Felix Contreras

Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering program about Latin Alternative music and Latino culture. It features music as well as interviews with many of the most well-known Latinx musicians, actors, filmmakers, and writers. He has hosted and produced Alt.Latino episodes from Mexico, Colombia, Cuba, and throughout the U.S. since the show started in 2010.

Previously, Contreras was a reporter and producer NPR's Arts Desk and, among other stories and projects, covered a series reported from Mexico on the musical movement called Latin Alternative; helped produce NPR's award-winning series 50 Great Voices; and reported a series of stories on the financial challenges aging jazz musicians face.

Contreras is a recovering television journalist who has worked for both NBC and Univision in Miami and California. He's a part-time musician who plays Afro-Cuban percussion with various jazz and Latin bands in the Washington, DC, area. He is also NPR Music's resident Deadhead.

Ralph J. Gleason is my hero.

It's impossible to put an exact date on it, but I think I started reading his column in Rolling Stone in the summer of 1973. I was 14 years old and already immersed in music. Reading him, I discovered you could write about music and get paid for it — and then I discovered his writing was just as immersive as the music we both loved.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Those of us "of a certain age" have always been told to be true to ourselves, with the understanding that maturity will show us a better sense of our true selves. The hope is that we can move forward and look backward with both confidence and (hopefully) not a lot of regret.

But musicians of a certain age are often better off if they resist the tried-and-true and look for something new to stretch their sense of self. They rely on a body of work to inspire yet more growth; that way, their sound changes while still feeling familiar.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Santana's original lineup reunites for Santana IV, out April 15.
Courtesy of the artist

Being a trailblazer

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

When singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi sings and plays, you can hear the sound move from the Mississippi Delta up to Chicago. As this video shows, she can dispense uptempo dance grooves and coax her voice around the anguished lyric of the blues.

Monsieur Periné hails from Colombia, a country known for its Afro-Colombian cumbia, as well as New York-style salsa. Instead, however, the band has embraced 1920s-era, guitar-driven jazz from the U.S. The unlikely inspiration has resulted in a large and international following, as well as a Latin Grammy not too long ago: Monsieur Periné was named 2015's Best New Artist.

Words don't do this band justice. Play the video and discover Monsieur Periné's magic for yourself.

Note: NPR's audio for First Listens comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.


You either get The Grateful Dead or you don't, to the point where it's virtually impossible to explain. So why bother?

Note: NPR's audio for First Listens comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.


Grupo Fantasma's raucous, good-time mix of funk, cumbia and soul emerged from the clubs of Austin at the start of the century, bringing with it a fresh sensibility for Tejano music. Now, the band faces a challenge: How do you make that great idea even better?

Kid Frost is a bit of a pioneer in Latin rap, and his 1990 track "La Raza" is also a ground breaking track, sampling the El Chicano jazz/rock classic "Viva Tirado." All of that is a given.

What blows my mind is that it has been 25 years since that song was released!

Just after the Second World War, at a time when segregation remained firmly ensconced in the U.S., African-American writer Richard Durham was taking on racism, inequality and social justice — and he was doing it all on the radio.

From 1948 through 1950, Durham and a small troupe of black and white actors produced elaborate radio dramas that helped undermine the stereotypes of the day. Every Sunday morning at 10, on Chicago's WMAQ, listeners of Destination Freedom would get to hear about figures like Louis Armstrong, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells and Jackie Robinson.

Much has happened for Gina Chavez since I first saw her at an unofficial SXSW showcase about five years ago: two albums, fan and industry recognition, this year's Austin Music Award for Austin Musician Of The Year. Chavez's music has developed over the years, just as it should.

Note: NPR's Audio for First Listens comes down after the album is released.


How do you go back to the well after 40 years spent drawing up buckets and buckets of creativity? Where do you find the inspiration? How do you get motivated? How do you stare down that blank page one more time?

Last December, the night before Barack Obama announced that he would seek to update U.S. relations with Cuba, Arturo O'Farrill and The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra played a gig at Havana's U.S. Interest Section.

When mariachi musician Nati Cano died last year the world lost a true cultural warrior. His dedication to the Mexican folk music was a lifelong passion that took place initially in bars and at public events, then eventually on the world's greatest stages.

His singular focus was highlighting the deep and complex beauty of mariachi, and he was recording yet another album for Smithsonian Folkways when he died unexpectedly in October.

For the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead's founding, the band will perform three shows — their last — in Chicago this weekend. According to Billboard magazine, the "Fare Thee Well" concerts will bring in an estimated $50 million. That's pretty impressive, considering that band's lead guitarist died two decades ago.

It's easy to look back on early-'70s jazz-rock hybrids with a snicker. For those of us who were there, that snicker might accompany a note of regret; some of us thought that stuff was amazing. But listening to a new collection of Yes' previously unreleased early-'70s live recordings — titled Progeny: Highlights From Seventy-Two — I'm not so embarrassed to have embraced these poster boys of prog-rock.

Although they share the same last name, it's hard to imagine a less likely pairing than Luz Elena Mendoza and Sergio Mendoza.

While both have roots in Mexico, Luz Elena makes her home in the Pacific Northwest and has fronted a band called Y La Bamba. That group sets Luz Elena's deep, evocative voice against backing vocals so rich, I once described Y La Bamba's other singing members as bearded choirboys. There were direct Mexican influences in the music, but not many.

One of the most musical countries on the planet, Brazil is awash in folk-music traditions, as well as a rich history in jazz and bossa nova. It seems as if Brazilian musicians can make beautiful sounds with everything and anything they touch.

The band Apanhador Só demonstrates that point, and then some: In this video, shot during SXSW in Austin this past spring, its members coax rhythms and beats from a trunkload of found items, including a children's bicycle and other playthings. The resulting performance of "Prédio" is the stuff of hip-swaying joy.

Every now and then, if we are extremely lucky, we are witness to a musical game changer. That is the rare musician who single-handedly alters the direction of a genre though the power of musical vision and artistry.

Diego El Cigala is one of those game changers.

While he comes from the world of flamenco, he has deftly expanded his expressive range by applying his unmistakable voice to boleros, Spanish copla, tangos, jazz and various combinations of all of the above.

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