SCOTT SIMON, host:

The Latin influence in mainstream Western music extends way back to the very early New Orleans jazz that's incorporated Caribbean rhythms, through the tango, the rumba and the mambo that influenced dance styles of the 1930s and 1940s, into the '60s, when Carlos Santana put the Latin sound up front and center. And now to hip-hop and pop and electronica, collection of styles that all come together may be loosely under label - Latin alternative music.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Joining us to help chart our way is NPR producer and reporter Felix Contreras. Felix, thanks very much for being with us.

FELIX CONTRERAS: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And first, I think we need a definition professor. Why Latin alternative as supposed to alternative Latin?

CONTRERAS: It's more of catchall phrase, it's not really - it's a collection of genres. And the styles, the collection of styles that includes ska, punk, reggae, electronica, funk - as well as well as regional styles like Afro-Cuban and Columbian cumbia just to make things interesting, or difficult if you're trying to keep track.

SIMON: You brought in a selection of new releases. Let me get you talk about the Los Fabulosos Cadillacs.

CONTRERAS: Los Fabulosos Cadillacs were a part of a pioneering wave of musicians and bands that came out of Mexico City and Argentina in the early '80s. They were some of the first bands to include ska and punk and all that -some of that other stuff. And they were really some of the first groups to put a cultural and sometimes national stamp on it. They have a new CD out. It's the first CD in 10 years and it's called "La Luz Del Ritmo".

(Soundbite of song, "La Luz Del Ritmo")

LOS FABULOSOS CADILLACS (Music Group): (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: You can hear some Afro-Cuban piano styles . It started with Brazilian (unintelligible) and Brazilian beats and just sort of a ska feeling and the music behind it and the drum parts, and of course they're singing in Spanish.

SIMON: Let's hear another cut from their new CD.

(Soundbite of music, "La Luz Del Ritmo")

LOS FABULOSOS CADILLACS: (Singing in Spanish)

SIMON: Okay, Felix I have heard this one, okay?

CONTRERAS: Yeah, yeah, a lot of us have. That's "Should I Stay or Should I Go" from the Clash.

SIMON: Yes.

CONTRERAS: And the Clash was very, very influential in Latin America during the 1980s, mainly because of their mix of ska, punk, reggae, all the things that some of the bands were already doing. But also because of their political messages. This is the 1980s in Latin America - it's political, economic, cultural upheaval, and some of these things that they were talking about in their songs, a lot of the bands in Latin America sort of took up that band.

(Soundbite of music, "La Luz Del Ritmo")

LOS FABULOSOS CADILLACS: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: Next I have a band called Novalima.

(Soundbite of percussion)

CONTRERAS: Novalima's from Peru. They're much younger and they're probably influenced by Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and lot of the bands from the early '80s. Their new CD is called "Coba Coba."

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: That's very different.

CONTRERAS: Very different. What Novalima is doing is they're mixing the music of the Afro-Peruvian culture in with more contemporary sounds like electronica, down tempo and all these other things. I still don't have a handle them but I know it involves electronica music.

SIMON: I don't think until we sat down here today I had heard the term Afro-Peruvian.

CONTRERAS: Afro-Peruvian is reflective of the slave history in Peru.

SIMON: Hmm-hmm.

CONTRERAS: And they did have their own history with slavery at the same time that rest of the Caribbean and North America did. And Afro-Peruvian music is a tradition similar to, for example, Afro-Cuban music, but it's slightly slower and it has its own tempos, usually a main beat called lando(ph), and you can hear it right now.

SIMON: You have an example.

CONTRERAS: Yes.

(Soundbite of song "Africa Lando")

NOVALIMA (Music Group): (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: You know, Afro-Peruvian music was considered lower class for a long time. It was quite different from the Spanish-influenced mainstream music. So what groups like Novalima and some other singers and performers, what they're doing is they're dusting it off and reclaiming it and playing it in its pure form, or mixing it up with other stuff like Novalima is doing and putting it out there, and the Latin people hear what it sounds like with their own thoughts and ideas.

SIMON: New York City, I gather, is a real staging ground for Latin alternative music.

CONTRERAS: New York City has become a very popular staging ground because there's such a mix of people there. And primarily people based in the Caribbean - Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, some Cubans. There's a group there called Yerba Buena and they're a younger generation of Caribbean-based musicians. Their lead singer calls herself CuCu Diamantes and she has a new album out called 'CuCuLand'.

(Soundbite of song, "Amor Cronico")

Ms. CUCU DIAMANTES (Singer): (Singing in Spanish)

Mr. CONTRERAS: This is what the group itself calls urban tropical.

(Soundbite of laughter)

They labeled it themselves. And it's more of a combination not so much other influences from other cultures but a reflection of life in New York, with the influence of hip hop, of traditional Dominican music, Puerto Rican music. So it had its own distinct flavor and its own distinct stamp.

SIMON: Felix, if we were listening to a radio station, would all three of these bands be on the sameā€¦

CONTRERAS: It's hard to hear on the radio. Where it's being popularized is on the Internet, as people trade CDs and have Web sites and stuff like that, and in fact in New York this summer there is going to be the 10th annual Latin alternative music conference. The Fabulosos Cadillacs are going to headline in Central Park (unintelligible) this year. CuCu Diamantes is going to play some clubs in New York during this five-day run of the Latin Alternative Music Conference. So it's poking its head up above ground in the largest cities and becoming quite popular.

SIMON: Felix, thanks so much.

CONTRERAS: Thank you, thanks for having me.

SIMON: Felix Contreras is an NPR arts desk producer and reporter. He's been talking about release from Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Novalima and CuCu Diamantes. For more on alternative Latin music, you can go to our Web site, nprmusic - all one word - dot org.

(Soundbite of song "Amor Cronico" by CuCu Diamantes)

Ms. CUCU DIAMANTES (Singer): (Singing in Spanish)

SIMON: And isn't this fabuloso? That's "Amor Cronico" by CuCu Diamantes.

Ms. DIAMANTES: What I like, you know, about my name is when I introduce myself I always bring a smile or a laugh on people's faces. So CuCu in many languages can be crazy but can be also somebody who is different, you know?

SIMON: Well, you get to judge for yourself. We'll profile CuCu later this summer during Latin Alternative Music Conference in July.

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