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Tegui Calderón Rosario, aka El Abayarde or simply Tego, has made inroads into American mainstream hip-hop and R&B in recent years, serving as the
Spanish-language MC on remixed hits from the likes of Akon, Snoop Dogg, Usher, Fat Joe, 50 Cent, Cypress Hill, and Lil’ Kim. So it was no surprise last fall when he tried his hand at releasing music he thought would appeal to an American audience—The Underdog/El Subestimado featured club-type dance hall, a heavy dose of synthesizers, and some English lyrics, particularly on tracks recorded with reggaeton hitmaker Don Omar and reggae star Buju Banton. He was the first reggaeton artist to sign with a major non-Latin label, and though the album didn’t light up the charts, Rosario’s still determined to crack the U.S. market. Last month he made his movie acting debut in Illegal Tender, and on the new El Abayarde Contra-Ataca (“The Fire Ant Strikes Back”), he’s back to what got him international acclaim:
his unique mix of salsa, Afro-Caribbean rhythms, ’60s slang, spoken word, socially conscious lyrics, and a great stage presence. Unlike the rough and lyrically dark The Underdog, Contra-Ataca kicks off with the happy-go-lucky “Alegría,” which beautifully blends the chirps of birds and coquí frogs (the unofficial symbol of his native Puerto Rico), with sharp trumpets, a downtempo beat, and a message of spiritual tranquility. On the single “Tradicional a lo Bravo” (“Keep It Traditional but Cool”), he fuses Venezuelan merengue and Colombian vallenato rhythms, and Calderón’s deep voice and smooth melodic flow (imagine a Spanish-speaking, octave-up Biggie Smalls) blends in perfectly. He uses a ton of Puerto Rican slang on the track, the better for him to spit a good game while trying to pick up a gal on the dance floor: “Calderón de nuevo a caballo/Déjate llevar por el bajo/Chula vámonos/Bien tradicional a lo bravo.” (“Calderón once again on the move/Don’t change a thing/Come on, beautiful, let’s go/It’s cool to be a traditional gal.”) Undoubtedly influenced by his recent travels through the blood-diamond mines of Sierra Leone while filming the documentary Bling: A Planet Rock, “Ni Fu Ni Fa” (“Forget About It”) makes great use of the tama, the “talking drum” often associated with the music of the Wolof and Mandingo tribes in West Africa. It’s a fun, fast-paced song about what makes Tego happiest—women. Perhaps it took being away from his native country to make Calderón appreciate what made him such a sought-out artist in the first place. Whatever it was, he’s reconnected with his roots without focusing on what Americans want to hear. His old but vibrant, universal sound connects, regardless of where listeners are from or what language they speak.