Felix Contreras

This week's Alt.Latino playlist is packed with percussive tracks, including rustic takes on reggaeton, classical flute juxtaposed with trap beats and romantic jingles livened with spoken word.

At the bottom of this page is the playlist, as part of a series of NPR Music's favorite Latin songs, updated weekly on Spotify. Listen and read through our weekly hot takes here.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

"There is no such thing as Chicano hippies! And playing Mexican music??"

That was my father's reaction when I described seeing five honest-to-goodness Chicano hippies with beards and ponytails playing mariachi music at a Chicano student leadership retreat at UC Davis in 1975. Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles, the group called themselves.

Saxophonist Miguel Zenón is a big thinker — that much is clear from his recorded output, with its deep and inspiring connection to the folk traditions of his native Puerto Rico. But you also get that sense from his turn behind the Tiny Desk, where we can watch the concentration on his face and those of his adventurous band, the Spektral Quartet. This is life-affirming music with curious twists and turns, expertly performed by amazingly talented musicians.

NPR Music's Alt.Latino podcast recently released its year-end list of 2018's best songs and albums. Along the way, the team has done some reading and deep thinking about a trend that started in 2017 has only gained momentum: In the world of streaming music services, Latin artists have been cleaning up.

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.


It starts with one of the best known guitar riffs in rock and roll. What follows is a down-home ode to the state that is known as the heart of Dixie: folksy colloquialisms, eternal blue skies, family. Pretty simple, right? Maybe not.

Cuba is known as much for their pianists as their percussionists — you'll see why with this performance.

After a week spent ranking the best Latin music of 2018, it's time to get back to recent releases.

I say this to anyone who will listen: Latin music these days is exploding with so much creativity and inspiration that it is simply overwhelming. Once you get past the billions of views on YouTube of the reggaeton- inspired pop music, you'll find myriad artists who consider their cultural backgrounds a blank canvas on which they express their sense of self and identity.

Every week, Alt.Latino lines up the best new Latin music, featuring both global superstars and emerging artists on this rise. For this week's playlist, J Balvin has releases another hit, Helado Negro previews his sixth album, Juracán and Rene Lopez drop new singles and Draco Rosa flexes his rock and roll chops.

The latest reporting indicates that segments of the so- called migrant caravan from Central America are already arriving to the U.S./Mexico border.

Watching this performance is to witness a spell being cast, note-by-note. Liniker e os Caramelows (Liniker and the Caramelows) are from Brazil but steeped in the tradition of soul from here in the U.S. They started their turn behind the desk with the ballad "Calmô," a testament to the power of slow songs dripping with soulful emotion. It was a bold statement of just who they are as a band and what they stand for.

Musician Jerry González has cut a swashbuckling path in his over four decades of playing music. He was a double threat on both trumpet and congas who came of age in The Bronx learning to play in the time-honored tradition of wood shedding with albums of his heroes.

There has always been power behind Luz Elena Mendoza's voice. From her earliest days with her band mates in Y La Bamba, her voice soared with a distinct set of sonorities that seemed to be a diamond in the rough. With each release of the band's five albums, and respective audience-expanding tour, Mendoza's voice has matured and is now nestled within a sonic identity that amplifies her musical vision.

Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodríguez gave our office audience a very quick lesson on why pianists from that island nation are so impressive: they treat the piano as the percussion instrument it is. Rodríguez immediately let fly with an intense flurry of notes that were as melodic as they were rhythmic.

Latin forays into the pop realm continued unabated last week, and while Drake rapping en espanol may have commanded most of the attention, it was far from the only noteworthy song. Ozuna and Selena Gomez on the same song? Yes, it happened. We also received music from our favorite garage punks from Mexico and discovered two new tracks from way down south — the Southern Cone to be exact.

It's appropriate that the pioneering Mexican band Café Tacvba (Tacuba) start its set with "Olita del Altamar" ("Waves from the High Seas") from the group's 2012 album El Objeto Antes Llamado Disco. It's essentially an incantation of the magic that transpired during their performance behind Bob Boilen's desk.

For those that don't know their Latin music history as well as they should, it's easy to write off José Feliciano as just the guy who wrote and sang that Christmas song "Feliz Navidad." Maybe they'd be aware that he also wrote and performed the theme so

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's remember this morning how Havana sounded back in the 1950s and 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

There's so much joy in the sound of the Hammond organ, especially for those of us of a certain age. Hearing it can transport you to the early '70s, when every rock band seemed to have one in its arsenal: The Allman Brothers, Santana, Deep Purple. In the hands of true masters — like the late Billy Preston and the very-much-alive Booker T. Jones — the organ can be a melodic, funky rhythm machine.

In the days leading up to the November 2016 election, I taped an episode of Alt.Latino that was intended to be a musical healing session. For just about everyone in the country, the campaign season was rough ride and I had created a healing playlist for myself, which I then decided to share.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It's been quite the week. Many people have taken to social media to express not only their opinions of recent political news but also a sense of emotional exhaustion. Alt.Latino's Felix Contreras joins me now. Felix, welcome. And are you feeling exhausted?

Magos Herrera's talent refuses to be limited by genre. The Mexico-born artist is generally considered a jazz singer, but has also taken on Brazilian-influenced pop and Mexican rock. On her latest effort, Herrara partnered with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider to create the classically-inspired, and culturally relevant album Dreamers.

Musicians from Latin America are starting to call it "El Tiny."

The popularity of NPR Music's Tiny Desk Concerts from All Songs Considered has spread far and wide. One group of musicians told me about a bar in Montevideo, Uruguay that had "El Tiny" playing on TV monitors on a loop.

Unless you've experienced it, it's difficult to fathom just how intense the power of a Category 4 hurricane is. And to get slammed by two in less than a month?

It's bee a while since Alt.Latino has published an all Spanish podcast and we were way overdue. And what an artist to start with: La Dame Blanche is a cigar-smoking, classically trained flutist who is making a name for herself as a rapera in the ever expanding and fascinating world of Cuban hip-hop.

Some folks around the NPR Music office said they felt an almost spiritual connection to Erykah Badu during her visit to the Tiny Desk. And that was before she and her band even played a single note. It came from the waft of earthly scents that followed in her wake, to the flowing dreads and clothes that hung on her like robes.

When the 10 members of Tower of Power were in place behind Bob Boilen's desk, strategically positioned around the band's famous five-piece horn section, their first collective blast three beats into the sound check literally made the video crew jump. It was more a force of nature than a sound, and an impressive display of the "five fingers operating as one hand" concept of band cohesiveness.

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