Year 2 in Puerto Rico
I’ve been back in Puerto Rico for two years. Since I returned, my mission has been to collaborate, create, and contribute to the musical culture here.The first year, you think it’ll be easy to share your ideas and vision, but then you realize there’s a certain “rhythm” here and you have to understand it first and then figure out how to achieve what you want. This takes a lot of effort. Puerto Rico is a complex place, especially because there’s so much talent here. People won’t call you if you’re not good, but if you’re too good, they won’t call you either, so you’ve got to either progress or step back and adapt.
Puerto Rico is the reggaeton capital. Reggaeton beats play 24/7 here. I wasn’t born into reggaeton culture, I was more of a rock ’n roll kid, but as a drummer from Puerto Rico who lives here now, I felt like it was my responsibility to understand this music and to know how to play it well.
I set out to absorb, understand, and practice “el género” as much as I could. I studied how Puerto Rican reguetoneros approach rhythm, how producers work on tracks, and how I could play it on the drum set. I worked hard on adapting the groove to the drums, developing fills and a drum language that was rooted in tradition. Living in Puerto Rico has inspired me to seek out a Puerto Rican Drum Set Sound.
This is the second project I’m presenting on La Musica Artesanal. I’m determined to make them better every time. This pushes me to grow as an artist, musician, composer, and producer.
I always felt two judges were watching me while writing the music. One judge represented the musicians, pleneros, composers, and arrangers I admire, and the other represented reggaeton culture — the producers, singers, and most importantly, the dancers. I kept these judges in mind throughout the process.
At different times inspiration came to me while I was driving. One day the song “Caliente” by Farruko and Darell was playing on the radio and I immediately thought, wait a minute, this is plena music. It made me want to bring the pleneros to this track and these rappers to the plenazos.
Another evening while driving from my drum studio in Bayamón, a melody came to me for the second time —the first time I didn’t record it and I forgot it— and this time I recorded it to a WhatsApp voice message and sent it to Emil Martínez. I said, “Emil, listen to this melody, I’m hearing your voice.” Emil sent me the coro (chorus) back via a voice note and from there, I wrote the music.
I guess it wasn’t a coincidence that the coro was exactly at 90 beats per minute, since it’s central to all the reggaeton, plena, and kompa I was listening to. It was my opportunity to put to use everything I was learning and bring the pleneros and reggaetoneros together with a badass band.
After I had everything written (la maqueta), it was time to record it with real musicians. This was a challenge during the pandemic: In the middle of so much death —human death and also the death of so much spirit, work, dreams, bank accounts, and faith— I set out to infuse the music with as much life as I could.
Finding musicians to “play the notes” is not hard, but to get to the emotional core is a different beast. So, I would talk to many of them at length, share music and ideas, see how they were responding to the COVID crisis and so on. Everyone was recording remotely at home, but I went to great studios instead and recorded as many musicians together as possible. Lots of research and effort went into finding life in the middle of so much death, but there’s a huge amount of vitality on ATIENDE.
ATIENDE has a strong emotional message of determination, motivation, and strength amid crisis and a world run by altered/created/filtered information that bombards us every day through the virtual world. Views, likes, and comments are the norm of the day. I think there are lots of people who are ready to burst onto the scene, but the reality of the music industry makes it very hard to get exposure and compete with products injected with millions of dollars for publicity alone. All the artists on this project have an immense fire in them.
If there’s a vulnerable side of this project, there’s a very upfront, in your face side as well. ATIENDE is letting you know that even if it chooses to operate outside the rat race, the level here is at its highest in every aspect and it sets a new standard.
“To me, ATIENDE is Puerto Rican popular music of today. Rooted in tradition but fueled by innovation. It’s also a motivational affirmation to stay on your path and do your best. Don’t let all the noise from the outside take you away from your mission: “ATIENDE, this is what I’ve got.””
— HENRY COLE
Years ago, Andy, “El Niño de Trastalleres,” sat in during a jam session we celebrated in Puerto Rico. One day while working on the song I decided to call Andy and I sang the chorus to him over the phone. He liked it and asked me to send it over email. At that point, the music was still just computer sounds and besides the chorus, I had no lyrics. Then it came to me: Andy will sing the chorus as a featured artist, just like Eminem did with pop singers and reggaeton songs that have this voice that appears just for the chorus, usually at a higher pitch. When Andy came to the studio, he did what masters do: He recorded his part and took the music to a higher level by adding his energy, vocal range, and life experience. He made the song his own.
Emil Martínez Roldán
I always knew Emil Martinez was a key element on this track. Emil is an incredible talent, and he can naturally navigate all of the musical traditions of Puerto Rico. As a writer and singer, when it comes to Puerto Rican culture Emil has “the gift”.
I wanted to bring more rappers and singers and create a kind of “remix,” as they call it in reggaeton, where everyone makes their chanteo from the chorus. Just like they do in plena, bomba, música jibara, salsa’s soneos, Cuban rumba, and so many other musical forms.
Paoli is a master percussionist and thinker. He never stops growing and has influenced generations of percussionists from all over the world. When I called him, the instructions were very simple: “Paoli, on this section play a solo as fast and intense as you can.” I wanted that energy and wildness of his playing. He played an amazing solo and was perfect for the part.
Kumar is from the Mantilla neighborhood in Havana, Cuba. He’s been living in Spain for many years now. He performed with my band in Salamanca and Madrid. Kumar is a 24/7 student of his art. He’s a strong rapper with a huge foundation in rhythm and Afro Caribbean culture, and he’s also knowledgeable about the Urban Music movement. When I sent him the track there were still lots of virtual instruments, which made it harder for him, but he laid the very first verse. It was right on. Masterful and effortless.
I saw John for the first time singing plena during the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian in old San Juan, our carnival. His flow and his attitude impressed me. While I wrote ATIENDE, the slow groove made me think of Bata and I started searching for him. I found him mixing his plena with rap, and he also had produced more urban music. He came to the studio and killed it with ease and incredible energy.
I was introduced to Rafael during a gig at a restaurant in Old San Juan. It was his wedding anniversary. A year later or so while working on ideas for the cover, Natalia showed me his art. I couldn’t believe how beautiful and incredible it was. We decided to contact Trelles to show him the music and see what he thought. Even if he hadn’t collaborated on the project, talking and learning from Rafael was enough for me, but he did collaborate!. His art took the music to a magical place.