Felix Contreras

Colombian pop star Juanes and Chilean singer Mon Laferte recently wrapped up a sold-out tour of the United States, which (lucky for us) included a stop at the Tiny Desk.

When I first heard ÌFÉ I was stopped in my tracks. Literally. I pulled the car over and just listened.

I recognized Afro-Cuban drumming and chanting, but it was coming at me with electronic furnishings that made their drums and vocals sound like a futuristic spiritual ceremony.

Fifty years ago, Johnny Cash performed at Folsom State Prison in Folsom, Calif. The January 1968 concert and live album it produced, At Folsom Prison, helped revitalize Cash's career, inspiring him to testify for prison reform and cementing his reputation as a voice for the downtrodden.

Jorge Drexler is a poet with a gift for song. The Uruguayan singer-songwriter, like the iconic Latin American lyricists of the past (Mercedes Sosa, Victor Jara and Silvio Rodriguez, to name just a few), has that rare ability to surround multi-layered prose with music that lends an even deeper resonance to the words.

Lara Bello occupies the space between genres where magic happens. Born in Spain, she was raised with not only Spanish traditions like flamenco and canto but also pop music and jazz. The instrumentation she assembled for her Tiny Desk reflects that elastic approach to genre: acoustic classical guitar, clarinet, violin and a percussionist who didn't keep time so much as color the proceedings.

Jenny and the Mexicats is a discovery from South by Southwest a few years ago that I haven't been able to get out of my mind, and with good reason: The band's high energy shows are unforgettable, as is its sound. Mixing flamenco, originally from southern Spain, with Jenny Ball's jazz trumpet background and a little bit of cumbia has created their one-of-a-kind musical identity.

Raul Midón lives in a world of sound — blind since birth, Midón's interpretation of his surroundings is borderless. He sings with the passion of the best classic soul singers, and his instrumental chops stand along side the most accomplished jazz musicians.

Normally backed by a band that straddles styles just as well as he does, for his turn behind Bob Boilen's desk Midón stripped it down to just voice and guitar, the musical equivalent of tightrope walking without a net.

Even before The Beatles recorded their own version of "Twist and Shout," British fascination with American soul music has run deep. Vocalist and songwriter Alex Clare is yet another soul disciple from the UK, and his visit to Bob Boilen's desk is the perfect setting to bask in the power of his voice.

Watching Betsayda Machado y Parranda El Clavo perform their Tiny Desk concert is like peering back in time. The music's roots extend to the Venezuelan slave trade, and while the vocals are in Spanish and not an African dialect, the instruments the group plays date back more than 500 years.

The twin sisters in Ibeyi started their turn behind the Tiny Desk by singing an invocation of a West African Yoruba deity.

They come by their connection to the Afro-Cuban culture by way of their late father, Miguel "Anga" Diaz, an in-demand Cuban percussionist who was part of a vanguard musicians who reinvigorated Cuban music before he died prematurely at age 45 in 2006. The sisters, Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Díaz, carry that calling in their DNA, and how they've manifested it into their own art is nothing short of amazing.

Singer-songwriter Vicente García is still relatively under the radar, but performances like the one he gave at the Tiny Desk are starting to turn some heads.

García's music isn't dominated by his native Dominican Republic, but you can hear it in every note. His poetic lyrics are like short stories, sung by a voice both plaintive and evocative, yet always distinct.

"Despacito" continued its magical run of success by earning four statuettes tonight at the 18th annual Latin Grammy Awards held at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.

Natalia LaFourcade is a successful singer-songwriter whose voice and music live on the edge of pop, but maintain a distinct independence.

A few years ago, while Lafourcade was traveling Brazil, she felt a great nostalgia for her native Mexico and its folk music. When she finally returned home, she immediately called some friends for the kind of party that is ubiquitous in Latin America: lots of social drinking, lots of food and lots of guitars and singing. Classic folk songs were on the playlist and a good time was had by all.

If the Tiny Desk offers one lesson, it's that greatness doesn't diminish with less volume. The lesson doubly applies here.

During their performance, Bomba Estereo's Simon Mejia (bass and keyboards) observed that it was the quietist the band has ever played; they rose to the occasion with an intense performance that reflects their earliest days working smaller venues in Colombia.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF MANUEL GARCIA-OROZCO AND MAYTE MONTERO SONG, "OYE MI MAMA (AFROBEAT) [FEAT. AIFF])

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The artist Helado Negro (Roberto Lange) made a very big impression on me when I first experienced him almost eight years ago. It was a sound I had never quite heard, and I was immediately drawn in; there were layers of synths, percussion that percolated rather than pulsed, vocals that epitomized the world ethereal and lyrics in Spanish and English that floated amidst the music like wisps of smoke.

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 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.

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

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?

Pages