Felix Contreras

Felix Contreras is co-host of Alt.Latino, NPR's web-based program about Latin Alternative music and Latino culture. It features music as well as interviews with many of the most well-known Latino musicians, actors, film makers and writers.

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

He once stood on the stage of the legendary jazz club The Village Vanguard after interviewing the club's owner and swears he felt the spirits of Coltrane and Monk walking through the room.

Contreras is a recovering television journalist who has worked for both NBC and Univision. He's also a part-time musician who plays Afro-Cuban percussion with various jazz and Latin bands.

Mexico is not known as one of the international jazz capitals of the world. New York, Tokyo — even Havana.

In many ways, the traditions of flamenco and jazz could not be further apart, but in the hands of a few Spanish jazz musicians, these two worlds commingle and find common ground. Antonio Lizana is one such musician, both a saxophonist and vocalist with one foot firmly planted in each tradition. As a vocalist he has mastered the Moorish, note-bending improvisations that make flamenco singing so beguiling, while the fluidity of ideas he expresses as a saxophonist place him in the time-honored tradition of composing while playing.

These guys had me at their name.

Ever since I heard the first EP back in 2009 I've watched Chicano Batman grow, with a sound that perfectly captures dark lounges, quinceañera dances, car shows and backyard parties.

Lots of other folks have heard something in this music — since that debut the band has played some of the biggest outdoor music festivals for diverse crowds around the country.

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.

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.

Xenia Rubinos has learned a valuable lesson — "You have to know where you come from to know where you're going" — and applied it to her remarkable music. Rubinos' work contains traces of her Afro-Caribbean roots, but when she and her band do things like use two bassists to play a counter-melody in her song "Lonely Lover," they defy classification.

Jane Bunnett knows a few things about Cuban music. She and her husband, trumpeter Larry Kramer, 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.

Alt.Latino's Puerto Rican Deep Cuts

Jul 2, 2016

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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.

Carrie Rodriguez has been many things: a classically trained violinist turned American fiddler, a duet partner to veteran songwriter Chip Taylor, a successful and popular solo artist in her own right. On occasion, those roles have allowed her Mexican-American roots to bubble to the surface — perhaps in a line sung in Spanish, or through a reference to a classic mariachi song.

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.

Mariachi Flor de Toloache's 2014 self-titled debut album earned a Latin Grammy nomination in the Best Ranchera category — quite an accomplishment, given that the category celebrates an incredibly long tradition of Mexican music. But it was no fluke: The group's members come by their mariachi skills honestly and with endless practice, while still looking for ways to take chances.

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.

Rosa Díaz is nothing if not passionate: Her performance behind Bob Boilen's desk practically burst with the kind of passion that made it feel almost confessional. Her sophisticated lyrics reflect deeply felt emotions in this performance with cellist Daniel de Jesus.

This is the kind of performance best experienced for yourself rather than having me trying to explain it all. Believe me, you'll get it too.

Set List

  • "Beware Of Men Who Don't Remember Their Dreams"
  • "Lloronsito"
  • "Daddy Said"

Many tributaries follow the story of African migration to this part of the world. Much of that narrative is well-known, but little-known pockets of African culture still produce unique cultural expressions. The story of the Garifuna people is just one example.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Davíd Garza was already a favorite son for folks in Austin when I discovered a collection of his past works, filled with stunning songwriting and a voice that seemed familiar yet new. Once I heard his music, I knew I'd always look forward to whatever he produced.

When Los Lobos' Steve Berlin sent me an audio file of a band he was producing, I stopped what I was doing and listened closely. There was something about the energy coming from Enrique Chi's vocals as the rest of Making Movies enveloped him in sound.

The band has been making fans across the country one gig at a time, one song at a time — whether singing in English or Spanish, whether playing guitars or stringed instruments that come directly from Making Movies' ancestral Panama, whether playing drums or dancing a Mexican zapateado.

Singer Raquel Sofia has spent most of her career 20 feet from stardom as a backup singer for Juanes and Shakira. But these days, she's got her own new album and tour, leading a small band of gifted musicians. Sofia's songs are about matters of the heart — and, as you'll hear in her performance here, it's hard to believe that feeling bad can sound this good. Her music doesn't wallow; instead, it makes me want to celebrate and experience the joy and pain along with her.

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