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.

Last December, the night before Barack Obama announced that he would seek to update U.S. relations with Cuba, Arturo O'Farrill and The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra played a gig at Havana's U.S. Interest Section.

When mariachi musician Nati Cano died last year the world lost a true cultural warrior. His dedication to the Mexican folk music was a lifelong passion that took place initially in bars and at public events, then eventually on the world's greatest stages.

His singular focus was highlighting the deep and complex beauty of mariachi, and he was recording yet another album for Smithsonian Folkways when he died unexpectedly in October.

The Colombian folkloric vocalist Totó la Momposina is considered a living, cultural treasure in that country. Since the 1970s, she has been singing and dancing to the music of the Colombian Caribbean coast on stages around the world.

For the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead's founding, the band will perform three shows — their last — in Chicago this weekend. According to Billboard magazine, the "Fare Thee Well" concerts will bring in an estimated $50 million. That's pretty impressive, considering that band's lead guitarist died two decades ago.

My Alt.Latino co-host, Jasmine Garsd, accurately describes this track by the Peruvian band Novalima as a three-layer cake of time. Consider the ingredients: It's based on an iPhone recording of a 1950s-era vocalist; it's propelled by an Afro-Peruvian cajon, a percussion instrument that dates back to the slave trade in Peru; and it's peppered with keyboard blips and beeps from today's technology.

It's easy to look back on early-'70s jazz-rock hybrids with a snicker. For those of us who were there, that snicker might accompany a note of regret; some of us thought that stuff was amazing. But listening to a new collection of Yes' previously unreleased early-'70s live recordings — titled Progeny: Highlights From Seventy-Two — I'm not so embarrassed to have embraced these poster boys of prog-rock.

Although they share the same last name, it's hard to imagine a less likely pairing than Luz Elena Mendoza and Sergio Mendoza.

While both have roots in Mexico, Luz Elena makes her home in the Pacific Northwest and has fronted a band called Y La Bamba. That group sets Luz Elena's deep, evocative voice against backing vocals so rich, I once described Y La Bamba's other singing members as bearded choirboys. There were direct Mexican influences in the music, but not many.

One of the most musical countries on the planet, Brazil is awash in folk-music traditions, as well as a rich history in jazz and bossa nova. It seems as if Brazilian musicians can make beautiful sounds with everything and anything they touch.

The band Apanhador Só demonstrates that point, and then some: In this video, shot during SXSW in Austin this past spring, its members coax rhythms and beats from a trunkload of found items, including a children's bicycle and other playthings. The resulting performance of "Prédio" is the stuff of hip-swaying joy.

Uruguay belongs high up any list of locations for musical discovery. Nestled between Argentina and Brazil way down on the southern tip of the Americas, it spends way too much time in the shadows of its better-known neighbors.

But a closer listen reveals something for just about everyone: rockeros, sure, but also fans of hip-hop, folk-influenced downtempo music and singer-songwriters with distinct voices and stories to tell.

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.

Rana Santacruz waited five years to release his second album.

In today's instantaneous digital age, that's a dangerous career move. Waiting that long risks a budding fan base moving on to next new thing. Musical trends change fast, risking diminished interest in a particular sound. A club owner or booking agent can delete old contact info with the push of a button.

In the case of Santacruz's new album Por Ahí, hanging back was exactly the right thing to do.

This crazy, clever cover medley spans an entire musical universe, as it superimposes one of Duke Ellington's sacred works (1968's "Heaven") over Led Zeppelin's 1971 rock classic "Stairway To Heaven." Trombonist Chris Washburne and his mighty See You On The Other Side miniature big band have released an album of inspired Latin jazz instrumental covers; titled Low Ridin', it touches on '70s-era rock songs by the likes of Neil Young, The Doors, Lou Reed and Jimi Hendrix.

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.

Cuban-born pianist and composer Omar Sosa has carved out a place for himself in the musical landscape that's equal parts musical and spiritual. His playing and his songs are saturated with the beauty and power of West African music dedicated to Yoruba deities, and yet an unmistakable reverence for jazz pervades every note.

All this week, Morning Edition is talking about drums and drummers. The third installment in "Beat Week" explores the beats used in Afro-Cuban Santería ceremonies. Our guide is Felix Contreras, co-host of NPR's Alt.Latino podcast and an Afro-Cuban drummer himself.

Note: This piece is better heard than read. For examples of the music and a drumming demonstration, listen at the audio link.

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

For this edition of our holiday special we turn to the healing and uplifting power of the human voice with the Washington, D.C.-based group, Cantigas. The group's 25 members assembled in NPR's Studio 1 in front of a live audience to present an eclectic mix of songs and rhythms from Mexico, Spain, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Cuba and Puerto Rico–the home country of its artistic director, Diana Sáez.

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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