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Betto Arcos, who will talk at Penn State for Hispanic Heritage Month, says 'music helps to understand people'

Head and shoulders photo of Betto Arcos wearing a blue shirt and hat with crossed arms.
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Betto Arcos is the author of the book "Music Stories from the Cosmic Barrio," a collection of stories about music from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. He will speak at Penn State on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, as part of Hispanic Heritage Month.

Betto Arcos, a music journalist and contributor to NPR since 2009, will give the keynote address for this year's Hispanic Heritage Month at Penn State. Arcos reports on music and musicians from around the world, particularly Latin America. He's the author of the book "Music Stories from the Cosmic Barrio: A collection of stories about music from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe." His talk at Penn State at 6 p.m. Thursday in Foster Auditorium, Pattee-Paterno Library, on the University Park campus, will focus on the influence of African roots on music from Latin America. WPSU’s Anne Danahy spoke with Arcos about his work and his upcoming talk.

Here is their conversation:

Anne Danahy 
Betto Arcos, thank you so much for talking with us.

Betto Arcos 
It's a pleasure to be with you, Anne, thank you for having me.

Anne Danahy 
In your reporting, you bring listeners to the scene of where the music is actually being created. One of the reviews about your work describes you as a "musical ambassador." Is that how you see yourself?

Betto Arcos 
Oh, well, I mean, I guess I'm a combination of an ambassador — but I also am just a very curious person, I want to know how music is created. And, and more importantly, I'm interested in sort of the context of how the music is created. Sometimes people think that, you know, music is created in a studio or in a conservatory, or in a school. And most of the time, music is created in completely different settings that people don't even imagine. So I also think that music education can happen anywhere, not just a school, not just a conservatory. But it can happen at home, it can happen in the street, it can happen, you know, at somebody's house when you're visiting.

Anne Danahy
Yes, your reporting has this mix of the personal and historic and someone could listen to it, they could listen to it, and just enjoy the music. But you could also have this opportunity to learn about another culture or part of the world, those places that you've been. You're going to give this talk at Penn State. What do you hope people here in central Pennsylvania — where the Latin American or Hispanic influence is comparatively small — what do you hope people take away from your talk?

Betto Arcos 
Music helps to understand a culture. Music helps to understand people. And I want people to understand that. Yes, there are all of these complexities in our music. And specifically, one focus of my talk is, in fact, the influence of African music in Latin America. But behind all of that, behind the complexity that can be — because, as you may know, Latin America also went through a period of enslavement. I mean, just like the U.S., Latin America also had a horrible history of slavery. And, you know, all the music that that was brought by people who were enslaved, is what Latin American music is today. See, samba is a result of that. Salsa is a result of that, cumbia as a result of that. So it's not that different from the history of the U.S. in that sense. So we have more in common than we have differences.

Anne Danahy 
Right. And so what drew you to that topic of looking at the African roots in Latin American music? Because obviously, you've been a lot of places you've covered a lot of topics, what drew you to that?

Betto Arcos 
Just a curiosity. I've been a curious person, I've been really interested in finding out how does this music happen? What is the background? What is the history of this? How is it that such a happy music, such a lively music, like salsa, or samba, or cumbia could be the result of slavery? You know, how could it be? So I want to find out how did that happen? What created this style of music? How is it that today, people don't know that this music actually goes back to 200 or 300 years, you know, when Latin America was part of the empire of Spain, and in the case of Brazil, of Portugal. And, you know, these were colonies, just like the 13 colonies of the U.S.A., were of the Great Britain, same thing. But eventually, you know, they became independent and then you start to see how it all came together. And so I just, it's out of curiosity. It's really that's the reason why I'm interested in it.

Anne Danahy 
Your book, "Music Stories from the Cosmic Barrio," takes the reader to many of those places that you've been. Do you have a favorite style of music or place that you like to go just to listen to music?

Betto Arcos 
That's a tough question.

Anne Danahy 
One of your favorites, maybe we'll say it that way. One of your favorites.

Betto Arcos 
I guess you could say, I like music that touches me in different ways. So because there's music as you know, there's music to dance to, and there's music to have dinner with and there's music sometimes in the morning to listen to it or in the afternoon. There's sort of music for every emotion I tend to like, all of those emotions, I tend to listen to music, because I want to feel, you know, happy and joyful. And at times, there are times when I want to feel some sad emotion too. I want to, you know, I want to cry or I want to feel the sense of, of longing or melancholy. So it's really hard for me to say if I have a favorite music, but what the heck, I'll say, you know, I do listen to a lot of jazz. I do listen to classical music. I do listen to a lot of folk music from Colombia, from Mexico, from Brazil. And I always like Cuban music. I think it's always something very, very exciting. Just every kind of Cuban music I listen to all the time. So like I said, it's difficult to say one style. It just really depends on the, on the emotion, on the mood that I'm in.

Anne Danahy 
Betto Arcos, thank you so much for talking with us.

Betto Arcos 
My pleasure. Thank you.

Anne Danahy is a reporter at WPSU. She was a reporter for nearly 12 years at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, where she earned a number of awards for her coverage of issues including the impact of natural gas development on communities.
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