Afro Latino Music: Reimagining Songs Rooted In The Slave Trade

Afro Latino music is on the rise in Latin America. The music has roots in the slave trade, but artists are putting a modern spin on old songs. Host Michel Martin hears more from AltLatino's Felix Contreras and Jasmine Garsd.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We wanted to talk more about how people who claim both African and Latin heritage are re-examining that heritage. Now we want to see how that's playing out in music, and also how music is allowing some people to re-examine some painful and difficult issues. Who better to tell us more about this than the cohost of NPR's Alt.Latino. Felix Contreras is with us in Washington, D.C. And holding it down in Mexico City, Jasmine Garsd. Jasmine, Felix, welcome back.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Thanks for having us.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: So before we talk, let's hear some music. Let's set the scene. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG FROM DJ GEKO JONES)

MARTIN: Well, that was hot. What are we hearing there, Felix?

CONTRERAS: That is DJ Geko Jones from New York. He is of Puerto Rican and Colombian heritage. And he's exploring his roots by going back to Colombia and just crate digging - looking for old vinyl, looking for traditional Colombian music. And then he mixes it with electronica and house and all this other stuff. Very, very cool, grooving music.

MARTIN: It's a really distinctive sound. But, you know, overall, would you say that there's a sound that kind of defines the Afro-Latino sound?

CONTRERAS: Overall, it's very percussive. And primarily, it's because during the slave trade, only in the United States were the slaves not allowed to keep their drums. And in the rest of the Caribbean and South America, they were allowed to keep their drums and some parts of their culture.

So that's why places like Brazil, Cuba, and we're finding out Colombia and Peru, these countries, they have a very, very strong African heritage that was shunned and looked down as lower class and less sophisticated, but it's being rediscovered.

MARTIN: So let's listen to something else. You've got some more music for us.

CONTRERAS: We're going to go to Brazil, and we're going to start with something called Batucada.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG FROM BATUCADA)

MARTIN: Is that a samba band?

CONTRERAS: That is a samba band. It's a Batucada. Batucada is an African-influenced drum style. It's also the name of the group - the drum group that has all these drones. Jasmine actually played in a Batucada group here in Washington, D.C.

GARSD: Yeah.

CONTRERAS: We transition to a DJ named Maga Bo who is using - you can hear the same instruments, the same drumming at a much slower pace. He's using a tradition, but adding on electronics and all these other different kinds of electronica things that they do nowadays.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG FROM DJ MAGA BO)

MARTIN: Jas, didn't you all just do a show on Alt.Latino that featured guests talking about the Afro-Latino sound and Afro-Latino culture and so forth. Tell us a little bit more about the guests and some of the things they had to say.

GARSD: Yeah. We invited - there's this blog that I'm a huge fan of, which everyone should check out. It's called The LatiNegr@s Project. And two of the people behind it are Bianca Laureano and Daniel Familia. And basically it talks about the Afro-Latino experience, Afro-Latino concerns and issues today. And it just talks about things from the Afro-Latino perspective. So we really wanted to invite them to join us because they're doing something that's just super important in the face of not just media, Michel, but, you know, Latin media is - you know, there's a lot of colorism in Latin media. So we are huge fans of their project, and we wanted to invite them to talk about it and to share some of the music that's in their ear.

MARTIN: You know, but one of the things that occurs to me, Felix, is there have always been Afro-Latinos. I mean, if you figure that...

GARSD: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...You know, that Latin America, you know, Cuba, the Caribbean was part of the middle passage, you know, of slavery bring - you know, slaves being extracted from Africa, brought to the Americas. The weigh station was, you know, the Caribbean, Cuba, Latin America, etc. So there have always been Afro-Latinos. But why is it that we're only now kind of hearing about this as an experience, as a source of identity?

CONTRERAS: One of the things that we discovered talking to Daniel and Bianca was that it's the younger generation, and in a lot of ways, there's a parallel to the musicians as well. They told their own particular stories about how they are both darker skinned, and they don't look like the rest of their family because they're lighter skin, straight hair. And that is a common occurrence in Latin America. And traditionally, from the parents; generation on, you know, you don't talk about it. You sort of keep it under the table. It's not discussed openly. And a lot of times, it's something to be ashamed of.

MARTIN: Why?

CONTRERAS: It's racism. It's just, you know, we're ashamed of our blackness. We don't want to acknowledge our blackness. You have people who are, you know, darker than you and say no, no, no my grandparents are from Spain.

MARTIN: But, you know, you were also telling us, Felix, that in the United States, that there are people who have Latin heritage that you didn't necessarily talk about that either. They just kind of got subsumed under blackness. You were saying that - Sammy Davis Jr., for example, his mother was Cuban.

CONTRERAS: His mother was Cuban.

MARTIN: Which I don't think - I think, maybe three people know, right.

CONTRERAS: Including his mother.

MARTIN: So...

CONTRERAS: Yeah. It was - considering the time of, you know, just being black here in the United States plus being Cuban, it just - it was - how do you wrap your mind around that in '50s, '60s America? It just - it was difficult for him to do that.

MARTIN: Let's hear a little bit more music. Where do you want to go next?

CONTRERAS: Let's see. We're going to Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG FROM HERENCIA DE TIMBIQUI)

CONTRERAS: This is a band that plays traditional Colombian music. It's called Herencia De timbiqui. These are younger musicians who embrace that and who listen to that. This has marimba in the music. It has Colombian drums that resemble West African djembes, a lot of hand percussion. But if you listen to the music and you listen to the bass part, there's a bass line that goes...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG FROM HERENCIA DE TIMBIQUI)

CONTRERAS: And now we're going to transition to a song by a group called Bomba Estereo where they use that bass line. That is their tie to tradition. They update it just a little bit, but it's still there and they build all this fabulous, fabulous electronic sculptures on top of it to create this beautiful sound called "Bosque."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOSQUE")

MARTIN: So where's this going next, Jas? Where do you see this going? You've talked about the fact that now that people are trying to break down these walls of - they're looking for more respect and appreciation for the music and also just for themselves. But, you know, you're there. You're in Mexico kind of at the. We're seeing these breakthroughs in the music side, but what about on these other things you were talking about like on television? Are you seeing any of these - kind of a new appreciation for the Afro-Latino experience in some of these other areas?

GARSD: Well, I think it's a complicated answer. I think that the change is not going to come from traditional venues. I'll give you an example. You know, a few months ago when I had just gotten here, there was this thing that happened with Aeromexico, this Mexican airline. And it came out into the public that they were preparing a commercial, and that the press people had requested that dark skinned actors need not apply for the commercial.

And it caused barely a stir in regular, mainstream media. I mean, absolutely - I would never have heard of it. But I think where it's going to change is in these alternative forms of media like in Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, blogs. That's where I heard about it. And it's a story that's worth telling and worth getting angry about. So I think just to answer succinctly, no it's not probably going to change in traditional media, but it definitely - there's a great movement happening in alternative forms of media.

MARTIN: Felix Contreras and Jasmine Garsd are the cohosts of NPR Music's Alt.Latino. That's a weekly podcast about Latino arts and culture. You can download and subscribe to the podcast at NPR.org/altlatino. Jasmine joined us from Alt.Latino headquarters in Mexico City, and Felix Contreras is with us from our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

CONTRERAS: Thank you as always.

GARSD: It's always so much fun to be here. Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: And remember, you can join our conversation about stories on the African diaspora and share yours. Use the hashtag #AfroGlobal on Twitter and Facebook. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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