, Eduardo has been telling me that you’ve been having trouble with the San Juan administration over staging your concert there.

Residente/René: The problem in Puerto Rico is the government, which has different ideals from us. Obviously we have been pretty up front when it comes to saying things, and it bothers them. It’s about trying to play with the little power they have because they don’t have much power on a legal level with what they’re doing. What they have done is totally illegal. The problem is, sitting with lawyers right now and losing time with that, and proving that what they’re doing is illegal. They do it in a very hidden way. Obviously if someone censors you and Puerto Rico is under US law, if you try to censor someone openly these days you can’t do that. So they do it in a hidden way, like taking away permission to people who put up money for the concert, who helped us bring it to fruition, for example there’s a promoter who helps us to publicize it or mount the stage, they punish him in other ways like taking away events from him in Puerto Rico. They do it in all kinds of ways. Finally you have to play in the venue that they want, because you’re asking for a permit, and they move you, if they want to do it at the Coliseum, which we didn’t want, because they charge 30% of the ticket receipts, and the ticket receipts we want to donate to an entity that helps homeless in San Juan and so all that kind of stuff affects us when we make decisions. They delay in answering us, they make everything more difficult. Not only more difficult, sometimes they make it impossible, because if you don’t have promoters, it’s impossible. But now that Calle 13 has more power and force, they become small when opposed to international efforts. We have many people on an international level that help us, now we’re doing a project with UNICEF, with Amnesty International, all of these are tools that we have that when these types of situations of censorship arise, they don’t work. In the end we’re going to play a show on December 15th, whether or not they want it, we’re going to do it. They’re in the middle of the elections and I think this is why they moved against us, and there are also a lot of people who are in favor of us, who work for the government. They’re not necessarily fans, but they want us to be able to play.

EM: Is the problem with the Puerto Rico government or the San Juan government?

Residente/René: It’s more the mayor of San Juan, like there are other towns we could play, depending on what party is in control. It’s pretty ridiculous that this happens, and I want to play in San Juan, where I grew up, where everyone plays. I want to play in other places, we played in Mayaguez almost 3 years ago, almost 4 years since we’ve played in San Juan, we haven’t been able to because from the beginning they made it more difficult. The first clear and evident censor there was against Calle 13 was in an event called “El Circotic” which was sponsored by Coors, and they did the event and Santini canceled it. He canceled the site, because we were going to play. They removed us from the event so they could play. The suits at Coors called me up to apologize, I felt bothered by it and said I wasn’t going to do anything with these people. If they put you against the world, you’re going to alone in the end, today there is no more valor or courage. There is very little and it bothers me that it’s like that. A Boricua that’s fighting for something they isolate them, almost always. That’s why we are where we’re at.

EM: So you want to donate some of the money from the profits of your shows?

René/Residente: Right now we are about 30 families living or more living from Calle 13. We maintain the price independently whether we donate money or not. We have reasonable prices considering what we’re doing, what’s going to happen at the concert, we’re not charging outrageous prices. And we think that’s good. Depending on the difficulty of mounting the equipment, of the size of the event, it varies but we maintain it in the most fair way, so that we can live, be well, but people can also have access. In the end no one is paying attention to that, almost no one, I think that most artists are very happy with doing a show and selling super-expensive tickets, and they’re happy with having sold them at such a high price like it was an achievement. And I, who have never paid for a concert, think about that. Eduardo as well who never pays for a concert. In the end we’re always going to make money, but people get confused that you work for free. But you’re aware of the prices and try to think of everybody. We try to eliminate the VIP areas, there are times you have to have them. For example in Puerto Rico I want to have everyone paying the same price in the front. Now if they want to have a separate area, I think of it like they’re going to donate more money for the cause, and they’re going to pay more money. Like $30, instead of $15. Sometimes public figures want to go to the concerts, so they can have that space and feel comfortable. But we try to avoid those VIP areas. If they have one at one of our shows it’s because we didn’t have control over that, we’re traveling and they did it behind our backs but in fact we have removed VIP areas if we’re going to play because we don’t like that kind of drastic separation that they do sometimes, which is like very exaggerated in some countries. A lot of stuff happens in Latin America. They put up a high fence so that other people are comfortable. We prefer that everyone pays the same and everyone is in the front. The raza are the ones that jump the most so they should be in front.

EM: I’ve been told that you want to try to live in the US for a while, like New York.

René/Residente: I’m not going to—I’m the type of guy, like my brother, who doesn’t have a specific ground, nor a specific sky, nor a specific house, we have like various, and various places that we move to, and I had been in Argentina before coming here and also in Puerto Rico, spending some time with my family there, I have my house there, my space there, my clothes, everything. But it’s like different seasons in different places, depending on the situation. Now I feel like learning English, so I moved to Los Angeles for a while. I look at it like a learning period, like when I studied in University, to stay a while to see if I like it, I’ll see over time where I’m going. I like both, I like New York, and I like Brooklyn a lot, so, but I was looking for something more that had trees or something so I came here to L.A. And also not that many people recognize me, as well, so I can be a little more relaxed.

EM: Are you thinking about recording a whole album in English, or just a few songs?

René/Residente: That’s something I’m going to see about. I still don’t—the Calle 13 project is so sacred for us, for Eduardo and me, I still don’t consider it as something about Calle 13, something on the level of writing, to experiment with other languages, it’s something I’m looking at, and I’m going to get into it to see if I can achieve writing in English. If I can fill an album I will and if not one or two songs, or whatever. It’s going to do me some good.

EM: I realize it’s a ridiculous comparison but one thing that made Shakira very successful is that she spent time studying English and I think it really helped her English-album break through. So I think you’re doing the right thing.

René/Residente: It’s going to be really different, it’s not going to have anything to do with what Shakira did, every person to their own, but I think it has more to do with, imagine if people here, within this circuit, would understand songs like “Querido FBI,” you understand? Or heavy songs that they’re not used to because it’s not happening—in English something heavy like here someone can be talking about the ghetto in rap music, but what happens with ghettos here, I know there is poverty but it doesn’t compare. The ghetto here is like the middle class in Latin America. People have swimming pools and everything, and I don’t say this because I’m bothered, I say it because I think the reality with which we’re dealing in Latin America, and Puerto Rico, too, it’s another reality, it’s different. It has not been transported here. Here the Latin market is “Latin.” And I’m not happy with what they’re representing as Latin here, the vision that they have, the Americans, of what a Latin American is. And it’s inside the music. To them Latin music is maracas, and piña coladas, and “Latin is hot” and all that. I just came from a hotel, where I took a little vacation in these islands and the image that they had–the Americans–of Latinos when they met me, was just like that. It’s like there’s so much good Latin American music that doesn’t get here, and I want to prove that you don’t have to sell your ass to be able to bring that message here. You can do it, you can come from the masses and bring a strong message that says something and will reach everyone and they will feel it. That for me is the most important thing. It’s a challenge for me because I don’t speak English well at all, but I keep learning more.

EM: A lot of people talk about the difference between rapping in English and Spanish is that it’s more difficult to get the flow in Spanish. Have you thought about flow?

René/Residente: It doesn’t matter. I’m not even thinking about the flow, I’m not thinking about hiphop, I’m not thinking about anything on that level when the time comes to write I’m thinking about communicating. And if I have to sing a little, I’ll sing a little, if I have to rap, I’ll rap, but I’m going to look for the balance where I feel comfortable, communicating the things I have to communicate. The same thing would happen with my brother, if he wants to transmit through music he has to look for that balance where he feels comfortable but so he can communicate, that you work at. For me I don’t know, the question of flow I feel it, and it’s cool but it’s not the same as me. I think there are a lot of people who have “flow,” but they’re not saying anything. It has to be really important what you’re saying as well, and to maintain—what they call flow, it’s more like the rhythm, it’s about knowing how to get inside the rhythm, how many words per line you’re going to put in so that it sounds one way or the other, they call it flow but it’s not that complicated when they’ve already rehearsed it. It’s something that, by being a rapper in Spanish you already dominate, you will dominate in English as well. The problem, more than the flow, is the pronunciation. That’s what I have to get better at. Not only so that it will be understood, but that how do I want to sound? What pronunciation will I use, my natural one, I want to pronounce a little better in English, more fucked up in English, what type of pronunciation, that’s more complicated.

EM: Your music is close to the roots of hiphop because it’s message-oriented.

René/Residente: The only thing it’s cool, it’s going to be good, that it comes from another place. It’s good that when the genre started it began that way, like a self-criticism of your nation. Here it would be a criticism from afar combined with one from up close because I’m from a colony of the US. But at the same time I’m representing Latin America, or at least I feel the group represents much of the interests of Latin America. And with the lyrics I want to do that. There are a lot of things that happen in Latin America that are being lost. I don’t want to bore people either. There are people who think this is—you entertain because you have to entertain but it’s like movies, you entertain with good music, with a good movie. The fact that you’re entertaining doesn’t have to be singing whatever for the club, to dance to, like that. You can be more clever, more interesting, more astute with the rhymes, the music, with the videos. For me, this is my life, and art is my life, it’s what I like most. I like art, I like music, I like writing, and it’s my priority that it comes out good. In then end if I wind up broke I’m happy writing without making any money. And meanwhile if I have some money I’ll take advantage of it for my needs so that that we can bring a message to provoke change, not only social but artistic, so that Calle 13 happened and they left something that’s worthwhile, that can be studied. You don’t know how proud I get, yesterday they called me to tell me that they were doing music classes about us in Yale. So all that kind of news inspires me and I say man, it’s working, that same motivation, brother, that what we’re doing is worth something more than just to dance for a couple of hours in a club, that it serves to bring music to another place, to inspire other people to do things, to give energy, to bother people, see yourself in a mirror, for everything.

EM: You tweeted on your account that you were hanging out with Zach de la Rocha [of Rage Against the Machine].

René/Residente: I was with Zach, we went to see some [Mexican muralist] Siqueiros. Zach is cool, we have become more and more friends, we see each other once in a while. We’re relatively close to each other. So the other guy I want to see is Omar Rodríguez from Mars Volta, who is around here. A bunch of cool people living here. He is a good person for that same thing, to get to know how things are here in LA. I think that after I get enough out of being here, I’m going to New York for a while, and I’ll see what’s going on there. But for now I’m here, settling myself, getting to know the neighborhood.

EM: What do you think about the upcoming plebiscite in Puerto Rico?

René/Residente: I have always declared myself to be in favor of independence. I believe in the independence of Puerto Rico, because it’s logical. The problem is many people don’t use logic. It’s not only because of preference, maybe it has to do with the values I have inculcated in me, but many people think that, they start making stupid ideological comparisons like if you’re for independence you’re a Communist, or you’re a socialist. You can be for independence and be a member of any party, or believe in any of the ideologies, capitalist, communist, socialist, whatever you want. You can be on the left or the right and you can be for independence. Because independence is something else. It has to do with being independent as a country, make your own decisions like a country. It doesn’t mean you’re going to live alone, you do business with all the countries. People are very confused with all of that, but I want independence for Puerto Rico, in the same way I believe in our musical independence, we’ve been working for a year and a half that way, we won nine Grammys, we’re going to do a very heavy video of “La Bala,” with Amnesty International and we’re independent right now, working with what we earn from the concerts, and that we use for what we’re doing. I feel a liberty—I’ve always felt independent because independence depends on the individual, how you’re feeling. You could be in prison and feel free as a human being. I felt free even though I was signed to a record label, but I felt like I was going to do what I wanted to. What’s happening is that now it’s easier because I don’t have to explain so much. Before I had to explain more, and in the end I did what I wanted to, but I had to explain it to 15,000 people before doing it. Now I simply do it and everything is easier, with business, I do what I want. And if they transfer that to the country, it’s the same thing. Do what you want, and also negotiate with the US. The US takes a lot of money out of Puerto Rico. If the US gave us something, they wouldn’t be with us. They’re with us because they take from us. Everything they can extract from here they will. They’re not going to lose. That’s why they’re with us because they are profiting. So you have to try for those earnings not to be so exaggerated. It’s a difference of billions of dollars that we could be earning if we were independent. So it has to do with education, all that confusion of people not supporting the independence of the country. They think that if it’s independent it’s going to be like Cuba, and they see Cuba as the worst thing in the world, and they see countries like Venezuela like the worst thing in the world, and we’re going to be like China. They get it wrong.

EM: You also said on Twitter that you believe musicians should study visual arts, the history of art.

René/Residente: In all of the artistic disciplines, even film, the cinema helps, but for a musician it’s good because music is an expression, it’s a performance, and some people are entertained by a guy jumping and saying stupid things, but I don’t underestimate the audience. If you don’t underestimate them and you look for more, and you’re a musician who has studied art, although there are musicians who without studying art have sufficient creativity to do a job on an impressive artistic level, there are musicians like that, but not all of them. If you are someone who makes music and you want to do something to bring your work to another level, the art is the sum of all you learn, from art history classes, where you can see what has been done in the realm of art, to performance, because you are part of that, to live installations, installations, sculptures, all the artistic periods and everything that affects you when you’re going to write lyrics, I know you’re going to think about that a lot. It’s like me, who studied animation, and I know what animation is. So for me, every frame, even if it’s just one frame, is important. And I realize that when in a video I saw they should have removed that frame, and it’s not removed, I can tell that the frame is still there. Because to study animation, and see what a frame is worth, I had to draw every frame, to make one second I had to do 30 drawings. Those classes showed me how valuable one frame is. The same thing with art and with music. Every word that you write in a text that you’re going to sing and you’re going to say is really fucking important and if you didn’t study or don’t have that artistic concept really clear in your head, with all that history of art in your brain, every word you’re going put there, you’re not going to achieve the same value, the same importance. Every word is important. And the order of the words, the ideas, I think that they should study the history of art.

EM: In the US a lot of people get into the argument about which city is better, LA or New York. Do you have an opinion yet?

René/Residente: I think they are two great places. For me what I love about New York is Brooklyn. I feel that in addition to having friends there, who do plastic art. There are a lot of students. It’s like accessible; the art is not on the level of buying it, because it’s very expensive. It has accessibility to people who are working with art every day, if you know how to move. The same thing is happening here in LA, with music, I feel it here too. Because New York has its areas, it’s like Manhattan is like Hollywood, but then you go to Bushwick-Williamsburg could be like a Silver Lake, or Eagle Rock or Echo Park. Where you hang out, it’s going to be there. For me personally, I’m getting to like it here in Los Angeles because I was going to move to New York but on the level of family, climate, the fact that I have trees, I liked it better here. It’s more economical here too. You can find a bigger space for the same price that in New York would be much smaller. So I was looking for space. It depends on what you want. But musically and artistically speaking both cities have their thing. In NY you have the plastic arts, here you have music. Diplo, the producer lives here on my street. He lives a couple of houses down. Here there’s this whole punk culture, it’s cool. And the Red Hots, near where I live is a school that Flea established, there’s an environment of art and music and it’s cool. This whole thing about film, not Hollywood in that sense, not a monopoly industry like Hollywood but the other face of Hollywood that could be Third World moviemaking—things are happening. I was worried that things weren’t happening but now speaking with Zach and other people they are showing me places and I like that there’s realism, that is needed. The helicopter that flies overhead at night, it’s cool. It’s not that I hope it happens but it’s something that in New York I don’t see. It’s going to be interesting to discover things here that I haven’t seen, I’d always seen Los Angeles from another point of view. It also has the Mexican influence as well.

EM: Tell me what you like about punk rock, or the punk aesthetic.

René/Residente: What I like about punk is the essence of it and what it represents, the music I can like, it’s not like I’m going to be listening to it all day in the car, in fact I listen to relaxed music, but what I like about punk is that transgressive language, almost Dadaist. I think that if there is a punk movement in the arts, its Dadaism. It was punk. It is punk. And the Dadaist movement is my favorite. And the essence of punk is about that, not only about breaking rules, but creating others. The idea of transforming what supposedly is comfortable for people, and manipulate it and change it not for the mere act of changing or transforming it but to give the message that things can be different, they don’t have to be set in a specific way. Punk is about that, it doesn’t have to be this way, it’s this, and we’re breaking away. But when genres get established, and that’s why Calle 13 never wanted to establish itself within a specific genre, when they get established, they start to create these rules, and they fall into the same thing they were fighting against. So it’s better not to belong to a certain genre, and have that essence of life that is punk, when it started.

EM: What kind of feeling do you have about the next album? Do you want to collaborate with Zach and Omar?

René/Residente: The last album was very varied but it has an essence that rockers like, and rappers would also like it, and reggaetón fans too. It could be that I collaborate with them, it depends, man, depending on the path, the type of album I want to put out, how the lyrics are coming. Right now I’m writing super-beautiful things, like I did in “Latinoamérica,” other songs that are very beautiful, and also have stuff that is stronger. I’m going to see how the end ties things up.

EM: It seems like Ileana [PG-13] is growing in to a bigger role, and you’re doing a solo album with her, right?

René/Residente: Ileana, apart from being more present, she has like 100,000 followers on Twitter, I don’t know how many but a lot. We’re doing the record, Eduardo’s doing the record, working on the music, and I’ve done some lyrics. I’ve written three songs with her, she writes too. Now when I get back to Puerto Rico, in addition to being with the family, which I haven’t done for a while, I’m going to see what they’re doing. I’ve heard a song already and it’s good. She has a power that we want to bring out.

EM: Are you planning any more documentaries like Sin Mapa?

René/Residente: I have two documentaries that I can combine into one, and the idea is that it comes out before the next album. I think that what I’m writing now, I think this album is going to be badder than the last one. I’m working towards this, for me personally. This documentary is going to tie together some things, compared to Sin Mapa, which perhaps wasn’t so tied to the second album. Perhaps this documentary will have more to do with what happens with this album. On a conceptual level what I’m writing about and working on, I think is going to have a lot of ties to what I’m recording. But I can’t say more.

EM: Well we’re all waiting for you to show up in New York. It’s a big place for Boricuas.

René/Residente: New York has that part of the art. I have a lot of friends in New York that are in plastic arts and I know they’re going to get some interesting things out of me. But on the other hand here in LA I have other things. I live a life where I’m too often in a plane. It’s very claustrophobic. In a plane, in a hotel, a lot of people. It’s like I have no space and I was looking for space. And in New York to get the space that I have in Los Angeles, it costs, much more than here. Here I have an avocado tree, a couple of things I can grow, and I have the benefit that, in Puerto Rico I have that, or in Argentina I can have it in some areas, but everyone knows me, and I like that but it gets to the point where you also get claustrophobic, because I like to walk and no one notices me. I don’t mind that people stop me, I feel happy and grateful but there are times that you need space to be able to write because you get to the point where you get out of one claustrophobia and enter another one. You feel like you’re imagining in the plane and in the hotel, a bunch of people and when you have free time people know who you, even if they don’t stop you they’re looking at you. Here I go on the street and no one knows anything. They stop me but it’s more relaxed. Suddenly a gringo will appear and it’s more relaxed. Where I live it’s a super-quiet neighborhood. There’s a park called Griffith Park which is nearby and there are things that are close by and easy for me to walk to, lots of trees, very calm. But New York, my heart is there too. I’m already thinking about it. I love it every time I go there.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

Don’t Call Her Lady Gagá

Rita Indiana is a phenomenon for many reasons–not the least of which is her skepticism about Facebook (see vid above). Her importance can’t be isolated in her performance aesthetic, nor in her brilliant lyrics or in the way she fuses different traditions of music and culture. In the end, it’s something very personal, and this interview that I did with her last week is one of my favorites.

Rita: If you’d rather speak in English, if it makes it easier…

EM: Well maybe but I have to establish my street cred. Let’s see. What was the process of bringing the album to fruition? You must have been working on it for years.

Rita: I never considered myself a musician; I did a lot of literature before I actually thought of making music and this record is one of my projects—the next one might be a book, it might be something else like a video art project or something, but it’s definitely a multimedia project that came—it has a lot of stuff that I had accumulated over time, reading or listening to music, or from life, programming beats in my house, talking with people. The album was made in a week, see, and just two or three months before arriving in Santo Domingo I put the band together but definitely there were many years of research, so to speak, and of improvisation that is in that record.

EM: And you were playing live before this?

Rita: Before we recorded I just played, I had been playing for less than a year because I mostly focused on literature, I had only been writing since I was 19 years old. In 2008 I started to make music like, well I’m going to make music, because before that it was just stuff I did for myself, for my friends, like programming a beat, I’d send it to you or it was music that I did for performance art pieces that I would perform in museums, it wasn’t with the idea to make popular music or anything in that style. Before making this record I had been playing live for about a year, more or less.

EM: What is the relationship between your prose writing and ideas for songs?

Rita: I think the seed for both is the same, like to tell a story or express something. I think that with literature I do much more sophisticated and elaborate work, in long form. Songs come out of me in a day—I’m walking, I take the buss and suddenly the melody and the lyrics come together. Zoom zoom like that. It’s not something like “I’m going to write a song now.” I don’t do any research or anything before writing a song and I’d say instead it comes out of me—bang—something really spontaneous is happening to me. With literature, in general it takes me some months, cooking it up in my head, cooking up the story, which is what I should write, which is what is happening to me. The thing with music comes more through a rhythmic thing. And the lyrics sometimes are things that don’t make much sense because people ask me, ‘what does this or that mean’ and what I’m doing is I’m playing with language to make music in the song. Sometimes it makes sense and other times it doesn’t necessarily have a meaning, they are like more abstract, the lyrics, than the literature I write.

EM: So it’s more like poetry…

Rita: It’s more like poetry, and novels are prose, although there’s a story that I tell in a song but it’s a language that’s a little less tied to the conventions of communication.

EM: Yes but it’s also clear that you’re an aficionado of different kinds of music which you probably thought well I want to mix this idea or feeling that comes out of this kind of music with another aesthetic.

Rita: There’s a mix but what I’m saying that with music, it’s much more spontaneous. I’m not like “now I’m going to mix dub with bachata, it just comes, because that music is inside of me, all that music that I’ve listened to, and all those things that I’ve experienced are there—that’s what’s beautiful for me to write songs that just come to me. I write a song and suddenly those elements are there, because they’re inside me like a blender, you know, of the Brazilian music I hear, Afro-Cuban music. There are times for example, “El Blu del Ping Pong,” when we play it, there’s gagá in there, a magic religious Dominican rhythm, there’s blues in there, there’s punk, you know there’s a whole bunch of things, but it’s not like I said, “Okay, now we’re going to play the guitar so it sounds like gagá, or we’re going to make the drums sound like…things come out because I am filled with all that music and my musicians also come from different backgrounds, and there you have it. They are spontaneous experiments, let’s call them that.

EM: What was Luis Días’s influence on you?

Rita: One thing I share with Luis—may he rest in peace—that he was a great teacher for me, I had the honor of meeting him personally and discuss things like music and literature because Luis is a super well-read guy and is super intelligent, that love for popular music. Luis was a rocker and hard-assed punk, an investigator of Dominican music, always a real do-it-yourself guy, but the guy know how to appreciate popular music and what he could take from that and he lived to write merengue for Sergio Vargas, Fernandito Villalona, he had a good ear for this phenomenon, for merengue, what was popular in the Dominican Republic above all in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. For me personally my head spins over what happened with merengue in the ‘70s and ‘80s because it was like a revolution where it transformed from being either campesino music or formal salon music in the ‘70s during the Balaguer regime, people like Johnny Ventura revolutionized the scene completely by putting together smaller bands. It’s a little like what punk did—they put together a band, and they weren’t such professional musicians, and began to play with the way they dressed and other styles. And that was in the sound and in the visuals, it’s super attractive and there’s a whole bunch of things that happened there too, the choreography. Three’s a guy I’m really into, I don’t know his name but I have identified him in many videos of different merengue bands, and he is present there because he is the one who arranges the dancing of the Kentons, and Anibal. That idea of the front of the orchestra, that the dance had to be the most creative, right? And that definitely, of the music and the aesthetic, marked a little what it was, what has been that part of my project. It’s what you can see a little in the work that Noelia did in “El Juidero,” which talks about that era, the end of the ‘70s.

EM: So you also were influenced by boleros and maybe the Tropicalistas?

Rita: I was raised with my grandparents—my parents divorced and my mother went to live with my grandparents and I was raised with my grandfather and grandmother and my great-grandmother. And my mother was working and studying so I was with the old folks the whole day, listening to the music they listened to, which was basically boleros and when there were blackouts at night they would turn on a battery-powered radio, their whole bolero show the whole night long, and that’s like part of my imagination, inevitably in the back of my head all the time. That whole dark aspect of the bolero, super-dramatic, so theatrical. The theatrical thing that the bolero has enchants me and it also has a very literary character. Sometimes there are boleros that have introductions like an Edgar Allan Poe story, like a Gothic thing. On the other hand, I love Brazilian music; I came into contact with it when I was about 17 years old, through some older friends I had. They introduced me to Caetano Veloso, or Maria Bethania or Gal Costa, all those people and they enriched me a lot, because of that idea of the mixture of what it is to feel African in the Americas, feel the slave and the rhythms the slaves left us—the mix of that with rock and roll, which is also African—Latin American culture mixed with African-American culture. That marriage interests me a lot.

EM: What you said right now about Africans interests me a lot because it occurred to me that if here’s a pervasive theme in what’s going on in a lot of your songs is that you do get to the trance state of the traditional spiritual Afro-Caribbean music, like posesión. I hear it a little bit in the Ping Pong song.

Rita: On this project in particular, Los Misterios, on this record it’s super-present because it was something that I always wanted to do, integrate what I danced when I would go to rave parties in the late ‘90s and what I danced when I would go to for example out of curiosity to a gagá festival, in a cañaveral, in a batey where Haitians and Dominicans celebrated Holy Week. There was a trance state in both places—one a magical religious one and the other a party thing, there I was breaking my head with deep house, you know? So since I saw that those things in some way could speak to each other, and also converse with Dominican popular music and other rhythms, and that definitely, my heart—there’s a side of my heart that is very attached to the idea of dance, but dance as something sacred, that allows a human being to transcend. Not dance for dance’s sake, or dancing to flirt with women, or whatever, but dance as something sacred that can transport you to another dimension.

EM: Let us speak a little about your reality as a transnational artist. The obvious song is “La hora de volvé,” but then I hear a song like “Pásame a Buscá”, which is not explicitly about transnationalism but it shows such an intimate details of Puerto Rico. How does your transnationalism influence you as a person and an artist?

Rita: In the quotidian sense, I can say, or for Dominicans, in the act of leaving my country I have to go through a series of requirements to visit another country—I have to meet immigration requirements to get a visa or permission to travel or whatever. That right there puts you in a complicated context. Do I want to travel? I have to get this visa, I have to pay to get permission and maybe they won’t give it to me. Which is what any Dominican goes through, and in addition, under the pressure of a completely disarticulated economy and from where everyone wants to leave because of problems and to search for a better life. That’s something that is super-present in my live because in Santo Domingo everyone has a family member living abroad. Everyone has a family member living abroad who left from every social class, above all middle class and lower class, because they had family that left for the U.S., for Puerto Rico, for Spain, wherever, to work so they can send home something to someone who was left behind. It’s something very real, not something you have to pinpoint. It’s all over the place. It’s how we live, and it’s in my work, clearly it’s in my work. It’s like saying “well I’m Dominican, I’m of such and such age, and I also have to say I am a diasporic person, because my father went to the U.S., my aunt worked in a factory in New York her whole life. I’ve come to live in Puerto Rico looking for other opportunities. It’s our reality and it has to be obvious in what I do.

EM: You seem to be saying something that reflects a transnational reality for the 21st century,  a certain sensibility.

Rita: Definitely the question of nostalgia that some people live—some don’t because there are people who leave and they say “No way in hell I’m going back! Back there? No way!” And they go and stay 10 or 20 years and don’t go back because they had a traumatic experience in their home country and don’t want to return but the majority feel, above all, the Caribbean person, well the Latin American has a nostalgic experience of their homeland, that it’s like a dream even if they never return, even if they don’t want to return, they have this thing about recreating their home country in the First World, like the Dominicans do, Puerto Ricans do, Cubans do, everybody, the little islands inside the big city. And Europeans too, the ones who came in the 20th century, they want to recreate what’s theirs in the big city.

EM: Are you primarily based in Puerto Rico?

Rita:  Right now I’m in Puerto Rico.

EM: For how long?

Rita: I’m in Puerto Rico indefinitely, for the moment.

EM: Is there a difference between the Dominican in Puerto Rico and the Dominican in New York?

Rita: I think that in Puerto Rico there is more discrimination than in New York. It’s a smaller space, we are the only other because there are people from the islands but really the Big Other here is the Dominican. So there is much more discrimination and it’s harder I think. And there’s less opportunity than in New York. I would say that is the difference—we are a little more oppressed in Puerto Rico than in New York.

EM: Yes but at the same time Dominicans are going to have a big influence on Puerto Rican culture in the coming years.

Rita: Definitely we have an influence on the economy, the culture and everything—in the city we have already had an influence in all those areas, because it’s a pretty big community. That is inevitable.

EM: Do you enjoy the culture and the feeling there? How much do you feel Puerto Rican by being there for a period of time?

Rita: I don’t feel Puerto Rican, but I do feel that I have roots here, many different kinds. My two novels have been published here, I have an almost 10-year relationship with this country. I have great friends, familial and personal relationships in this country that to me, despite all the violence and everything that’s happening, give me a lot of serenity. I feel that there is an energy that is a little more subtle than there is in Santo Domingo, which my Puerto Rican friends deny, but that’s my perception. Here I’m more relaxed. More relaxed in the city. For me it’s a city that has clean beaches, it’s a privilege. We haven’t had that in Santo Domingo for a long time.

EM: Who are you working with here?

Rita: Ahmed Irizarry is the musical director of the band. We knew each other beforehand, we were friends and now he has become the musical director of the band and he is a tremendous human being.

EM: I read in a Santo Domingo newspaper that you were working on something with Calle 13 and Tego Calderón and Yotuel of Orishas.

Rita: The thing with Tego and Yotuel has not become concretized yet. We are working on it. I’m co-directing a script for Calle 13 with the director Noelia Quintero, who is the director of the videos “La Hora de Volvé” and “El Juidero.”

EM: What is it like for you to be “out” in the celebrity world of Latin America? It must be a very unusual experience.

Rita: I have always assumed (being out) very naturally, and I haven’t made an issue out of it, you know, in hiding it or anything. I dealt with it as any other person would deal with their life and happiness. In Santo Domingo…I felt it would be more scandalous than it was. But people on the street reacted in a healthy way. More healthy than the media.

EM: Many artists stay hidden for many years and then suddenly there’s a revelation and it’s a big thing but you, since you began your career “out” and everyone knew it, I think you must be a big inspiration for a lot of people.

Rita: It was very nice to hear commentaries from older people, who you think are more conservative than anyone. 70-year-old ladies would suddenly say to me in the street, I like people like you because you are what you are, you are not afraid, or I like you, it’s great that you are the kind who tells the truth. These are great gifts from those you least expect to get them from.

EM: Do you feel like you have a unifying concept in the album Juidero?

Rita: El Juidero is just what it means like “the runaway is ready, ready to runaway.” It’s like a getway, I don’t think it’s very translatable to English. But it has a little bit to do with that sensation of someone who is moving. Of someone who is running away. And I think that someone who leaves their country, even if they’re away 20 or 30 years in another country, always has the feeling that they left running away from something and continues to be running away from something. That’s a little bit about “El Juidero.” You’re running away your entire life. Towards something that sometimes you don’t even know what it is.

EM: It’s a little like being the protagonist of an action movie.

Rita: It’s an action movie set in the Caribbean, totally.

EM: Have you played in New York yet? Did I miss it last year?

Rita: I haven’t played in NYC yet. Last year it was canceled because they hadn’t given me the visa yet. But now I’m going to play in Summerstage and I’m looking forward to it.

EM: What will it be like for you to finally play for the people here?

Rita: I’m very happy about playing in NY, I feel that many of those songs speak directly to the people that live in New York in one way or another.

EM: What are your feelings about the term Latin alternative or the genre signified by it?

Rita: I used to have a lot of problems with labels in general to classify music but after I began to make music I realized that heck, they’re necessary because this is an industry, you know, and what are you going to call it? Are you going to do like Prince, put up a logo to drive people crazy? You have to call it something. Sometimes they don’t do justice to the music you make or you feel uncomfortable because you think “oh this isn’t that music, I’m not that.” But I don’t have those problems with that kind of thing. You can call it what you will. I make music. And whomever wants to call it alternative, go ahead. If you want to call it merengue, call it merengue. If you want to call it whatever you want, even world music. I make music for whoever wants to see it.

EM: Are there any Latin alternative bands you like?

Rita: A band that totally influenced me and who I admire a lot, one album I’m going to say because it’s a specific album, is “Re” by Café Tacuba, which I think is a master work and I take my hat off to them. And well Manu Chao who they also push into the Latin alternative category. Those two I can mention.

EM: Where did you get the name Indiana?

Rita: There’s a little story behind that. It’s actually my middle name, my given middle name. My name is Rita Indiana Hernández Sánchez, and that name, it was my great-grandmother’s name, Rita Indiana del Castillo. And I’m the third Rita Indiana, so it’s more than given, it’s a family tradition. The fact is that the first Rita Indiana, her name was Rita, but she was mulatto and her husband called her Rita Indiana because she was dark. So when they had a grandchild, my great grandmother who was the grandchild of that woman was given the name Rita Indiana—that was the second Rita Indiana, and then my great-grandmother, when I was born, gave me her name, Rita Indiana.

EM: That’s a wonderful story.

Archived posts below:

Que Descansa en Paz

He was a friend of my dad’s. Came over the house a few times when I was a kid. A few years ago came all the way up the mountain to sing aguinaldos for my family. He had a generous spirit.

El Viento te Da Sorpresas

A chronicle (una crónica) on how to keep your Puerto Rican ass alive: First, think of Viento de Agua. When I think of Viento de Agua, I think of precisely that. A salty-coco burst of Yemayá mist catching you by surprise on the waterfront in the southern coastal town of Arroyo, or mixed with a warm splash of Medalla in the back room of El Balcón del Zumbador in Piñones. The same Viento de Agua that lifts your entire Brooklyn apartment, jammed with everyone who has ever attended Boricua Fest in Prospect Park, up into the air for several seconds so high that you could say the orishas got possessed by us.

Viento de Agua is the placita in all of us, the place where you get the necessary Fruta Madura and make your 3 a.m. dance a divine desahogo, a diasporic disparate that makes a melaza so sweet you no longer have to ask y dónde está tu abuela? She’s right here. And Tito Matos, flashing his pandereta like it was the center of the only cipher you need to know, won’t let you forget that. I can almost hear Victor Hernández Cruz saying “Areíto, anyone?”

VDA’s latest, Fruta Madura is a triumphant, experimental album that is traditional, avant-garde, and popular at the same time! It is a living bandera that channels José Campeche, Canario, Tite Curet Alonso, Maelo Rivera, Tito Kayak, and Juan Sánchez all at once. It’s everything you need to know, in this order: Plena, Plena, Bomba gracimá holandé, Plena, Plena, Bomba gracimá holandé, Plena, Bomba seis corrido-corvé, Plena, Plena, Bomba holandé sicá, and finally, Plena. It’s the fruit of life.

What was the recipe for Fruta? Take one part VDA street show, the “uplugged” version consisting of Tito and the crew, cats with names like Llonsi, Lagarto, Joko, Richard, Willie. They are the masters of the punteador and the seguidor, and the song of the migratory black workers that found their way to San Antón in Ponce at the real turn of the century (this last one was bullshit). They are the melody of rhythm and the rhythm of melody–their hands and their harmony tell the story of Puerto Rico.

Then you mix in part two, the compositional/arranging genius of Ricardo Pons, who gives Fruta Madura the feel of a symphony, a Berklee-ish air of majesty that can give you a serious hankering for the salad days of Batacumbele (Miguel Zenón and Jerry Medina in the house). It’s always been a mystery why Puerto Rican music is never considered world music unless it’s played in Hawaii, but this time no one can deny the global inevitability of the album’s reigning anthem, “Ciudadano del Mundo.” Finally, a song designed to end all future aquí-allá identity paradoxes!

Whenever circular migration comes up, I can hear Tito doing his best Sammy Tanco imitation–of course none of this would have been possible without Juango and Los Pleneros. They took the parranda from Santurce to the early morning light of El Sur del Bronx, or Los Sures, or somewhere South where the sun is always shining and there is no status, only a nation without borders, an island of millions that knows no North or South. When Tito (and Mariana) moved back to Puerto Rico after getting their PhD in Bregando Con Nueva York, the circle was complete.

There’s a line from track 2, “El Mareíto,” that you need to remember: “Dicen que muero, y no me muero na’/Es un mareíto que a veces me da.” The next time you think you can’t stand up anymore, the next time you’re served up that knockout punch, know that Tito and his band of functional plena-holics are not going to let you pass out.  There’s too much at stake to leave this party early.

Viento de Agua will rock the house at Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture, 450 Grand Concourse at 149th St, Bronx, Saturday, December 4, at 7:30 p.m.

Bomba y Pleasure

The above is from the latest publicity materials sent out by Calle 13, Puerto Rico’s leading agitprop art-hiphop combo, to publicize their new album, which drops in October. While lyricist/MC Residente, a/k/a René Pérez etc. has flirted in the past with “explosive” imagery (most notably this triplet from the massive hit “Atrévete: “señorita intelectual ya se que tiene el area abdominal/que va a explotar como fiesta patronal/que va a explotar como palestino”), this would seem the most literal attempt at “metáforo bomba.”

We’re well aware of the urban significance of “bomb” as in “da,” but there’s something especially ’70s about Residente’s approach. While you could say that the Mexican rock-hiphop hybrid Molotov, a crude antecedent to Calle 13, was on a similar track, René’s anti-establishment cocktail makes no apologies for its explosive flow: amenaza as fun, rhyme as weapon, dance as erotic/political eruption.

The upcoming Larry Harlow Salsa Suite performance at Lincoln Center out of Doors this week brought all this to mind through the memory of the almost forgotten Nestor Sánchez, who along with Frankie Rodríugez (no, not Dr. K., el Mets closer, but the congero-sonero so all the way live on Jerry González’s classic Ya Yo Me Curé) delivered Harlow’s “history of Afro-Latin music” operetta. A little research revealed that Sánchez began in the early ’70s with a local outfit fronted by Tony Pabón, and their first album, called Protesta, had this iconic cover design:

Yes, there were real bombs, and too many died and went to prison over them. But there always had to be an outlet for that bomb in our hearts. Bomba y pleasure.

Breaking News, 7/6: Maldita Vencindad at LAMC this week

One of the great politically conscious Mexican rock bands returns to New York showcasing their excellent new album, “Circular Colectivo.” Check out my preview feature in the Star-Ledger.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

There’s a glow where Silvio Rodríguez is supposed to be, ostensibly caused by the pseudo-psychedelic light show the night of his second show at Carnegie Hall. But maybe it was because in our world, he couldn’t really be there at all. Of course, the form of his presentation is familiar, yet its content is, to the mind trained to hear the language of the media-consumerist-complex, a mystery.

Silvio’s presence was completely different from his press conference the week before; he was in his performer mode, almost no speechmaking other than dedicating the show to the eighty-something Pete Seeger, present in the second row, and a shout-out to the Cuban 5. The group accompanying him, including his wife, the classically trained flutist Niurka González, were an idealization of the Cuban conservatory system–precise, yet emotional; exquisite harmony, impeccable rhythm.

Silvio’s world is an inexplicable realm of earnest self-exploration–sometimes concrete, others ephemeral, translated into layered poetry and sung to musical accompaniment that uniquely captures the folk traditions of Anglo and Latin America, as well as jazz, Afro-Cuban, and classical chamber music. There are moments when the message is explicit, as in “Carta a Violeta Parra,” about the recently deceased founder of nueva canción, and “Cita con Los Ángeles,” in which Silvio walks through the streets of New York and runs into ghosts of the end of modernist idealism. And there are riddles like “Sueño Con Serpientes,” and the childlike “Unicornio.”

Then there are songs that seem to say even more than the already intense pronouncements in the lyrics, like “La Maza.” Si no creyera en lo mas duro/si no creyera en el deseo/si no creyera en lo que creo/si no creyera en algo puro. If I didn’t believe in these things, what would the world be? These words shout about the core of identity, an identity of resistance. And when the crowd clapped, sang, teared up, they shared that heart that we know as resistance. The flame not yet extinguished.

These moments happened again, and again. In “El Necio,” which offers life after the death of ideals, and “Cita,” which celebrates survival after assassination, inspired, seemingly by the birth of his daughter in the wake of 9-11. The burst of applause for the last couplet, “Seamos un tilín mejores/y muchos menos egoistas” was a kind of jolt–it was as if we were hearing a message unimaginable in the commodity-ego world we live in.

I sat transfixed, regretting having underestimated Silvio in the past–his daring leaps into higher registers were not at all signs of fragility but strength. He was in command of every song without being at all overbearing or needing to be spotlighted. He was at once a leader and  member of his own wondrous workshop of song, and these were songs that spoke to another world. Was it all in Silvio’s head, or does it really exist in Cuba’s revolution? “What a strange way we have of remembering,” he muses in “Mariposas,” decorating his lyrics with rippling chords like a Tim Buckley who managed to survive, making you wonder, what was it that crushed so many people and allowed this butterfly to stay aloft? That was the climax to Act II.

In the end, there was “Te Doy una Canción,” another of his daybreak revelations that make it impossible to separate politics from love, while pondering contradiction: the same two hands can heal and kill. The show’s last utterance was the inevitable “Pequeña Serenata Diurna,” which asks you to believe that even in a world like this, with its covert and overt repression, it’s possible to awaken in a free country as a free person. In the closing chorus, he sneaks in that oddly deep sentiment about asking those who died for ideals to forgive him his cathartic happiness. We missed the piano solo by Emiliano Salvador that appears on the original. But as we filed out of this show, one of the few in recent memory I wished would never end, we were haunted by the joy that can burst from one’s soul despite a heart immersed in uncertainty.

Which is I think what captures Silvio’s moment better than any other of his endless bag of metaphors. He was the man who wasn’t there, save for someone’s waking dream of being free.

Aventura Unplugged

UPDATE 1-26: Went to see Aventura at MSG last Thursday, was quite a scene. It was ultimately a DR cultural nationalist event, kind of necessary for Zeitgeist grasp of  Dominican-York essence. Lots of ladies in skintight outfits, but the boys knew all the lyrics as well. Romeo was in this intensely ironic “I will teach you how to treat the ladies” mode. The band played on a revolving circular stage and there were a couple of moments that were jam-like. But they pretty much stuck to the script. Strictly for pop believers.

Aventura is having an unbelievable run atop the Billboard Latin album charts. They’ve been outselling everyone else for months. You’re probably curious about why. Maybe the following Q& A I did with them in a Midtown Manhattan studio last week (literally minutes before the Haiti earthquake hit) will make the picture a little clearer:

EM: The production values are high on this album. Tell me a little bit about the production process.
Anthony: This is the album that has taken us longest to produce. We usually take a long time because we wanna make sure that we give people something as close to perfection as it could be possible but it’s always like 7-8 months max but in this production we took a year and a half. We took such a long time that—we had three or four years I recall where I’d be giving people like a studio album, because we were doing live productions and doing 4 or 5 songs. But this is the production that people were waiting for, we gave them like 18 songs, and we felt very confident with our work, because we were hoping—because at the end of the day people have the last word, if they like it or not. We were just like, I hope they like it. We tried new stuff, fusion, Lenny was basically you know like, combining a lot of different sounds in this production, and we gave people a lot of what they originally accepted of the group, so it was a good combination. It was a little bit of every production but plus. And when we noticed that it was a big success, it came out like, according to Billboard, the most Latin selling album in the last few years that was like really huge for us, we got really excited.
EM: What kind of things did you do with the production where you had in mind a wider audience than the bachata thing?
Lenny: We’re not really thinking about the wider audience, we’re just thinking about what we haven’t done yet. And we come with ideas like, “Anthony, let’s do a trumpet in the song, let’s see how we could put a trumpet in, let’s put a mandolin guitar in a song, let’s see how we could do with that.” When we invited Miri Ben-Ari. Let’s put a violin in a track but just like one person, like really killing and mix it with our stuff. And I think that’s what makes Aventura different. We do it nicely and the most professional that we can. We just don’t do it like crazy, like yeah let’s record, that was cool and leave. WE make sure we do a nice song with it too, nice arrangement, nice lyrics, that’s basically what we do. Every time we do an album we try to do something that we haven’t done yet. We don’t want to repeat the same sound because people always expect that Aventura are the leaders of this always coming up with new stuff in bachata, like ‘what they got now?
EM: Guitar is an unusual instrument for Latin music.
Lenny: We use acoustic guitars, nylon-string guitars, we use 12-string guitars.
EM: Any styles that you lke?
Lenny: We have flamenco, trio, electronic rock.
EM: Any players you admire?
Anthony: I’ve been listening to—I’m not a guitarist like Lenny but I play simple stuff, but I appreciate like great guitarists. I’ve been into this guy Andy McKee. He’s just amazing and I would like to collaborate with him in the future.
EM: What was it like to play for Obama?
Henry: it was one of the biggest experiences for us. Today they just gave us the picture, and now is when I get goosebumps and start reminiscing about how great that day was for us and our career. President Obama is the most humble person and he transmits that same feeling to whoever is around and all the artists and everybody. It was great.
EM: I read that he knew a little bit of bachata…
Henry: Anthony asked him if he knew a little about bachata. He said “why you guys all acting like I don’t know about bachata? I listen to you guys.” And I was very surprised, but then afterwards when I saw him explaining to his daughters every different artist that was performing, I realized that the guy knows about all different kinds of music and he does his research and he’s a great father.
EM: Did he say he has you on his I-pod?
Anthony: We didn’t ask him that.
EM: Is this the most special landmark series of shows for you?
Anthony: From my part, it’s always fulfilling and a great feeling, like the guys say we always get goose bumps and I think we always got that, especially when we’re about to go on stage. But me personally, I just always get like this rush to always outdo ourselves. Meaning that I like to make sure that we do bigger things. As we give people more productions I want to do better songs. If you ask me what was you’re best production I would have to say we haven’t done it yet. But I think that being a perfectionist can help you and it can hurt you because then like I’m like scared because what happens when we’re only able to do maybe one Garden or not a Garden because I feel like we’ve just been growing and growing, and I think that my goal is just to get people everybody in the world, not just Latinos. I want to get everyone to know Aventura, even if you don’t like us, I want you to know us. I want this group to become a mainstream phenomenon like with Americans and who knows, with everybody. Like Shakira, like Ricky Martin and I think that we’re on the right track. But I’m never 100% satisfied. I’m like, satisfied with the fans. I’m satisfied with the movement. But then with this whole series of concerts is over, I’m back, we’re back. Okay, what are we going to do now?
EM: Are you going to have any special guests, you know like Wyclef?
Anthony: We have surprises but what we try to do is we try to basically say you’re going to see Aventura, don’t expect anyone to come out. If someone comes out then enjoy it, but we don’t promote any artists. In ’07 we brought out a lot of artists and no one knew, and this year maybe no one shows up, but if they do, that’s an extra for the people but we’re not planning on bringing anyone out this time around.
EM: You have transcended your traditional audience like Ricky Martin and Shakira has. Do you think bachata has appeal to other Latino ethnic groups and then combining that with urban sounds is responsible for your success?
Mikey: In the beginning it was an uphill battle because we came with a fresh new sound off the bat. When we started with our first single, we did a remix all in English and that was never heard in bachata, so the bachata culture weren’t really diggin’, really feeling that. It was like what the heckl is that? But the New York crowd were diggin’ it. Cause we from here, so the other kids that were from here like us, they started diggin’ it so as we got more and more popular, they set up something us for us to go to DR and take our music over there. Over there the youth was already waiting for us, the youth had our backs. The traditional bachatas from back then were older guys, like bar music, very sad. We came like with a boy-band image, but these boys could actually play the guitar.
Antony: It was tough for us. It was kind of annoying for us because we had a situation where people or girls were saying these guys were sex symbols. These guys are like boy bands—they were comparing us to In Sync, Backstreet Boys, who are very talented but we weren’t trying to portray that image. This was like, that just came with the package; we are musicians, we are producers, we are writers. Everything you hear, everything that has function in Aventura we made it up, from music to lyrics, everything. Honestly it was tough because at the same time I had a vision and we were very clear on something: It’s not what you’re doing, it’s the representation. Reggaetón for example, which was, it went from one night to the other for being like a mainstream hit. But it’s not just the music that has to be good, you have to have the machine behind you, the representation. And we were clear that what we were trying to do was not just do good music but represent it. We had a lot of people think we were stuck up because we didn’t want to play in small restaurants. But it wasn’t that, it was just that we wanted to take it to another level because if you stay playing in these small restaurants today you wouldn’t be able to be doing gardens like MSGs. We wouldn’t be able to be doing anything with just those small restaurants. So we were clear in that sense.
Henry: You know that it is also being proven that there is a place for bachata, not only with those Latinos who aren’t Dominican but people who don’t even speak Spanish. And it’s been proven in Europe where sometimes they don’t even know English or Spanish and they really, our song became number one. If it became number one out there, what’s stopping it from becoming number one here with the English-speaking people.
Anthony: We have to become fans of what we do. Then comes the essence which is the real fans, the ones who really decide what will become a hit and what doesn’t. I think that we already reached our goal, which was showing people that we could experiment in other genres and function. We don’t want to be able to sit here and just say yeah, we collaborated with this artist, but was it a hit? I think…
Lenny: I’m gonna cut you off, but it started with Don Omar.
Anthony: We’ve been able to experiment with other genres and function because I think the secret recipe is go to the real chef. We’re not trying to cook reggaetón because that’s not what we do. We’re not trying to cook salsa. We do it but we get the real producers, the guys who live that music. Just like if you want to do a well-produced bachata, come to us.
Henry: Bottom line…
EM: One of your albums is called “We Broke All the Rules.” What rules did you not break when it comes to the tradition of bachata?
Mikey: Basically the rhythm. You can’t break that rule, there’s no way around that. WE have to play the bachata rhythm the way it is, which is a 1-2-3-4 step.
Anthony: I think we’ve broken that, too. [Laughter]
Mikey: No, that’s when it comes to breaks after every measure, after every 16 bars, you do little breaks that are new that we invented that people copy from us which is good because we’re revolutionizing the rhythm. But we still have the same instruments, the bongos, the guira, and the second guitar, rhythm guitar, that’s basically…
Anthony: We don’t change that. I think the basic here is keep that bongo and that guira going, always experiment but let people enjoy the dancing, let people be able to dance…
Mikey: Let them understand the rhythm.
Anthony: But we always do stuff that, when we said “We Broke the Rules,” that was an album where like we took a lot of risks, musically speaking. We didn’t only just break the rules of bachata, we also broke the visual concept because if you see Aventura, before Aventura bachata was an older guy, middle-aged guy with a guitar dressed in a shiny suit…
Henry: Even if it was a younger person, they looked old.
Anthony: And to be honest with you, we played that role for a while. Before we were Aventura we were called Los Teeengers de la Bachata. And we were dressed in ways that we weren’t dressed. It’s like we had a uniform. Like this is the uniform that we had to put on because this is what we’re doing. And then we realized, you know what, we ought to be ourselves, we ought to dress the way we dressed. And I think that people, mainly the youth, accepted us quicker, they understood oh these guys speak like us, they dress like us. And that was so important.
EM: Are you using a little more English in your songs as time goes on?
Anthony: We’ve kind of stepped it up a bit, but I remember four or five years ago, on our first or second album, if you’re like a true Aventura fan, you would know that we’ve had this hiphop influence and you could see that mainly in Mikey, cause Mikey, we was adding hiphop songs in an Aventura production. Mikey had in “We Broke the Rules” a hiphop song, in Love and Hate, and we talking about six or seven years ago.
EM: Why did you call this album “The Last” and how hard has it been to deal with all the rumors about your break up?
Anthony: We all got immune to these comments like “they’re breaking up, they broke up,” you know. I think that they broke the group up at least twice a year. And they would literally ask us while we were performing, did you guys break up? Are you breaking up? And we’re like, dude, we’re playing right now, right here, this is us, you know? I think we just got used to it and I said, “you know what, let’s just take advantage of this.” It just became like a routine, a rumor that just circulated, and it would leave and just like come back around. The title “The Last” didn’t necessarily have anything to do with that. It was more like a farewell, like a good-bye, this is the last bachata album. But not bachata, meaning we’re going to stop dong bachata. Now we go back to the previous question. We want to expand, we want to grow as artists. We have the potential to do more than just bachata. And we want to like pretty much show people that we were able to continue to do what we function with in other genres, like Mikey said, we did a song with Don Omar, it was a hit. We did a song with Akon and Wisin & Yandel, it was a hit. I did a song with Wisin & Yandel, “Noche de Sexo,” it was a hit. So I think that we kind of want to experiment and this was the last 100% bachata album. What you’re going to get from the group in the future, Aventura albums are going to be more like a 60-40%, like 60% bachata, which is what people want to hear, and on the other 40%, who knows, urban music, it could be ballads, it could be whatever’s happening at the moment. I think we have the ability to do that. Because people accepted us for that.
EM: Is that what you’re planning for your next recording?
Anthony: Absolutely, and we actually started in this album because we don’t just have “All Up to You,” we have a song with Wyclef, and Ludicris. And like Mikey said, we tested the waters and we’re not just doing songs that people are like, okay, they’re doing other stuff. No these are like songs that actually are hits, people made them hits, so we’re not just taking risks, we’re doing what people accepted and also appreciate from the group, like when we go onstage and perform “Noche de Sexo,” which was a song that wasn’t even an Aventura song, it was a song that Wisin and Yandel featured me. We all took that as a success for us. That’s important to be able to show people that we’re more than just a traditional bachata group.
EM: Are you in the process of recording a new album right now?
Anthony: No, what we do is we let our heads clear up and are concentrating with this production because we’re taking advantage of what’s happening, because we were like rocking for 3 years with our previous production and this one is even bigger so I think we’re going to be rocking for a while with this production. What I mean by rocking for a while is that I think we’re going to give people maybe two more singles, and concentrate on markets like Mexico, Europe, Chile, just give people like, dale lo mejor de nosotros.
EM: Are you still having to tour a lot despite how well the record is doing?
Anthony: The industry, when it comes to record sales is not doing as great as before, we’re obviously selling a lot of records because we got the most-selling Latin album in the last four years but if we’re selling like half a million units, which is a lot, that really represents 2 million but it’s just not like that right now because of all the pirating and everything.
Lenny: We’re also investing a lot of money that we have to recoup for the label.
Anthony: So to answer your question, no we’re not just sitting back like “yeah, we selling albums.” Plus we get a rush out of being onstage. We enjoy doing that more than just sitting there and collecting royalty checks.
Henry: We enjoy both. Being onstage, it’s like the interaction with the people, that’s priceless for us.
EM: Any connections to NJ?
Henry: I actually lived in Paterson for two years. I was looking for houses recently in Jersey.
Lenny: Coming up we used to play a lot of clubs out there. We had a lot of fun, and those clubs when we was like killin out there. It was actually hotter out there than New York, so we used to stay out there a lot.
Max: Jersey has a lot of nice houses out there but I couldn’t buy one of them cause that bridge drives me crazy. GWB messed up everything.
EM: Success hasn’t spoiled you guys.
Anthony: In what sense?
Henry: It has actually made it harder.
Max: It actually makes you wiser…
Anthony: I eat lobster every day, but…nahhh.
Max: …and wanting to work even harder.
EM: Are you focused mainly on the playing in your show or the special effects?
Anthony: People ain’t stupid. You don’t do nothing bringing a $2-$3 million production and not give people a good show based on what they really like which is your music. Not to take anything away from artists that invest in their concerts, but Aventura invests money in our concerts, but we are the essence of the show, what you came to see is us perform and we’re going to give you more than just perform. We’re going to interact with you. We just do jokes, we make you laugh, we make you cry with love songs, and I think that’s where the group has shown more strength. This is what I hear and what I read, people are basically always saying this group live is just something else, and we always try to outdo what we did. We have to do a better show than what we did in ’07. Next time that you interview us, we’ll say we gotta do a better show than the ones we’re doing now.
Henry: Visually it has changed, obviously.
Anthony: People have grown with us. They see that this has been a team effort.
EM: What are your goals about become more mainstream?
Anthony: We were going to do George Lopez’s show and we didn’t get a chance because our schedule wasn’t functioning with theirs, but I think we’ve seen Juanes and Shakira doing Jay Leno.
EM: You don’t plan on doing an all-English song?
Anthony: I don’t think I would ever do, maybe an English song, but not an English production. I would just like to include my English material in an album and just give ‘em 50-50. But I don’t think I would just concentrate only English.
Lenny: It’s like the other fans would feel left out, you know? When you bring something out and by the time you come next time around, there might be someone else. You gotta always keep ‘em there, the same fans, keep ‘em satisfied.
EM: What about the future?
Anthony: I would like the world to know Aventura. I don’t necessarily need everyone to like us, but it would be nice to be able to know that everyone in this world even if they don’t understand or become a fan, they could say, yeah I know who they are, then it means…I feel that our music goes beyond just a culture. WE went to Europe and we had Italian fans, a lot of people that are not familiar with what we do, loving what we do. So basically that was a sign that we could take this to the mainstream. What we want to do is just basically let them hear it. They decide if they want to accept it, if they like it or not but we want to make sure that everyone is like, “yeah I know what Aventura does.”
Henry: We want to conquer Africa. That sounds crazy but we never thought we’d be in Africa.

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