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Who's The Happiest Of Them All? And What's Their Music Like?

Panamanian salsa singer Ruben Blades waves to the crowd before performing during the final round of Tango Salon competition at the 8th Tango Dance World Championship in Buenos Aires on August 30, 2010. MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images) Juan Mabromata /AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Juan Mabromata /AFP/Getty Images

Panamanian salsa singer Ruben Blades waves to the crowd before performing during the final round of Tango Salon competition at the 8th Tango Dance World Championship in Buenos Aires on August 30, 2010. MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images)

Juan Mabromata /AFP/Getty Images

Today, March 20, is U.N. International Happiness Day. If you live in Denmark or Switzerland, you're probably so happy that you don't even notice this special day devoted to happiness. Those two countries are ranked the happiest in the world in the newest World Happiness Report. The United States ranks 13th. Burundi, Togo, Syria and Afghanistan are deemed the least happy.

To find the happiest place on earth (other than Disneyland), the World Happiness Review polls about a thousand people in over 150 countries. Among other things, the review considers GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, perceived freedom to make life decisions, generosity and absence of corruption. This year, for the first time, the review is looking into inequality and wealth distribution.

But not everyone might be ... happy ... about this new data. According to the Gallup-Healthways Global Well-Being Index for 2013, which collected data across 135 countries, and conducted over 133,000 interviews, Panama, not Denmark, is the happiest country.

The Gallup-Healthways index broke down data into different elements of well being (such as "purpose" and "sense of community"). It found that "Panama leads not only the region, but the world in four of the five well-being elements — purpose, social, community, and physical well-being. Sixty-one percent of Panamanians are thriving in three or more elements ... Panama's strong and growing economy, an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent in 2013, and national development may be the most significant factors contributing to its high thriving levels."

In fact, according to Gallup-Healthways, Latin America does pretty well in general. Costa Rica and El Salvador rank alongside Panama with the highest percentage in terms of having a sense of purpose. Those same countries show up again, with Panama in the lead, in the category of "physically thriving."

The data might seem at odds when so much harrowing news is coming out of the region, Central America in particular. But the study says a lot of it boils down to attitude: "Latin Americans generally report higher levels of well-being than any other regional group. This is consistent with other Gallup World Poll research that shows residents of Latin America generally evaluating their lives more highly than those in other regional groups, partly reflecting a cultural tendency in the region to focus on the positives in life."

"More like the country with the highest rate of denial in the world," quips one commenter on the website of a Panamanian newspaper that ran the study. Another reader replies: "I'm sure these investigators didn't go into indigenous territories, rough hoods or the countryside." Yet another reader says "We are a happy people. Go out into the street and ask, Panamanians are just a happy people."

If anything, what both studies seem to prove is that it's actually pretty hard to quantify such an abstract sentiment as happiness. When is saying you are happy a measure of well-being? When is it a form of survival or even denial?

Those might be questions better suited for World Existentialism Day (which does not, to the best of my knowledge, exist.)

Meanwhile, as I pointed out at the start of this post, today is International Happiness Day. To celebrate, Goats and Soda has asked me (in my capacity as the host of NPR's Alt.Latino, a weekly podcast about Latin American music) to reach out to listeners and ask them to share some of their favorite Panamanian music. We got a lot of responses, based on which we are recommending 7 artists. Consider this a list in progress and tell us your favorite Panamanian music as well.

As a side note, I'd say a key to understanding the complexity of Latin American joy may lie in our music. While the beats and melodies are incredibly upbeat, many of the lyrics are complex, part of a tradition of oral history, often talking about painful realities or sad stories.

That jammin' salsa song you might find yourself dancing to at a club, could well be telling the story of slave revolt. That two-step shuffle you do when you dance cumbia has origins in the shackling of the African slaves who brought the beat to the Americas. The myopic Hollywood portrayal of Latin Americans as a perennially happy, overly sexual people fails to see all the struggles behind our joy.

Our music is never just about smiling and bobbing our heads. Just like living in devastatingly difficult conditions, it's not just about being "happy." It's about surviving; it's about forgetting, it's about remembering and it's about telling the individual stories that are so easily erased by numbers and statistics.

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1. Ruben Blades

You cannot start a conversation about Panamanian music without first mentioning him. Always a gorgeous lyricist, Blades has also always been salsa's conscience, singing about social issues. One of his iconic songs is "Pedro Navaja," inspired by "Mack The Knife." It tells the story of a prostitute who kills the titular pimp.

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2. Miguel Ángel Barcasnegras (aka Meñique)

Listener Nelson Milano wrote in about the singer "Meñique," which means "Pinky" (because he was short). Milano says he admires the singer's improvisation skills. Legend has it a family member heard Meñique singing in the shower and urged him to sign up as backup vocalist for a band. In the song "La Habana Vieja," he sings "Let's go to old Havana, to drink coffee..." and the chorus repeats like a mantra "to Cuba I will return." It's a wistful ode to the city on the Caribbean.

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3. Los Rabanes

Several listeners urged us to check out Los Rabanes, a band that fuses rock and salsa. Jose Angel Rincon Rodriguez says the band "opened an important era in Panamanian rock, and Ruben [Blades] was with them for a long time ... back then I saw them live ... they where incredible ..." Here's the song "Tu Me Disparas Balas," or "You Shoot Me With Bullets."

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4. El General

We can't talk about Panamanian music without discussing reggae and reggaeton. The last genre, which is the dominant sound on Latin Top 40s (Americans came to know it with Daddy Yankee's "Gasolina") is often shunned by music purists as unskilled and crass. But the history of reggaeton is the history of Caribbean labor.

In the '70s Jamaican workers went to Panama to help build the Panama Canal and took their music with them. El General was one of the first to reinterpret reggae in Spanish. Eva H Vargas was one of several listeners who wrote in professing her love for El General, quoting a lyric: "I like El General because 'raise your hand if you are having a good time!" #MueveloMuevelo.

Reggaeton is often wrongly attributed to Puerto Rico. While it's true the island took the genre and transformed it into the first pan-Latin music since salsa, the music actually started out in Panama, where Spanish language reggae was mixed with soca, calypso and the hip-hop beats that were trickling in from up north.

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5. Kafu Banton

I'm going to throw out a personal favorite here, Panamanian reggae icon Kafu Banton, who also sings reggaeton. My favorite Kafu Banton song "No Te Ofendas," combines reggae percussion, hip-hop beats and folk guitar strums. It's a perfect mix. His naughty lyrics and picaresque humor have gotten him censored in the past, but this song makes pretty tame puns about soccer: "tu dice que tu eres Real y tu te tiras pal Barca" — "You say you're Real, but you root for Barca."

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6. Los Rakas

"Raka" comes from the Panamanian slang "Rakataka," which refers to someone from the ghetto. Coming out of Oakland, California, by way of Panama, the rap duo Los Rakas were really just kids when they made a splash in the Latin hip-hop scene several years ago. Their 2011 song "Soy Raka" is impossibly catchy.

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7. Danilo Perez

Many listeners wrote in to recommend the Panamanian pianist and composer. His influence is best described by my Alt.Latino co-host Felix Contreras: "Danilo Perez, jazz pianist, played with Puente, Dizzy and now with one of the greatest small groups in jazz, the Wayne Shorter Quartet." And by the way, if you are a Danilo Perez fan, you can hear him on an episode of Jazz Night In America hosted by Mr. Contreras himself.

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