MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Finally today, we want to talk a little bit about the Afro-Latino contribution to the culture as part of Tell Me More's celebration of Black History Month. Afro-Latino music was in the news this past week with the passing of Gilberto Miguel Calderon. Calderon was best known by his stage name, Joe Cuba. In 1967, the Joe Cuba Sextet bridged a gap between two different branches of the African Diaspora without a social movement, a speech or a scholarly treatise. NPR arts producer Felix Contreras explains how Joe Cuba and other musicians changed America's musical landscape.

FELIX CONTRERAS: Joe Cuba did it with two words: "Bang Bang."

(Soundbite of song "Bang Bang")

JOE CUBA SEXTET: (Singing) Bang, bang. Bang, bang...

CONTRERAS: Or maybe he did with the song's chorus, singing the praise of down-home soul food.

(Soundbite of song "Bang Bang")

JOE CUBA SEXTET: (Singing) Cornbread, hog mawl and chitterlings. Cornbread. Aw, coochie, coochie, coochie, coochie... Cornbread, hog mawl and chitterlings. Cornbread...

CONTRERAS: Whatever it was, the combination of Afro-Cuban groove and R&B back beat moved way beyond Joe Cuba's home turf of El Barrio in Harlem to the rest of the country and even back to the Caribbean. It was called Boogaloo, and it was an organic, cross-cultural, musical reflection of how Afro-Latinos in this country have one foot in both cultures.

(Soundbite of song "Bang Bang")

JOE CUBA SEXTET: (Singing) Ah, beep, beep. Ah, beep, beep. Ah, sock it to me. Ah, beep, beep. Ah, beep, beep. Ah, beep, beep. Ah, beep, beep. Ah, beep, beep...

CONTRERAS: In its most simple definition, Afro-Latinos are Dominican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Panamanian, Colombian, Venezuelan - descendents of people who are from anywhere there were Spanish slave owners and African slaves. Most Afro-Latinos arrived in this country by way of various waves of immigration. Sociologists say most choose where to live by way of language rather than skin color; Afro-Latinos will tell you of discrimination from those that speak Spanish as well as from those that speak English. But there are more stories of peaceful coexistence, and that's most vividly expressed through music.

(Soundbite of song "Rojo's Revenge")

CONTRERAS: For starters, let's travel down in New Orleans, which many in the 19th century considered the northernmost port of the Caribbean. Can you imagine the rich musical exchanges in those portside bars between freed slaves, Spanish-speaking sailors and other musical adventurers? Trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and percussionist Bill Summers did. In fact, in 1998, they formed a band called Los Hombres Calientes to play jazz that reflected possibly the first class of Afro-Latino culture in this country, a historical mix of African rhythms, Caribbean instrumentation and New Orleans funk.

(Soundbite of song "Rojo's Revenge")

CONTRERAS: Afro-Latino expression in the U.S. had its most enduring impact by Puerto Rican, Cuban and African-American musicians who created the musical hot house in New York City in the late 1940s. They didn't really have a name for the mixture of Afro-Cuban music and bebop. Mambo jazz, cubop, descargas were just a few of the names that didn't stick. We know it today as Latin jazz. But many of those musicians who grew up tapping their feet to both Afro-Cuban dance music and the African-American big bands simply called it our music.

(Soundbite of song "Rojo's Revenge")

CONTRERAS: Let me tell you a story about a gig by Mongo Santamaria in a Bronx nightclub in 1962. During a break, the substitute pianist, a young African-American jazz musician named Herbie Hancock, was doodling with a tune he had just written. The story continues that Mongo's ears perked up and he asked the young pianist to keep playing it.

(Soundbite of song "Watermelon Man")

CONTRERAS: The great Cuban percussionist began playing a driving cha-cha-cha rhythm behind the jazz riff, and a classic was born.

(Soundbite of song "Watermelon Man")

CONTRERAS: Or so the story goes. Whether it happened exactly that way doesn't really matter. What matters most is that with the song "Watermelon Man," Herbie Hancock and Mongo Santamaria connected Mongo's West African roots from his grandfather to the new-world traditions of jazz and R&B.

(Soundbite of song "Watermelon Man")

CONTRERAS: Later in the 1960s, another Afro-Latino son of Spanish Harlem, Willie Bobo, was mixing Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz and R&B on a series of records that made him popular with both African-Americans and Latinos, like this track he called "La Descarga del Bobo" or "Bobo's Jam Session."

(Soundbite of "La Descarga del Bobo")

CONTRERAS: Fast forward to almost 40 years: Two more Puerto Rican sons of New York, masters of a dance genre called house music, have remixed Bobo's jam session into an Afro-Latino sound they call Nuyorican Soul. They call themselves Masters at Work.

(Soundbite of song "La Descarga del Bobo (Masters at Work Remix)")

CONTRERAS: The latest expression of Afro-Latino culture is the number-one Spanish language download on iTunes this week.

(Soundbite of song "Virtual Diva")

Mr. DON OMAR: (Singing) Ella es ese sueno Que tuve despierto Un recuerdo leve De esto que siento...

CONTRERAS: It's a reggaeton song called "Virtual Diva," and it's by a young Afro-Latino who calls himself Don Omar. Reggaeton was actually born among Afro-Latinos in Panama, made its way to the streets of Puerto Rico, and finally found, arguably, its most creative expression here in the U.S. Even if you don't understand the lyrics, you can hear the influence of hip-hop and rap, which have become the lingua franca of Afro-Latinos, African-Americans and just about anyone under 25 in the rest of the world, for that matter.

(Soundbite of song "Virtual Diva")

Mr. OMAR: (Singing) Chequea como se menea...

CONTRERAS: In this digital world, where mixing cultures could be as easy as pressing a few buttons, it still takes good, old-fashioned vision to imagine a sound that reflects an honest expression of what it's like to be from two great histories. Or, as Joe Cuba's music illustrates sometimes, it just takes being yourself.

(Soundbite of song "Guantanamera")

(Soundbite of cheering)

MARTIN: That was NPR arts producer Felix Contreras. We'll have full tracks of the Joe Cuba Sextet on our Web site, npr.org/music.

(Soundbite of song "Guantanamera")

Mr. JOSEITO FERNANDEZ: (Singing) Baby, Guantanamera...

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. (Soundbite of song "Guantanamera")

(Soundbite of cheering)

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