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Puerto Rican Sensation Is A Rebel With A Cause

By Ed Morales

June 29, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Newsday, Inc.. All rights reserved. 

Dressed in a de rigueur Enyce sweatsuit and sporting aviator shades and a massive Afro, rapper Tego Calderón seems to embody the last 25 years of Bronx street style in one outfit.

In his Upper West Side hotel suite, he speaks glowingly of his idols, from Rakim and KRS One to Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac, but instead of employing the latest in boogie-down slanguage, he rhapsodizes in small-town Puerto Rican Spanish.

Calderón, whose album "El Abayarde" (White Lion Records) has sold more than 150,000 copies, is poised to become Puerto Rico's biggest star since ... Ricky Martin.

Calderón, whose father was a baseball player and activist for Puerto Rican independence, has tapped into the island's biggest club fad, reggaethon, and combined it with hip-hop and tropical dance styles to become an overnight sensation.

He was in town for an appearance at the Puerto Rican Day Parade and a packed show at Exit Club, where he shared the bill with dancehall artist Sean Paul. He is so big that he has re-released his hit album in a "clean" version - on the cover he is surrounded by adoring children of all ages.

Like the best of hip-hop artists, Calderón is on a mission to spread a love for his community by provoking the mainstream.

"Abayarde is a country word," Calderón says. "It's like an insect, an ant that comes from trees, bites you and leaves a terrible rash. I'm kind of a rebel, and they call restless kids abayardes. I want to bother people who accept the status quo, people who fool the public with cute faces. I'm a reflection of a new Puerto Rico, where people are conscious and want to move forward."

What Puerto Ricans are not entirely conscious of, says Calderón, is a kind of understated discrimination against its citizens of African ancestry.

"They just did a poll and only 10 percent of Puerto Ricans said they were black.

That's a shameful thing. People are always saying their roots are Spanish, indigenous, and black, in that order, never the other way around."

He has even abandoned his faith in the Independence Party - on the song "Loiza," he criticizes party leader Rubén Berrios: "I don't trust any of them/We're all with Vieques/What about my black community?"

But Calderón is not all about rhetoric. "El Abayarde" is a mesmerizing, highly danceable, ecstatic mix of sultry reggaethon, funk, frenetic bomba, and even salsa - the album's last song, "Planté Bandera," is a remake of an old Tommy Olivenica tune, with Calderón rapping in the coro section. "Salte del Medio," the album's show-stopper, is based on an Ismael Rivera song, and percussionist Cachete Maldonado takes "Loiza" to dizzying climaxes.

"I didn't know this record was going to happen the way it did," Calderón says. "I'm like a symbol of hope for the people who have dreams and are struggling. I try to make fun of silly stuff like wearing jewelry and tattoos to make you look bad, talking about things that aren't real because music influences people and the little kids are listening. You have to educate people and back it up with your actions."

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