Rafa Pabön uses African sounds to cross the limits of the urban

One night at the end of October last year in Puerto Rico, Rafa Pabón felt the sudden need to create a new song.

Around midnight, the 27-year-old singer-songwriter had finished rehearsing with his band. Everyone else was ready to call it a day, but Pabön convinced several co-conspirators, including acclaimed Cuban vocalist Daymé Arocena and noted reggaeton producer Mr. NaisGai, to reconvene at he. There, he began improvising a vocal line over a snappy Afrobeats beat.

“I rarely go into my studio in the middle of the night,” Pabön recalls during a brief stay in Miami for a concert and recording sessions. “But my guitarist agreed to join us, reluctantly, and the word 'aiwo' appeared in my mind out of nowhere. I continued singing it, struggling to add another section to the melody, when Daymé told me to stop. “You have your choir, Rafa,” she said. 'The song is already there.'”

A few weeks later, Pabön traveled to Uganda and brought a camera. Still with the “Aiwo” demo in mind, he recruited local dance group Ghetto Kids for a music video that connects the dots between Afro music and Pabön’s Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican heritage.

Released in February to moderate streaming numbers but a resounding critical success, “Aiwo” reaffirmed Pabön as one of the most radical and original artists working in Latin music today: a globally minded composer who generates esoteric combinations. of styles while staying firmly in the pop zeitgeist. It turns out that “Aiwo” also became the springboard for Pabön's next album, a budding epic project inspired by African music.

Rafa Pabön posing with children from an African village in front of a Puerto Rican flag.

(Courtesy of Rafa Pabón)

“Aiwo” shines like an urban catchy success and an artistic gem. Its spacey bassline, afro backing vocals and subtle melodic effects are complemented by Pabön's rapping. He changes the accents of Spanish words, breaking down syllables to generate clever percussive effects. And what are the lyrics about? In full top 10 mode, he talks excitedly about meeting a woman like no other and wanting to watch every sunrise with her.

“I don't do it on purpose, but I understand how the music business works,” he said. “I learned to be a hybrid. I can make a party song because I'm young; I like to go out, have fun and get drunk. But I also educated myself and grew up with the notion that my existence has a purpose, a responsibility.”

“Rafa's musical vision is incredibly open,” says Daymé Arocena, whose recent album “Alkemi” includes a duet with Pabön and is already a candidate for best Latin album of 2024. “I know artists who are afraid to follow their own muse. Rafa is never afraid of that: he is honest about her feelings. He now finds himself immersed in a journey to the essence of his own roots. This connection with the earth (the epicenter, the blackness) adds a different color to his music.”

Pabön's biggest hits so far have been high-profile collaborations with straight-up reggaeton artists. 2019 was the year people began to recognize her name. He looks affable and charismatic in the image of “Jangueo”, a song with Alex Rose that has more than 350 million views on Spotify. Around that time, he participated as a guest on an ingenious remix of “La Mentira” by Brytiago with Myke Towers, Sech and other urban stars.

Artistically, however, he caught the attention of tastemakers in 2023 with “Galería,” his third album, a sprawling Afro-Caribbean mosaic of monumental ambition. The aristocratic group of guests ranges from former Los Van Van singer Mario “Mayito” Rivera to urban superstar Rauw Alejandro and neo-flamenco goddess Buika. Still, the most surprising aspect of the album is the cosmopolitan soul of its creator. It zigzags gracefully from the reggae love anthem “Manifestación de Amor,” featuring Puerto Rican band Gomba Jahbari, to the bossa-tinged “Besos de Invierno.” The album's closing cut, “Rosa,” is a traditional merengue that Pabön turned into a psychedelic experiment with the addition of Indian sitar.

“I aim to enjoy making every song,” he says when asked about his penchant for reckless experimentation. With 'Rosa' she wanted to create a merengue that returned to the essence of [Dominican master] Juan Luis Guerra, but he needed an added element that would separate him completely from the norm. I've made a lot of weird songs. They may become global hits, or people may hate them, but the selection process is based on a deep respect for all musical formats.”

Anyone even slightly familiar with Latin music will tell you how rigid and conservative its aesthetic parameters tend to be. An imaginary line is drawn to ensure that commercial hitmakers (mostly young artists in the fields of reggaeton, pop, and Mexican music) stay away from the poetic creations of icons like Rubén Blades and Jorge Drexler. Pabön's music operates in a completely different universe, where such distinctions are considered a waste of time.

“Rafa's music simply defies categorization,” says Buika, who added his smoky vocals to “Ay Amor,” a subtle but visceral blend of flamenco and reggaeton. “He has created his own genre, encompassing many different cultures and sounds. Rafa is a universal artist and a very brave young man, the type of person worth fighting for.”

“There are no dichotomies in their world,” Arocena said. “The urban vibe comes naturally to him, but so does the poetic composition. Inside his head there is no conflict between the two worlds. Rafa appeared in my life to teach me a lesson: he demolished my preconceived notion that an urban artist should be superficial and far from his roots.”

“I grew up listening to Calle 13, Don Omar and Tego Calderón, but also artists like [nueva trova legend] Silvio Rodríguez, Víctor Jara and Los Van Van,” explains Pabön. “My parents listened to a lot of Cuban timba when I was a child. I refuse to label my own sound. Let's say I'm an artist. Tomorrow maybe I'll record a regional Mexican song, and the next day it could be trova — as long as I woke up wanting to play trova.”

Now, the “Aiwo” experiment has become an album that will find him traveling through Africa and exploring his musical roots. This month he will fly to Nigeria, and his next stops will be Ghana and Cameroon. Pabön plans to release the new project, along with a documentary, next year.

“Africa is where we all come from,” he says. “I want to dig deeper into the foundations and show people that music doesn't have to be mechanical. It's not just about succeeding with a viral single. We can also make art just for the pleasure of creating it. “More than a musical project, this is now a life project for me.”

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