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.

The first thing I think of when I consider Cuban music is the piano. I've spent most of my adult life playing Afro-Cuban percussion, so you'd think I would hear things differently.

But actually, the piano is technically a percussion instrument in the grand scheme of European symphonic music. Nowhere is that truer than in Cuba, which has a rich legacy of interpreting Africa through the keyboard.

"Go before it changes!"

I can't tell you how many times I have heard that charge since the thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba, which has prompted so many people to visit the island nation.

What feeling of freedom must accompany recording artists who don't use their real names when they write or perform music? Does a musical mask, a second personality, let them create a whole new persona? A way to react differently to the world? I remember one Halloween, I went to a costume party at a friend's office. I didn't know anyone there, and was wearing a costume that included a mask that completely covered my face. I'll never forget the complete freedom as my friend's office mates tried to figure out who I was.

NPR's Tiny Desk series documents one-of-a-kind performances, allowing for an intimate look at musicians — some well-known, others just starting out — as they make music behind Bob Boilen's desk in the NPR Music offices.

Dizzy Gillespie once described Charlie Parker as the other half of his heartbeat. They were young men creating something from whole cloth, stretching the limits of their creativity and intellect every time they drew a breath together on the bandstand.

As summertime draws to a close, we look around Alt.Latino World Headquarters and find baskets — not of deplorables, but of all the CDs that have been gathering around us while we've been out on our summer travels. (Yes, we do still get CDs.) So its time to share some of the new music with you.

Percussionist and bandleader Willie Bobo had a remarkable career that not only reflected his Afro-Caribbean background, but also created a cross-cultural hybrid that still reflects the bi-cultural life of Latinos living in this country. Still, he rarely gets enough credit for his role in the development of bugaloo, Latin jazz, and then Latin soul.

This week on Alt.Latino, we change that when we talk to his son, Eric Bobo, about a new collection of long-lost material, released this week with the title Dig My Feeling.

It takes time to explain an artist like Juan Gabriel to those unfamiliar with who he was. The singer, who died Sunday, was practically a household name throughout the Spanish-speaking world, but his death caused hardly a blip of recognition among most of those who'd tuned in to MTV's Video Music Awards the night of his death.

That's what Alt.Latino is for.

Gaby Moreno's Ilusión represents a high-water mark in a musical career that's never been predictable. It's one of the strongest statements I've heard from a musician who ignores boundaries and genre classifications to create a sound greater than the sum of its parts.

Rudy Van Gelder, an audio recording engineer who captured the sounds of many of jazz's landmark albums, died Thursday morning in his sleep. He was at his home studio in New Jersey, according to Maureen Sickler, his assistant engineer. He was 91.

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.

For the Portland, Ore., band Y La Bamba, creativity and talent have combined and crystalized to form a unique sound. That sound is the sum of many individual musical experiences and influences, but it also reflects a shared vision. Most importantly, on the new Ojos Del Sol, it sounds as if the group is having a blast playing music.

When Jerry Garcia died unexpectedly in August 1995, his Grateful Dead bandmate Bob Weir went right back out on the road to deal with the loss of his friend.

Friday marks the official launch of the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where an array of Brazilian music is expected in the opening ceremonies. While all eyes are on Brazil for the next two weeks, we here at Alt.Latino get to share our own love affair with the country's vast musical heritage. My short conversation with David Greene on NPR's Morning Edition, at the audio link above, is just the tip of the iceberg — of both the music and our coverage.

Creedence Clearwater Revival sometimes sounded like a damned good Latin band. The group often nailed the slightly mambo-esque R&B groove that Ray Charles and countless blues bands used to sultry effect. Think "Born On The Bayou" or "Run Through The Jungle," or even the Cuban bolero feel of "Who'll Stop The Rain."

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.

The farm-worker movement that took place in the agricultural fields of California in the early 1960s inspired a generation of Latino activists around the country — and with them, musicians and artists of all kinds.

Alt.Latino's Puerto Rican Deep Cuts

Jul 2, 2016
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California's San Joaquin Valley runs right along the middle of the state, from just south of Bakersfield up to Sacramento. It was ground zero for Cesar Chavez's groundbreaking campaign for farmworkers, and it was where I met Agustín Lira when I lived in Fresno.

This week, we take a long drive along the mountain roads, high planes, tropical coastlines and large urban centers of Colombia.

NPR News contributor Betto Arcos is in control of the car's CD/cassette/8-track player, and he's blasting a mix of contemporary and traditional sounds. Along the way, he fills us in on the backstories of the artists, as well as the history of the different folk genres.

This week, Alt.Latino takes a musical journey across the U.S. on the hunt for Latin Alternative music in places where you wouldn't expect to find it.

It's fair to expect these musicians would reside amidst Latino populations in large urban centers. But this week, we travel with D.C. music agent Luis Ayala to discover that Latin rock, funk and hip-hop bands are popping up in other cities and towns that are experiencing major growth in the Latino populations. As these communities mature, vibrant local Latin music scenes are popping up in their wake.

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.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Ralph J. Gleason is my hero.

It's impossible to put an exact date on it, but I think I started reading his column in Rolling Stone in the summer of 1973. I was 14 years old and already immersed in music. Reading him, I discovered you could write about music and get paid for it — and then I discovered his writing was just as immersive as the music we both loved.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.