As part of Hispanic Heritage Month, Tell Me More is offering a weekly series on Latin music with guests Felix Contreras and Jasmine Garsd, hosts of NPR Music's Alt.Latino podcast. They've been sharing new music releases from across Latin America and Spain.
This week, they explore the sounds of the Caribbean.
Contreras says the African influence there on culture and music is unmistakable.
"In that part of the world, and in the rest of Latin America, the slaves were allowed to keep their drums, basically. And in the U.S., they were not. So all that polyrhythmic propulsion and all that stuff propels that music," says Contreras.
Garsd says the region is also known for its salsa and merengue music.
A classic, iconic example of salsa is the song "Anacaona" by the band Fania All Stars. The track is part of the recently re-released 1972 documentary titled Our Latin Thing, which is about the small, independent record label Fania.
"They [Fania] started updating these traditional Afro-Cuban and Afro-Puerto Rican dance forms that were kind of old people's music," says Contreras. "These young Puerto Rican, Dominicans, Cubans – they were all based in New York, and they came in and gave it a very New York attitude. It was hip, it was young. They sparkled it with jazz arrangements. "
Along with the documentary, the two-volume album Live at the Cheetah has also been re-mastered and re-released. The CDs feature live performances of some of salsa's biggest names: Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, Johnny Pacheco and Celia Cruz.
Garsd says that now, classic salsa and merengue are being mixed with techno and electronica.
She calls attention to rising star Rita Indiana, who started her career as an author, then became an actress and pioneer in techno merengue.
"She has almost a cult following in the Caribbean," says Garsd. "She is an openly lesbian woman who plays a lot with her sexuality, and you think of, kind of like a Caribbean Lady Gaga – although she hates being called that."
Garsd also discusses Maluca, a Dominican-American from New York who's lighting up dance floors with her electronica rhymes. She's also on the celebrated record label Mad Decent.
In addition to new music, Contreras says that the Caribbean is still inspiring artists who maintain strong connections to their roots, such as the Creole Choir of Cuba. These musicians from eastern Cuba are of Haitian descent, and they came together in 1994 to reclaim their history through music.
"They are singing songs of freedom, songs of lament, all these different aspects of Haitian history — based on it being the first African Republic," says Contreras.
What Caribbean musicians – classic and new – have you been listening to?
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JACKI LYDEN, Host:
As you may know, we're in the midst of Hispanic Heritage Month and what better way to celebrate the occasion than music? Between now and October 15th, we'll be sampling the diverse sounds and rhythms of the Latin world and today we'll hear about the music of the Caribbean.
Joining us to give us a sampling of it, co-hosts of NPR Music's ALT.LATINO podcast, an online show about Latin alternative music, Jasmine Garsd and Felix Contreras. Welcome back.
JASMINE GARSD: Thanks for having us.
FELIX CONTRERAS: Thank you very much.
LYDEN: I love being with both of you.
CONTRERAS: Thank you. This is fun.
LYDEN: So Felix, what makes music of the Caribbean? What makes it unique?
CONTRERAS: Well, it's a part of the world where the African influence on Latino culture is unmistakable to both the eyes and the ears and, principally, it's because, in that part of the world and in the rest of Latin America, the slaves were allowed to keep their drums, basically, and in the U.S., they were not.
So all that polyrhythmic propulsion and all that stuff propels that music.
LYDEN: All right. And Jasmine, tell us what we've got on tap first.
GARSD: Well, one of the things the Caribbean is best known for is salsa and merengue music and we're going to bring a little bit of other styles of music that are being born in that area, but one of the things Felix brought today is a re-release of some classic iconic 1970s salsa music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANACAONA")
LYDEN: And who's the band?
CONTRERAS: This is a group called the Fania All Stars. This is from the mid-1970s when a small, little, independent record label in New York called Fania, they started updating all the traditional Afro-Cuban and Afro-Puerto Rican dance forms. They were kind of old people's music that's sort of, you know, big bandy, you know, very old people.
These young Puerto Rican, Dominicans, Cubans, they were all based in New York and they came in and gave it a very New York attitude. It was hip, it was young. They sparkled it with jazz arrangements. This album kick-started that genre from that era.
LYDEN: Of course, when you put New York and the Caribbean together, you really do have what I think of as a real undertone of the city. I mean, you've got the parades, the communities.
GARSD: And what I love about this particular song is that it's a very traditional song, "Anacaona," and its storytelling is so powerful. It's about an Indian woman - a legendary Indian woman named Anacaona and the lyrics say, Anacaona, Indian of a captive race, but Indian who dies crying, dies but does not forgive. She does not forgive.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANACAONA")
FANIA ALL STARS: (Singing in foreign language).
GARSD: So I mean, it is really interesting. You have, like, this city vibe, this very Afro-Caribbean vibe, but also this traditional storytelling mixed in with it. It's a very beautiful and culturally multilayered song.
LYDEN: A pride song. Felix, when did the Caribbean and New York sort of blend? When did New York become a part of the Caribbean?
CONTRERAS: Some do call it the northernmost part of the Caribbean. Principally, it goes back to the Puerto Rican immigration, going back almost to the 19th century, but most significantly, during the 1950s, there was a really big post-World War II move into New York from the island.
And so all of those people came in and these musicians that are playing here will have come of age during that time. So they spent some time, probably, in the island, but grew up in New York and grew up hearing all the music in New York and everything you hear here. So when they put those two things together, it just really made a big difference.
LYDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the music of the Caribbean with the hosts of NPR Music's ALT.LATINO podcast, Jasmine Garsd and Felix Contreras.
I understand that what we just heard paved the way for some of the Caribbean's newer stars and helped re-popularize some more classic musicians. Right, Jasmine?
GARSD: Absolutely. And the next artist that I brought is a great example of that Afro-Caribbean beat being mixed with newer music styles, like, you know, what's happening now is that you get a lot of salsa and merengue being mixed with, like, techno and electronica.
So the next artist I brought is Rita Indiana. She's from the Dominican Republic. She's a fascinating character and here she is doing a cover song in techno-merengue and let's see if you can figure out what song this is. It's a pretty famous one.
LYDEN: Wow, great challenge.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET DREAMS ARE MADE OF THIS")
RITA INDIANA: (Singing in foreign language).
LYDEN: Okay. It took a minute, Jasmine, but you know, I am an Annie Lennox fan from way back and so...
GARSD: Me, too.
LYDEN: ...it wasn't that hard to disguise "Sweet Dreams Are Made of This," but I love this version.
GARSD: There's an Annie Lennox line, everybody's looking for something, and she sings, everybody's looking for mambo.
What's great about Rita Indiana - she started off as a celebrated author and she has a very strong identity. She has almost a cult following in the Caribbean. She is an openly lesbian woman who plays a lot with her sexuality. I mean, think of kind of like a Caribbean Lady Gaga, although she hates being called that.
And her songs, in addition to being these brilliant mixes of merengue and techno - and this also has like a reggae vibe, as well - her songs feel like a short story. She tells stories of, you know, an immigrant who is finally so homesick, he decides to head back to the Caribbean. She's a great storyteller.
LYDEN: Jasmine, what else do you have?
GARSD: Well, I brought another artist who's also doing a lot of electronica stuff. Now, she is also from New York of Dominican parents and she's doing a little more heavily electronica. She's on a very celebrated record label called Mad Decent and this is Maluca and she's doing "Lola Ging Danga."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOLA GING DANGA")
MALUCA: (Singing in foreign language).
LYDEN: (Unintelligible). Wow, I want to see this in the Peruvian Day Parade. That's really cool. And you say she lives in New York?
GARSD: She is from New York. She busted onto the scene a few years back with a hit song called "El Tigeraso," which means - so I guess a lot of Dominican men refer to each other as tigers and this is kind of an ode to her Dominican-ness, her being a New Yorker and to Dominican culture, Dominican culture in New York. And this is a single off of her much awaited new EP, which is coming out later this year, called "Massive Pow Pow."
She's definitely someone to check out because she's just a rising star.
LYDEN: Wow. Felix, this is really following Jasmine's mixing up like this, but I assume that there's a lot of traditional styles that people still want to hear in the neighborhoods, as well.
CONTRERAS: There's still - like you said, all over Latin America, there's still people who have a very strong connection to their roots, a strong connection to the Afro-Latino culture in the various countries that have been kind of subdued and not really brought to the forefront.
What I brought in next is an interesting album of Haitian people from the eastern end of Cuba singing in Creole.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CREOLE CHOIR OF CUBA: (Singing in foreign language).
LYDEN: Wow. That's so beautiful. You know, I lived in Brooklyn near a Haitian Baptist church. It sounds like something I heard coming out of that. It's just gorgeous.
CONTRERAS: I bet you did. Yeah. This is a group called the Creole Choir of Cuba. They are descendents of people who came to the eastern end of Cuba, which is the part closest to Haiti just across the Caribbean. They came in various ways, but most recently in the 1950s to try to get away from the dictator, Papa Doc Duvalier.
So they settled there and what this group did is, in about 1994, they got together and wanted to reclaim their history and their roots, so they started singing a cappella and they are singing songs of freedom, songs of lament, all these different aspects of Haitian history based on it being the first African republic.
LYDEN: Felix, is there a name for this song?
CONTRERAS: This song is called "Chen Nan Ren" and according to the liner notes, the song means chains around the waist and it is a defiant cry for freedom, protesting against continued exploitation and suffering from the poor from colonial times to modern times. So it speaks a lot to what's going on in Haiti right now and what's happened there.
LYDEN: Really, a different vibe than what we heard earlier. You know, you two always take us just so many places. It is a thrill to be listening to this.
CONTRERAS: Thank you so much. Thanks for having us.
GARSD: Thank you for coming along.
LYDEN: I wouldn't miss it. That was Felix Contreras and Jasmine Garsd, hosts of NPR Music's ALT.LATINO podcast, Latin alternative music, and you can hear them anytime at npr.org/altlatino. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.