Felix Contreras

Some say you have to have loved and lost to appreciate the beauty of the bolero. Since its inception in Cuba in the early 20th century, the music has been designed for thoughtful and emotional consideration of the joys and pains that come with loving someone so intensely, it becomes like a religion to adore that special someone (an actual bolero lyric).

Lila Downs has spent her career exploring the furthest reaches of Mexican folk music. With a voice that borrows heavily from opera, Downs performs the kind of full-throated mariachi singing that would fit right in at Mexico City's Garibaldi Square — ground zero for mariachi.

When singer Alsarah left her native Sudan, she was just a child who'd shown an interest in music. She's said it served as her coping mechanism during a subsequent transition to life here in the U.S. That passion led her to a university degree in ethnomusicology.

The 59th Annual Grammy nominees were announced Tuesday morning, and while familiar names appeared among the five Latin music categories, there were also some nice surprises.

It's hard to imagine this quietly subtle performer belting out vocals in front of tens of thousands of fans as part of the wildly popular hip-hop group Calle 13. But Ileana Cabra, who performs solo as iLe, lives that kind of life.

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.


The first thing we must note about this album by the Hart Valley Drifters is that it is not the most authentic bluegrass or old-time music. This is not from a long-lost box of tapes found in a dusty closet, not performed by a group of master folk musicians from somewhere in Appalachia.

This week, Alt.Latino takes a literary turn as we explore the world of Latino noir.

Good guys, bad guys and cops who are both; murder, intrigue and gallows humor; highly stylized writing — it's all there, as with any noir fiction. But these books and stories are written by Latinx authors.

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.


I've always thought Nina Diaz was fierce.

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.

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.


Gaby Moreno's Ilusión represents a high-water mark in a musical career that's never been predictable. It's one of the strongest statements I've heard from a musician who ignores boundaries and genre classifications to create a sound greater than the sum of its parts.

Rudy Van Gelder, an audio recording engineer who captured the sounds of many of jazz's landmark albums, died Thursday morning in his sleep. He was at his home studio in New Jersey, according to Maureen Sickler, his assistant engineer. He was 91.

When I first saw Nina Diaz back in 2010, she was fronting a punk trio from San Antonio called Girl In A Coma. She and the band sounded ferocious, with an unmistakable spirit of fun — for proof, here's their Tiny Desk concert from a couple years later.

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.

Jane Bunnett knows a few things about Cuban music. She and her husband, trumpeter Larry Cramer, have been traveling to the island from their home base of Toronto for more than 30 years. They've collaborated with musicians there, as well as back home in Canada and on tours around the globe.

Sometimes it's necessary to get back to basics. In the case of Los Hacheros, that means returning to the deep groove of Afro-Caribbean music that provides the source material for modern salsa and all of its permutations.

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RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

Well, it's summertime, Fourth of July weekend. Let's take a music break. I asked my buddy Felix Contreras, host of NPR Music's Alt.Latino podcast to recommend some tunes. Felix, what'd you bring me?

Together, saxophonist Charles Lloyd and pianist Jason Moran make jazz that draws from the past while looking to the future. Lloyd's body of work stretches back to the mid-1960s, and has always shown a disregard for boundaries and cliches. He seems determined to work through the later part of his career with artistically and spiritually motivated playing that simply astounds.

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.

I bet you don't think of classical works when you think of the catch-all phrase "Latin music." But this episode of Alt.Latino is here to tell you that you should.

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.

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.

Sometimes if feels as if the crowds at Stubb's BBQ during SXSW are just too cool to dance. But not tonight. Southern California's Chicano Batman sent waves of velvet-sounding Chicano soul out over the audience at Stubb's — think 1970s-era guitar and organ funk played by a band outfitted in quinceañera tuxedos. When the band shifted into a high energy cumbia I saw spontaneous dancing breaking out on the dirt floor of the outdoor venue.

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.

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