Latin Grammys Preview

With the Latin Grammy Awards ahead this week, Guy Raz tours some of the coolest songs in the Latin music world with Betto Arcos, host of the "Global Village" music show on KPFK in Los Angeles.

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(Soundbite of music)

GUY RAZ, host:

We're hearing the music of Cuban jazz pianists Bebo y Chucho Vald�s. Bebo is 91. His son, Chucho, is 68. They're considered two of the greatest Cuban pianists alive. This track is off their new record, their first together, and so appropriately, it's called �Juntos Para Siempre,� together always.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: The album is up for a Latin Grammy Award. The ceremony is in Las Vegas on Thursday night. For a look at some of the best Latin music from the past year, we're joined by Betto Arcos. He's the longtime host of a show called "Global Village" on KPFK in Los Angeles.

Betto Arcos, welcome.

Mr. BETTO ARCOS (Host, "Global Village"): Good to be with you, Guy.

RAZ: So you and the Grammys agree on this record by Bebo y Chucho Valdes. Tell me about them.

Mr. ARCOS: They are legendary, both Bebo because he's considered sort of an institution of music. He was instrumental in creating the sound of the �50s Cuba. But of course, as many Cubans, he left Havana when Castro came to power. He lived in Europe for a long time and didn't actually ever get to record with his son, Chucho Valdes, who is also legendary, who's also known for the work that he did for many years with a great band called Irakere.

They finally got a chance to record together back in 1995, recorded one song, but this is actually the first time they recorded an album together. And the beautiful thing about this is that you hear both of them playing at the same time. On the left channel, you hear Chucho, and on the right channel, you hear Bebo.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ARCOS: It has not just their incredible sense of melody and rhythm, but the soul, really, the soul of what Cuban music is.

RAZ: It's a beautiful piece. I want to move on, though, to the next album you brought in. This one is from a Brazilian singer named Lenine, I believe. Tell me about him and why you like this record so much.

Mr. ARCOS: I've been a fan of this artist for a long time. He manages to create a new sound, a new voice in Brazilian music. I mean, people are familiar with bossa nova, with samba, with the greats, you know, from �60s, Antonio Carlo Jobim, from (speaking foreign language). But he kind of redefines Brazilian music. He's not from Rio. He's not from Sao Paulo. He's from the Northeast of Brazil, from a city called Recife in the northeast. And he�

RAZ: Uh-huh. On the coast.

Mr. ARCOS: Yeah, on the coast. And you hear it very clearly in his music, in some pieces more than others. But I selected this piece, �Samba y La Vesa(ph).�

(Soundbite of song, �Samba y La Vesa�)

Mr. LENINE (Singer): (Singing in foreign language).

RAZ: And the song really does almost sound like the ocean in a sort of a strange way.

Mr. ARCOS: Yeah.

RAZ: I mean, it's up for a Latin Grammy in the Best Engineered category. But Betto, I'm guessing that's not why you love it.

Mr. ARCOS: No. It's the last thing I think about when I hear a record. I want to hear, you know, something that touches me, that moves me, that makes me want to cry, want to dance, you know? I'm looking for emotion. I'm not looking for technical quality, and this really touches me.

RAZ: Now, there's one recording on your list that is not up for a Latin Grammy by an artist named Buika(ph). Who is she?

Mr. ARCOS: She's a singer who was born in Majorca, one of the islands in the Mediterranean, part of Spain. Her parents came from Equatorial Guinea as refugees in the �60s or �70s. Equatorial Guinea, by the way, was a former colony of Spain. And she grew up amongst gypsies. So she grew up in an environment of flamenco.

(Soundbite of song, �Vamonos�)

Ms. BUIKA (Singer): (Singing in foreign language).

Mr. ARCOS: And this is a record unlike any record that I've seen or heard in a while. It is an unusual pairing of a Cuban pianists we heard earlier, Chucho Valdes. It's a singer who is partly from Africa but also Spanish. And it's a tribute to one of the great singers of Mexican rancheras, the great Chavela Vargas. It's really a tribute to her and to her work. Very soulful, very deep Mexican ballads, the equivalent of country music in the U.S. Think Hank Williams.

(Soundbite of song, �Vamonos�)

Ms. BUIKA: (Singing in foreign language).

Mr. ARCOS: I should mention, Chavela Vargas is actually still alive. She's 90 years old. And Buika is not trying to emulate Chavela Vargas at all. In fact, it's far from emulating. She is really reinterpreting these songs in her own way, and that is what gives this record a very special quality.

RAZ: The song is called �Vamonos� by Buika. Betto Arcos, I want to end where we sort of began this conversation, back in Cuba with a singer named Omara Portuondo. And like Bebo Valdes, she's another really old-timer. I want to play this track that you picked. It's off her album called �Gracias.�

(Soundbite of song, ��mame Como Soy�)

Ms. OMARA PORTUONDO (Singer): (Singing in foreign language).

Mr. ARCOS: This is a song she records with one of the great singer-songwriters of Cuba, Pablo Milanes. It's a duet. The song is called ��mame Como Soy,� and it really showcases Omara's sense of playfulness. And by the way, many people may be familiar with Omara Portuondo because�

RAZ: Right.

Mr. ARCOS: �she was in the Buena Vista Social Club.

RAZ: And she's 79.

Mr. ARCOS: She just turned 79 this week.

RAZ: It's incredible because you hear her voice and it's so dynamic.

Mr. ARCOS: Listen, I saw her just recently in Los Angeles at a concert and I thought she was 15 years old.

RAZ: Oh, wow.

Mr. ARCOS: You should have seen her on stage.

(Soundbite of song, ��mame Como Soy�)

Ms. PORTUONDO: (Singing in foreign language)

RAZ: And Omara Portuondo's album, �Gracias,� is up for Best Contemporary Tropical Album at the Latin Grammys. That's this Thursday night. Betto Arcos is the host of the "Global Village" on KPFK in Los Angeles.

Betto Arcos, thank you so much for taking us through some absolutely fantastic music today.

Mr. ARCOS: My pleasure, any time.

(Soundbite of song, ��mame Como Soy�)

Mr. PABLO MILANES (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. PORTUONDO: (Singing in foreign language)

RAZ: And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Have a great week.

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