If you're a fan of the music I spin as a DJ, or write about in this column, then there's a good chance you'll love this show as much as I do. So I encourage readers to tune in to 90.1 every Friday evening at ten for Alt.Latino. I recently spoke with the show's cohost Felix Contreras via phone from his offices at NPR in Washington D.C.
NUVO: In addition to being a reporter you're also a musician, I've read that you've play percussion with some Afro-Cuban jazz groups.
Contreras: I've been playing congas, timbales, and bongos since I was a kid. It's something I do on the side. As my father would say it's something I do to keep sane while dealing with the rest of the world. In a way it's really helped me with the show. It helps me understand what's going on with the music and how it's changing and expanding and developing. Having a music background has been a very big plus.
NUVO: The thing about Alt.Latino that I love most is the range of music you feature. The show jumps from covering artists like the Dominican-Dutch electronic music producer Munchi, to Brazilian samba icon Seu Jorge, to rock en Español, to rock performed in the indigenous languages of Mexico and Central America. I'm curious if there are any guidelines or genre limits that shape the content and direction of the show.
Contreras: No. [laughs] I like to tell people this: I'm 57-years-old and I grew up listening to the Allman Brothers, the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St., Return to Forever, Santana. It was such a Golden Age of boundary-ignoring music. The artists were expending the ideas of what is jazz, what is rock, and what is Latin music. It was a great time to be a young kid soaking all this in. That was my bar. My bar was Jeff Beck, Santana, Chick Corea and John McLaughlin. So as I get older and go along that's what is going to make an impression on me, if the artist is pushing it and trying something different and new.
Fast forward to now. I tell everybody who will listen that I'm having as much fun now as I did when I was 14. Because the musicians in Latin alternative, which includes rock en Español, hip-hop and electronic, they just don't care about genres and boundaries. The artists are mixing their influences and there is so much fascinating and deep-diving music being made. The music is a lot of fun and you're dancing when you listen to it, but it also reflects what's going on in the world. I'm very convinced that the way these folks are ignoring boundaries is a reflection of the Latino experience here in the U.S., and around Latin America. The idea of identity is shifting completely from when I grew up and that's what this music reflects.
NUVO: Do political issues influence the content heard on Alt.Latino? The immigration of Latin Americans into the United States has been a subject of intense national focus lately. The demonization of immigrants we're seeing in this current presidential election cycle has been a huge concern for many Americans. Do you address subjects like that on Alt.Latino?
Contreras: From the beginning we've always addressed the issue of immigration. A lot of our audience is made up of immigrants and a lot of the music we play that's being made here in the U.S. is created by people who come from Latin America. So the issue of immigration has always been important to us. But we don't cover it in a traditional news sense because we are part of NPR music, though we do operate within the editorial, journalistic and ethical guidelines of NPR news.
So what we may do is have an author come in who has written about the immigrant experience. We had an author come in who wrote a book about the immigrants who traveled up from Central America on top of a train called La Bestia. We brought him in to talk about his experiences riding on that train and writing the book. Sometimes there is a music connection and sometimes there isn't.
Another time we talked to the editor of a book about immigration, it was a collection of short stories written by immigrants from all over the world. We had some of the writers from India, from Jamaica, from Mexico and other countries read excerpts from their books and we put music beds in between. That's how we discuss the immigrant experience. We are taking a look at the voices of the people behind the headlines. We'll let other people discuss the political ramifications, what we want to do is reflect the immigrant experience
NUVO: Have you noticed the audience for alternative Latin sounds growing since you started broadcasting Alt.Latino?
Contreras: It is absolutely growing. In the early '90s, in another lifetime, I was in California where I and a business partner were importing CDs and cassettes of rock en Español music and then distributing them through a mail-order catalog. This was around '94 and there was a really small audience. We had pockets of people in the Midwest and around Chicago, and of course in New York, L.A., and San Francisco. It was a small audience then, but it just grew and grew.
Major record labels in the U.S. started distributing Café Tacuba, Caifanes, Maldita Vecindad and all those Mexican bands from the early '90s. The audience has grown and it's become cross-cultural. There are a lot of people from different ethnic backgrounds that really dig Ana Tijoux, or who really like what Bomba Estéreo is doing. I've seen shows with Bomba Estéreo here in D.C. with a crazy mix of crowds. There's this group Ibeyi, which is twin sisters who were born in Cuba and live in Paris, they do an electronic Santeria mash-up and they sold out the 9:30 Club here in D.C. which is a major room. They had an incredibly diverse crowd singing along to a Santeria chant. It was mind-blowing.
People are open to a lot of different things and these bands are putting it out there and mixing it up and drawing people from all kinds of backgrounds. The scene just keeps getting bigger and bigger.