René Pérez Joglar is a man on a quest.
As co-founder of one of Latin music's biggest acts, the alternative rap group Calle 13, Pérez Joglar's drive to explore, expand, push boundaries and affect social change has been the defining characteristic of his music.
Now the 25-time GRAMMY winner also known as Residente has set aside Calle 13 to shift that quest inward by releasing his first solo album and a companion documentary film, Residente. Both were inspired by the results of his DNA test - leading him to visit far-flung places to make music on his very diverse ancestry, and film the process.
The music-film concept was a radical and challenging move for this rapper from Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico. It is rare to leave a superstar band to completely start over, but he says it was time.
"Once you reach a state of comfort, it's good to leave it and start a new thing, [otherwise] you stay doing the same sh*t, and it's [too] easy," he says. "I knew I was not going to enjoy another year with Calle 13 doing my stuff."
So, Residente set off to trace his musical and ancestral roots. He collaborated with musicians in Siberia, the war-torn Caucasus, China, West Africa and Puerto Rico, sharing ideas by singing notes.
The resulting collaborations and beautifully shot film present a fascinating blend of distinctly regional sounds ranging from Tuvan throat singing to music of the Dagomba tribe and the Beijing opera, with overlays of alternative rock, pop, rap and electronica.
A sweeping artistic venture, Residente takes us on an evocative journey that calls for a universal sense of humanity with the edgy intensity that is René Pérez Joglar.
Residente recently spoke with NBC Latino about his film and new album.
What inspired you to create a film and music based on your DNA results?
"The DNA test is amazing and I thought, well, OK, I'll go to these different countries and [see] what's gonna happen. The thing is that I picked the most surprising places I thought I [would] never have blood[lines]. An album completely based on my DNA [would] take five years or so, because there's a lot of countries."
The Siberian highlands marked a profound beginning for you.
"I'm thinking, 'Why am I doing this?' I started to [become] nostalgic and melancholic because, well, when you're in the forest surrounded by wolves, you start to do that. It would be very easy to [record] in one studio, without missing my son and my wife. It was hard for everyone, but I [realized] wanted to do what I felt I needed to do."
You had written your Spanish-French single Desencuentro before the journey. It was a bit prophetic that it came to you after your first DNA test and inspired you to retake the test and create this project.
"The cool thing about Desencuentro [which means 'failure to meet up']… is that you can apply it to different situations. Like the person of your life that you're not gonna meet, never, even though you should be together, and sometimes you cross paths, but never meet. [I applied it to] the idea of DNA and how people take different paths. In Kenya, 2,000 people decided to go to Australia and another group decided [on] China. That's a desencuentro, too."
Walk me through the experience of writing while absorbing the sounds and cultures you encountered.
"Writing for me was amazing. I was feeling super excited. I write out of the studio most of the time, outside or in a bar that I like in NY. So, imagine you're surrounded by mountains in Siberia, writing. That's a dream for any writer, and then being with the Dagomba tribes. I had my notebook, writing ideas… Amazing!
"The difficult thing was the language barrier and how I was going to explain to these different cultures what I wanted to do with the music. In terms of rhythms, some of them, their culture is very inside them and they don't want to get out of that. So, you have to be, not only careful [but] aware, and try to understand them and go slow. You can't go there and say 'You know this is my music and can you play over it?" No. You have to take your time."
Your recording of La Sombra with famed Tuareg guitarist Bombino (a.k.a. Omar Moctar) is very powerful. I really loved it.
"I recorded with Bombino in Burkina Faso for two weekends. He's from Niger [but] it was a little bit crazy to be there because Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda were attacking villages nearby.
After I went to Burkina Faso, they attacked the hotel next to my hotel, so it was kind of dangerous. I was a little worried but wanted to go anyways, to Niger. My DP (Director of Photography) and field producer told me, 'Don't go because you're an artist and if they know you're here, it's gonna be bad for us, too.' The thing is, sometimes they like to take hostages. So, [only] they went to film some shots.
"The song, about shadows and light, is one of my favorites. I was looking at shadow as the truth and light as a lie. Because always the shadow has a bad connotation. But in this case, it's a good connotation…The light shows you the things that you wanna see. But they don't show you the truth. Shadow gives form to objects; tells you the truth. So, I use shadow to represent Africa. So, it's kind of philosophical but it's also very accessible the way I'm saying it."
Your journey through the Caucasus-Georgia, Armenia, South Ossetia, was emotionally wrenching. I cried the whole time. And when that mother talked about her own kids dying in the children's massacre, my heart literally hurt.
"It touched me very deep, very hard. The energy that you feel there-it's incredible. You can feel that kids died. It's a weird energy but it's real. When she was talking about her sons and how they died, it was very sad. I was feeling sad the whole week, thinking, 'Why am I doing this? I always carry a lot of things-troubles of the world'-so at that time I was thinking, 'Should I carry this, too, because I'm feeling so bad?' All the stories there, they changed me."
The song that came out of that visit, Guerra, is an intense, hauntingly beautiful song that starts with war widows praying through choral harmonies.
"Yeah, they were from Chechnya. And then you have the drums from Ossetia, and the banduri (string instruments) from Georgia. And the Chechens, they were accused of bombing that school in Beslan, North Ossetia. So, I put them together.
"At that time [of the filming] I had already written Guerra (War), like two verses, from a first person point of view-not a sad song; it's la guerra like you can't beat me, I'm guerra.
But after I visited those places, the song changed. And I did a different ending that destroys war… that is very experimental and very hard core, too-very Hendrix-with Omar Rodriguez Lopez playing the guitar with an orchestra and a band. I think it's a very powerful song.
This [project] is very relevant. We all come from the same place. Even though we are different, we are equally different."
The album was just released March 31st. Coincidentally, Residente learned something interesting about his genealogy: Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda turned out to be a third cousin.