Calle 13’s current European tour started in a simulated town square in Barcelona’s Poble Espanyol, a model Spanish town built for the 1929 World’s Fair. During the sold-out concert, which began with the rhythmic chant “El Aguante,” the plaza of the popular tourist attraction actually became the site of what resembled a public rally. Five thousand people spent a good part of the show with their fists — or at least their cups of beer — raised. Ada Colau, a popular activist who was just elected mayor of Barcelona, was dancing among the captivated crowd, and, like everyone, singing the words to “Latinoámerica” and other Calle 13 anthems.
Onstage, during one of his typical socially-conscious song preambles, frontman Rene Pérez Joglar gave a nod to Colau’s victory. He also brought up Puerto Rico independence, among other topics that got cheers from the audience. Over the past decade, Calle13 has proved to be that anomaly in 21st Century Latin music: a commercially successful band (they have 21 Latin Grammys, more than any other act) that has remained independent in the studio, and authentically and courageously outspoken. The power to the people line is not all lip service, either. As with other concerts on the current tour, the June 12 Barcelona tickets were comparatively low priced, the equivalent of about $20.
A decade ago, step-brothers Pérez and Eduardo Cabra Martínez came out from Puerto Rico with music that was labeled as smart, satirical reggaeton. They are still most often called a reggaeton band, as tenuous as that connection to that millennial movement from the outskirts of San Juan might have been from the beginning. But if there was any dembow backbeat at all at this recent concert, it must have been drowned out by the venue’s less-than-stellar sound system. After five albums, including 2014’s Multi_Viral, Calle 13 could perhaps most easily be called the Latin Rage Against the Machine. Then there’s the roots-punk party side that shares sound and spirit with both Gogol Bordello and the Fabulosos Cadillacs.
Although known as a duo, Calle 13 has always had a great band of musicians, a tropi-rock combo enhanced by electronic programming by Cabra, the man behind the music. Though he’s always taken the Wizard of Oz role, Cabra has totally left the protagonist to Pérez at this point. In Barcelona, he was almost hidden stage right, focused, at different moments, on his guitar, accordion and laptop. Vocalist and younger sister, Ileana Cabra Joglar, continues to join Pérez at center stage in a supporting role.
Of course, Pérez’s own role as showman, poet and political whisperer has gotten bolder, both onstage and off: Collaborating on Multi-Viral’s title track with Julian Assange, and meeting with heads of state including Hugo Chavez and Cristina Kirchner. After this recent concert, he immediately went into his dressing room the Barcelona mayor for a tete a tete.
In the public eye, Pérez, may have become something like a Spanish-speaking Bono, which leaves him open to criticism. More important is the way that the words of his songs have been adopted by a public that reaches from South America to Europe.
Pérez recently announced that he is working on a solo album, while Cabra is involved in a bunch of producing projects, including an album for the buzzworthy Ecuadorian band Swing Original Monks, who opened Calle 13’s Barcelona concert.
Calle 13 plays Berlin on Saturday (June 20), Zurich on June 29, and Madrid (July 2), among other upcoming dates on this last leg of the Multi_Viral tour. It’s expected to be the band’s last European tour for a while, although not necessarily forever. Despite their solo projects, Pérez and Cabra say Calle 13 is not breaking up.