A Struggle For The Identity Of Puerto Rican Music You can learn a lot about a culture by listening to its music. NPR producer Jasmine Garsd took a reporting trip to Puerto Rico recently. She found that the island's uncertain economic future not only affects day-to-day life, but also its music. Garsd shares some songs with host Michel Martin.

A Struggle For The Identity Of Puerto Rican Music

A Struggle For The Identity Of Puerto Rican Music

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You can learn a lot about a culture by listening to its music. NPR producer Jasmine Garsd took a reporting trip to Puerto Rico recently. She found that the island's uncertain economic future not only affects day-to-day life, but also its music. Garsd shares some songs with host Michel Martin.


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now we are going to turn our attention to Puerto Rico. That's where our colleagues at MORNING EDITION went recently for an in-depth reporting trip. They talked about the island's difficult economy, the many people leaving the island looking for opportunities elsewhere, and how all of that is affecting day-to-day life in the U.S. commonwealth.

But one thing they found out is that tough times sometimes result in great music. NPR producer Jasmine Garsd is going to tell us more. She is the co-host of NPR Music's "Alt.Latino" podcast and she went to Puerto Rico along with MORNING EDITION.

Welcome back, Jasmine. Thanks for joining us.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: I guess I'm glad to be back in the cold.

MARTIN: Needed to rub it in. So just before we get into the music, could you just tell us about the general mood there?

GARSD: Well, Puerto Rico is going through a very difficult situation economically. There's a crime wave. There's more influx of drugs than ever, and I would say there's a general sense of depression, of being really bummed out, especially because every single person we talked to knows someone who has left or is planning or thinking about leaving, and that creates a very depressing environment.

MARTIN: One of the antidotes, though, to that kind of depressing environment that you found is some of the artists there who take their responsibilities very seriously and...

GARSD: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...one of the people you talked with was a very popular rapper named Tego Calderon and I just want to play first one of his songs. It's called (foreign language spoken) and we'll hear a little bit and then you can tell us what it's all about.


MARTIN: So tell us, what's he talking about?

GARSD: Well, (foreign language spoken) means the wall and he's doing this song with the Puerto Rican metal band (unintelligible) and he's talking about Puerto Rican independence. Tego Calderon is a rap legend. I mean he's kind of the Jay-Z of the Caribbean and he is very vocally pro-independence. He wants his island to be a country and that's what he's talking about.

MARTIN: Yes. In the MORNING EDITION piece he got my attention when he was asked about all the people leaving and he was like, let them go.

GARSD: Yes. He's an interesting character and he's very, very vocal, and I think people love him because he's not trying to appease anyone. He's just saying what is on his mind.

MARTIN: People have often said that, you know, rap is the - what - the CNN of the streets. I mean, this is a phrase that people have been using for 20 years or longer, actually. And you found that that is still true, that both rap and reggaeton very much reflect what is actually going on in people's lives. You want to talk a little bit more about that?

GARSD: You can map the course of reggaeton. It's very similar to what happened to rap, actually. I mean it started off very underground, reporting on communities that were marginalized and what was happening in Puerto Rico. That's in the '90s and the late '80s, and then it got very commercial. One famous phrase criticizing reggaeton is, you know, why are you wearing a fur coat on a tropical island? You know, it started becoming about the bling and about the hot women and less and less about what was happening in Puerto Rico.

One artist in Puerto Rico who's reinventing reggaeton, really going back to those roots, is Jamsha.


MARTIN: What's it all about, Jasmine?

GARSD: Well, Jamsha isn't necessarily a very political figure, but he's definitely going back to that whole - you know, I'm not wearing, like, fancy clothing. I'm actually really broke. And in this song he's a trash collector and he's not doing very well economically, but it's also kind of a dirty limerick. Don't worry. It's safe to play on the air.


GARSD: But it is a little limerick about, you know, how he's the kind of guy that, you know, goes around and picks up what other guys leave behind.

MARTIN: Oh, I get it. I get it.


GARSD: He really represents this phenomena of a do-it-yourself sound. The last time I checked, he's not associated with a record label. He just produces these amazing YouTube videos that are very Michael Jackson and "Thriller," like those cinematic music videos, and they go viral and people love him and that's really what's going on musically on the island, a very do-it-yourself vibe.

MARTIN: Are people kind of turning to their own homegrown artists? Because, as we know - you know, as you've told us, you know, many times, I mean Latin music is worldwide and countries throughout Latin America, Central America, really internationally, are producing so many different kinds of music right now.

Are people in Puerto Rico kind of particularly turning to their own right now?

GARSD: Well, I think Puerto Rico is such an interesting case because while it's part of the U.S., and artists tend to prefer to crossover into the continental U.S., Puerto Rico, when it comes to Spanish-language music, has always been a powerhouse. They have consistently over the decades created some of the most influential Latin music out there.

MARTIN: How do artists evaluate that for themselves at a time like this? You know, you have artists like Tego Calderon who seems to feel that it's almost his duty to stay put and, kind of, be a beacon and be, you know, and that comports with his politics as well. But what about other artists who, is there, are there a lot of artists leaving right now, and is that affecting the music scene there too?

GARSD: I didn't hear about a lot of artists leaving. I did speak to a couple of music journalists and this is a question that kept coming up. The question of identity and the question of, you know, OK, so you can easily cross over into the U.S., but what is your relationship with Latin America like? Because frankly, if you're singing in Spanish, it might be easier to try and cross over into, I don't know, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela. I guess the best way to put it, I asked someone I interviewed, does it bother you that I'm asking you these questions? And they said no, I really like being asked these questions. The problem is I don't know the answer. We're still trying to figure it out.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the current music scene in Puerto Rico. Jasmine Garsd, co-host of NPR's ALT. LATINO is just back from their reporting on a wide range of issues there. But we're talking about how Puerto Rico's current economic troubles are particularly affecting their music scene and what artists are talking about and singing about there.

What about the, for want of a better word, salsa, a traditional music style that many people who visit the island might associate with the island? Is there anything going on with salsa right now - or do you even call it that anymore?

GARSD: Yeah. Definitely. And I think salsa, what I described with reggaeton, happened to salsa as well. And I think maybe it's Puerto Rico's trap that they make such good music that eventually the music gets super hyper commercialized, over-polished, overproduced and then they have to reinvent it. Something similar happened with salsa. You have this amazing salsa explosion with Fania Records that happened in the '70s, and then salsa right now, you could say is kind of stagnant and it's a little bit to elevator music.

MARTIN: I was going to say, because I was going to ask, what's so terrible about being commercially successful. I mean does it make it, it's not cool anymore? I mean, come on.

GARSD: Oh, no, no, no. I mean sound-wise...

MARTIN: Are you being a hater, Jasmine? That's kind of my question. Are you being a hater?

GARSD: No. I love old styled salsa. But I'm talking about sound-wise and thematically. And there is one salsa group that people kept telling me about, which is Orquesta el Macabeo. They initially, started off as a rock group and they call themselves (Spanish Spoken) Rockers Pretending To Be Salsa Guys.


ORQUESTA EL MACABEO: (Singing in Spanish)

GARSD: And they're really good and they have again, that do-it-yourself sound and a kind of grimy vibe, but that's kind of what salsa started out as, you know it's something that you played at parties.


ORQUESTA EL MACABEO: (Singing in Spanish)

MARTIN: Given all of the push and pull that artists are feeling right now. Is there somebody in the offing that you think is going to be making waves in both English and Spanish language music?

GARSD: Well, yes. I mean I think Puerto Rico is always providing some of the biggest artists in Latin music. One of my favorite success stories is a garage rock band called Davila 666. And right now they're doing their solo projects, but I love them because, you know, they toured the U.S. They CBGB and all these garage rock, punk rock kids would be in the audience and Davila would go up there and just be like (Spanish spoken) seis, seis, seis and start playing and never talk in English. And they were so good that everyone was like who are these kids? And now there's singer A.J. Davila has a new single out from an upcoming record. It's called "Animal." And as far as indie rock and garage rock goes, oh, I think he could be really big.

MARTIN: That was Jasmine Garsd. She's co-host of NPR's ALT. LATINO. And she joined us once again in our Washington, D.C. studios. Always good to have you back, Jasmine even if you were in Puerto Rico and the rest of us weren't. Thank you for coming.

GARSD: Thank you so much for having me.


A.J. DAVILA: (Sung in foreign language)

MARTIN: If you want to hear the full MORNING EDITION series on Puerto Rico, just head to our website. Go to NPR.org.


DAVILA: (Sung in foreign language)

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