With jazzy orchestra sounds, folkloric Afro-Boricua percussion, and political lyrics united over a ubiquitous dembow riddim, Tego Calderón’s album El Abayarde embodies the soul of reggaeton. Twenty years after its initial release in 2002, the project is a classic that’s as timely and necessary as ever, with every new listen revealing new layers.
When the Puerto Rican rapper emerged as one of the purveyors of reggaeton in the late Nineties, his bombastic persona, unapologetic Black pride, and undeniably slick lyricism quickly won over crowds. But El Abayarde was a game-changer that set him apart as a legend.
The album was released on Nov. 1, 2002 in Puerto Rico, under the label White Lion Records, and received unprecedented success for a sound that was still underground and censored by authorities. White Lion Records, founded by Elias de León, became a musical home to Latin reggae and pioneers such as DJ Playero, and some of White Lion’s artists would go on to become stars like Daddy Yankee. Yet El Abayarde was among the label’s early success stories: It sold 50,000 copies during its first week, and once it was re-released internationally under a distribution deal with Sony BMG in 2003, the LP became one of the first reggaeton projects to chart in the U.S.
While Calderón made history with reggaeton, he was ambivalent about the genre at first. Born Tegui Calderón Rosario, he grew up in a household surrounded by traditional music, art, and Black pride. His mother, Pilar Rosario, was a poet and a teacher, and his father, Esteban Calderón Ilarraza, worked in administration but also sang and played percussion for a salsa band. Calderón’s family moved to Miami, Florida at one point when he was young; there, he was surrounded by different cultural influences. Calderón played percussion for a rock band before making a name for himself in rap circles. His belief in being creative and original was actually what him critical of reggaeton early in his music career.
“At the beginning, there was too much caryaqueo in reggaeton,” he told LA Times in a rare 2005 interview, saying artists would steal from Jamaican reggae. It wasn’t until he attended a reggaeton party in Old San Juan that he fell in love. “I danced the whole night and thought, ‘No wonder this is so popular. I gotta do reggaeton.’”
He recorded “Cosa Buena” in 2001, a song that introduced his deep voice and inclination towards Afro-rooted percussion. In the lyrics, he calls out other rappers, taunting, “They think they’re real but they don’t compose.” The track established him as a groundbreaking, dexterous rapper and creative thinker, and one year later, he reinforced his abilities by releasing his debut album El Abayarde.
In 2022, as reggaeton dominates radio waves and streaming platforms, it gets further away from its Black, marginalized roots. However, El Abayarde stands as a journey back to the genre’s true home —and into the mind of Calderón as he paints the struggles of his community through 19 boisterous tracks.
The album begins with a haunting yet triumphant melody that builds steadily, incorporating new instruments — violin, keys, percussion — before bursting into a salsa-driven dembow riddim. A young voice, identified only by the name Luisma, announces the arrival of “el abayarde,” a nickname derived from a small ant with a mighty bite, the kind of underestimated force that you don’t mess with.
A tangle of drums drop in before the album goes into the title track, driven by a growling trumpet and a slow boom-bap. The arrangement is a nod to classic jazz influences while Calderón boasts about his lyrical talent and Black pride. “Where does my flavor come from?” he asks in Spanish, answering the question himself: “Me inculcaron semillita de esta cultura/Desde la cuna, agradecido de esta negrura” (“They instilled in me a little seed of this culture/from the crib, grateful from this Blackness”).
In an interview with NPR in 2008, Calderón made it clear that the goal of his music was to uplift Black people, always. “I started to do music from a Black beat, so that Blacks can feel proud being Black,” Calderón told All Songs Considered. “El Abayarde” is true to that spirit — a representation of a loud and proud negritud, which continues to be rare in Latin America amid cultural erasure, racist oppression, and stereotypes that place whiteness as the standard of beauty.
Singles such as “Al Natural” offer up gutsy, sexual lyrics, while “Guasa Guasa,” a diss track aimed at hip hop duo Lito y Polanco, went beyond a standard tiraera and became an iconic hit. The album reaches one of its many peaks, showcasing how rich it is in meaning and spiritual fortitude, when the sixth track, titled “interlude,” explodes into bomba. The track is a version of Afro-Puerto Rican musician Don Félix Alduen’s bomba song “Oí Una Voz Y Me Le Da Memoria,” and it features a call-and-response that is a signature of West African sounds while the singers re-introduce Calderón.
Bomba is a rhythm synonymous with resistance in Puerto Rico; it became a symbol of survival and joy during the era of slavery. The drums used in the bomba tradition are known as barriles, and were made from the wood of storage rum barrels. The album boasts two bomba interludes, making it feel as though traditional festivities have been woven into the fabric of Calderón’s hip hop and reggaeton sounds. It is a triumph for the Afro-Caribbean diaspora that contains the sentiment of “sankofa:” to retrieve the good from the past in order to use it in the present.
Elders of diverse West African traditions have long spoken about drums as a “transportation device” between worlds. After the first bomba interlude, Calderón breaks into the critical track “Loíza.” Through his political and rebellious raps, Calderón uses the song to condemn the oppression and criminalization of the Black community in Loíza. In a 2003 interview, Calderón shared that while he lived in Río Piedras most of his life, his father would constantly take him to the historically Black pueblo of Loíza where they participated in traditional gatherings, celebrating saints. “He instilled that love in me,” he said at the time. Calderón even calls out the myth of racial equality and mestizaje, and those who feel superior because of their proximity to whiteness: “Me quiere hacer pensar, que soy parte de una trilogía racial,” (“They want to make me think I’m part of a racial trilogy”) he raps, and later adds “Lambones, pal carajo España,” (“bootlickers to hell with Spain”), capturing forms of racism that are still true decades since the album’s release.
By including his authentic opinions and true grievances with the system on such a popular project, Calderón opened up space for conversations about injustices and racism in Puerto Rico. El Abayarde infused radical thought into reggaeton, following traditions of the genre’s hip hop predecessors. Today, Black artists from Latin America like Colombian group ChocQuibTown continue to push these ideas forward with songs such as “Rebelión,” a new take on the salsa classic “La Rebelión” by Joe Arroyo.
In addition to “Guasa Guasa,”” songs such as “Poquito” and “No Me La Explota,” featuring Eddie Dee, became a masterclass in dissing. They have their pitfalls: Some of the lyrics lean on hyper-masculinity tropes and homophobic insults that remain all too common in the culture of hip hop. At the same time, Calderón came up battling in brutal underground rap battles, where he also gained respect as one of the realest MC’s to ever hit the mic.
With some of the genre’s powerhouses in the credits like the Dominican duo Luny Tunes, as well as Puerto Rico’s own DJ Nelson, Noriega, among others, the sound of the album is hard-hitting and able to survive the test of time. In the promiscuous track “Dominicana”, he celebrates negras and Afro-antillean brotherhood and pride, reimagining the spell-binding salsa classic “Ojos Chinos” by El Gran Combo. And “Pa’ Que Retozen,” regarded as one of the best reggaeton songs ever made, lit up perreo dance floors and marquesinas across Puerto Rico, as well as the neighboring Dominican Republic, where the album peaked at number five. With a catchy acoustic riff that follows bachata arrangements, raw percussion beats, and minimalist digital keys behind Tego’s unfiltered quips about letting it all out on the dancefloor, the DJ Joe-produced song is still an anthem.
Calderón packs the album with slang and colloquialisms specific to Puerto Rico – even the very word retozen is imbued with a deeper meaning that defies direct translation. In the Spanish dictionary, “retozen” is roughly defined as “jumping or joyfully running.” Yet the local Caribbean meaning is more in line with “play-fight” or “mess with each other.” Like most Afro-Caribbean slang, “retozen” is a bridge created by el bajo mundo (the barrio-rooted underground) to describe the fluctuating and unpredictable experiences of those at the margins of society — the kind of livelihood that static, established language of the Royal Spanish Academy cannot capture. It also strikes at the heart of what reggaeton means to so many: An art and a language of joy. It is ironic then that at the time when Calderón was hitting the radio waves, the state was still waging a war on the genre’s makers saying that they were promoting criminal activity. Yet, the music itself wasn’t an inciter of violence but rather an outlet from it.
Calderón’s immaculate palabreo and smooth flow continue to solicit admiration. In August, Bad Bunny wore a T-shirt with one of the legend’s album covers, rapper Residente mentioned him in his now-infamous diss to J Balvin, and Spanish singer Rosalía pledged allegiance to him on her song “Bulerías.” Name-dropping the genre pioneer is equal parts paying respects and equal parts vying for a kind of street-cred within the music space. Artists from Panamá, such as El General, helped shape the genre, and Daddy Yankee is largely credited with breaking records with “Gasolina.” But it is Calderón’s contributions that have become a go-to reference for perreo and the intrinsic resistance of reggaeton.
Calderón is known for declining interviews with media and being highly selective with collaborations (he famously declined to become the face of Diddy’s clothing line Sean John). Though he came back to the scene briefly in 2022 for “Chambean,” a collab with controversial bori rapper Cosculluela, he only contributed a few phrases to the chorus, leaving listeners hoping for more. His tendency to avoid the spotlight has only strengthened his co-sign as he is known to stay true to his convictions.
His impact on the genre is ubiquitous — he is one of the makers of its blueprint. Today, as the music industry machine continues spurning out easy to consume pop-reggaeton tracks, El Abayarde reminds us of the genre’s gritty, rebellious, raw spirit. The LP stands as a historic moment that not only captivated the world: It opened a portal to liberation.