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.

Note: NPR's Audio for First Listens comes down after the album is released.

How do you go back to the well after 40 years spent drawing up buckets and buckets of creativity? Where do you find the inspiration? How do you get motivated? How do you stare down that blank page one more time?

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.