If music be the food of love, the world needs a boatload right about now and pop music ain’t gonna cut it. That’s the sentiment of René Pérez Joglar, the Puerto Rican rapper more commonly known as Residente, as well as co-founder and lead singer of Calle 13, an alternative hip-hop group beloved across Latin America. (Say “Calle 13″ to a Latino person, and you’ll see a face light up.) Joglar has won 25 Grammy Awards, the most ever awarded to a Latin artist. Calle 13 is known for its satirical lyrics that often provide social commentary about Latin American issues, and Joglar is a decorated humanitarian, receiving the Nobel Peace Summit Award in 2015 for his commitment to social justice.
What better way to combine his passions of music and social justice than with this electric directorial debut. In a somewhat hokey premise that works surprisingly well, Joglar uses the results of a DNA test to choose the locations where he’ll record his latest album, following his heritage and learning the history of each region through its music. As Joglar travels to Siberia, the Caucasus, China, West Africa, and Puerto Rico, he educates himself and the audience about the war, poverty, and injustices of each. (Joglar’s solemn voiceover introduces the sections, explainings what percentage of his blood is from each region.) The underlying message is clear, but never spoken outright: We are all connected.
The film is filled almost to bursting with music; from the traditional throat singing of the Tuvan people in Siberia to classical Chinese singers keeping the traditions of the Beijing Opera alive. Joglar approaches the countries with deep respect for the music, the history, and the struggle of the people living there. Each section plays like a mini history lesson of six very different places; united by poverty, conflict, and the struggle for liberation, Joglar seems hell bent on proving the old adage that music is the universal language. And he makes a pretty good case.
Shutterstock / a katz
There are times when the music itself connects conflicting voices, such as the journey in Russia and the Caucasus. On that song, Joglar mixes the mourning wails of widows from Chechnya, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, countries that have been in conflict with each other since before they were countries. “The only thing left for us is to pray and sing,” says one of the women. Back in the studio, Joglar mixes the song so that the women’s voices blend together in harmony.
This section provides the film’s most heartbreaking moment, as Joglar comforts a small fatherless boy. Recalling the day his father went to the village to fight, the boy says he is proud. “If I were him, I would feel the same way,” Joglar says through a translator, and instantly the child breaks down in tears as Joglar places his arm around him, cutting a decidedly fatherly figure.
Another telling moment is the conflict Joglar goes through when working with singers from the Beijing opera. Speaking in English (his second language) through a translator, he struggles to get one singer to put the emphasis on the syllables as he hears it. (He wrote the lyrics in English, which were then translated into Mandarin). As he struggles to convey his musical vision, he questions his motives behind asking the singer to change her traditional art form. The album is not a world music album, he reasons; it’s a hybrid hip-hop album that incorporates world music elements.
The final and most personal chapter returns Joglar to his home, where he maps the history of Puerto Rico’s colonization by the United States. (Joglar is an outspoken advocate for the Puerto Rican Independence Movement). He even interviews a man who participated in the flurry of Nationalist uprisings that followed the creation of Puerto Rico as a U.S. Commonwealth in 1950, like the one that resulted in an assassination attempt on President Harry S. Truman.
A welcome digression from the traditional music documentary, “Residente” combines world history, music history, and the history of its storyteller. Though the transitions between sections can be jarring (it’s as if Joglar was told to keep it under 90 minutes), the project’s ambition and grandeur are undeniable. The music provides a groovy foundation as it builds, the cinematography captures the beauty of each destination, and the storytelling is clear and compelling. Joglar himself remains an enigma, but speaks through his music. Which, this film reminds us, truly is the universal language.
“Residente” premiered at the SXSW Film Festival on Saturday, March 11th, 2017.