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Alt.Latino's Puerto Rican Deep Cuts


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?

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Hey, Ray. I got some stuff that's going to surprise you, but will also sound familiar. You and I have had a lot of conversations about your early days in New York and your Puerto Rican heritage. So I brought some new recordings that reflect the rich diversity of contemporary Puerto Rican music.

Now, first off, there's a new album out called "Calentura" from the pioneering record label Fania Records. The company that owns Fania shared original master recordings with hand-picked hip-hop producers and DJs with one goal to use the songs that you and I know and love to create something new and vibrant. And it worked. Now, you remember Celia Cruz?

SUAREZ: Of course - gone over a dozen years now.

CONTRERAS: Check this out.


CELIA CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: Celia, as you've never heard of before, right?

SUAREZ: Well, just the idea of Celia and sampling is rocking my world here. And I - you know, you just don't think about those sounds being minable and something that you can put into a new context. And, you know, it's almost like she recorded a new song.

CONTRERAS: You know, this particular track was produced by a production crew that calls themselves Happy Colors, and what they did was they took a Celia track called "Virgencita," and it's a Dominican merengue. It has a very, very specific beat. But what they did was they kept that beat and the underlying rhythms and the counterpoint of merengue and made subtle changes.

They added the groove trickery from modern dance clubs that you heard, electronic music, all that stuff that's happening now to make this amazing track that just completely breathes new life into the original mixer.


CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish). I love you.

SUAREZ: What else you got?

CONTRERAS: OK. You know that red, hot Puerto Rican rap duo Calle 13, right? They're incredibly popular with the clubs and in with the critics - two brothers and their younger sister. She has an amazing voice, and she pulled off a brilliant career move by releasing her first solo album and going classic crooner.


ILEANA CABRA: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: Her name is Ileana Cabra, and she goes by iLe. And this is a track from her new album called "iLevitable," and it's called "Maldito Sea El Amor."


CABRA: (Singing in Spanish).

SUAREZ: It's hard to imagine anything further away from Calle 13, right?

CONTRERAS: I just thought I really love the idea that she went so classic and so traditional sort of like to bridge the gap between the fans that are familiar with her band and the old classic music. It was a great album.

SUAREZ: And the same lush instrumentation, the same overheated and melodramatic lyrics. It's just what you'd want in a bolero.

CONTRERAS: Speaking of boleros...


BIO RITMO: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: The next track that I brought in is from a very, very high concept album called "Miramar." Now, there's a group of salsa musicians from Richmond, Va., and what they did was they put together an album dedicated to boleros written by the Puerto Rican composer Sylvia Rexach. And it's just an unabashed love letter to the classic form, but with a little modern twist to it.


BIO RITMO: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: What's old is new again, right?

SUAREZ: Really? Well, several of these tracks are reaching back way past the 70s to something even earlier to the 50s and 60s with the Pioneer generations of people coming up from the Caribbean.

CONTRERAS: I think it's a reflection back on, you know, their parents' history of what their parents went through and their grandparents and some of that as a way to connect to that experience having lived - been born and lived here in the United States.

SUAREZ: And we're going to go out on one of my homeboys?

CONTRERAS: Yeah. We got a Nuyorican Andy Gonzalez. Andy is the bass player for the ages. He's played with everybody from Eddie Palmgetti (ph), Dizzy Gillespie, Machito, Manny Oquendo and Libre. He bridges the best of traditional music and jazz. He is prolific and an intrical (ph) part of contemporary Latin music. I can't even stress how important he is to his music.

And he's never made an album under his own name until just this year. This track is called "Vieques."


CONTRERAS: And it's more like a jam session, but a structured jam session. It's called "Entre Colegas," "Between Colleagues," and it really does feel like he made this record just for the joy of playing these grooves that he's so good at. It's a very underrated record, and it's a must-have for Latin music fans.

SUAREZ: Felix Contreras is the host of Alt.Latino. Check it out, a weekly podcast of Latino arts and culture from NPR Music. Felix, it's great to talk to you.

CONTRERAS: Thank you, Ray. It's good to hear you on the air again.


SUAREZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Ray Suarez. Follow us on Twitter @npratc. We're back tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening. Have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.
Ray Suarez