Fruta Extraña: The Story Of Fruit In Latin America, Told Through Music : Alt.Latino From the Chiquita Banana Girl to the Banana Republic, Alt.Latino takes a knife to the rich, fruit-themed songs that pervade Latin music.
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Fruta Extraña: The Story Of Fruit In Latin America, Told Through Music

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Fruta Extraña: The Story Of Fruit In Latin America, Told Through Music

Fruta Extraña: The Story Of Fruit In Latin America, Told Through Music

Fruta Extraña: The Story Of Fruit In Latin America, Told Through Music

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/434288537/434995961" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

As "The Lady In The Tutti-Frutti Hat" from The Gang's All Here, Carmen Miranda embodied the sexual, social and political complexities of fruit in Latin America. Twentieth Century Fox/Wikimedia hide caption

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Twentieth Century Fox/Wikimedia

As "The Lady In The Tutti-Frutti Hat" from The Gang's All Here, Carmen Miranda embodied the sexual, social and political complexities of fruit in Latin America.

Twentieth Century Fox/Wikimedia

One of the most sensuous songs in all of Latin music is not about sex or love; it's about fruit. That's my opinion, but it's also the suggestion of dozens of Alt.Latino listeners who wrote in for this week's fruit-themed episode. The song in question is Rubén Blades' "Buscando Guayaba," in which he wistfully sings about searching for a juicy, soulful, golden guava that he's never able to find. Of course, it is a song about sex, but it's romantic and endearing, with a sound play that feels like chewing on a succulent guava: "Esa guayaba no hallaba yo." ("That guayaba I could not find.")

Fruit is a constant symbol in Latin American art. Certainly, we're not the first to draw comparisons that connect sex, fruit, love and life — the Kama Sutra was discussing fruit long before Blades was. But cultures use the metaphors that are available to them, and if you've been to Latin America, you know that good fruit abounds.

This week on Alt.Latino, we're joined by Marlon Bishop from NPR's Latino USA. Together, we deconstruct the sensual vulnerability of salsa queen Celia Cruz, as she sings about a lover's tamarind-tasting lips, between which she'd like to be trapped, like a broken-winged seagull who can't fly away. As Bishop points out, although it's a glimmering song about romance, there's undeniable sadness to a song about tropical fruit that's sung by a Caribbean exile who now lives in colder climates.

We're also having a good laugh with the naughtiness that characterizes son jarocho, the music of the Mexican port state of Veracruz. The folk-song lyrics are wildly raunchy, as they praise the guanabana (soursop), which is "a very soft fruit / that dissolves in the palate / and you can only taste your tongue / How happy is he who finds / this tenderness / sweet guabanana, suck it all night long." As naughty as the song is, it has an undertow in the form of a dark warning: "You are like a white nard, a marvel incarnate. Only one thing I ask of you: Don't be arrogant. The fruit of the trees does not last forever."

Tango, like son jarocho, is music birthed by a port city (Buenos Aires). But the ports of the south are colder and grayer, and so is the music: Tango is a melancholy sensuality punctuated by bitter staccatos and Rs that roll forever, like the silver waves of the River Plate. To roll your Rs in that part of the world is often a show of sarcasm; it's what eye-rolling is to Americans. Plenty of that surfaces in "Bitter Fruit," a classic tango which laments a lover's "absence, which becomes longer and has the taste of a bitter fruit, a punishment and loneliness."

Of course, the story of fruit in Latin America is also the story of exploitation. To many Brazilians of the time, Carmen Miranda's empty lyrics and her massive fruit headdress was an offensive symbol of the way foreigners perceived Latin American women: as objects to be consumed and discarded like a piece of fruit. For some, she was a light-skinned woman making samba, a black art form, quite literally palatable to American audiences. But for many others, she was the embodiment of the Latin bombshell, and her persona was channeled in the seductive but goofy Chiquita Banana mascot: a banana dressed like Miranda who schooled hungry white cartoon characters about how to eat a banana — how to eat her.

Behind Chiquita Banana's swerving hips and the cartoon backdrop of tropical luxury, fruit plantations across the Americas where running with blood. In one of the most poignant scenes in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's iconic book One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Jose Arcadio Segundo wakes up, aching and sleepy, on a cargo train. He soon realizes he's lying on top of hundreds of cold bodies, being transported like bananas, to the ocean. Segundo had been trying to organize a strike against the American banana company which had promised progress for the town of Macondo, but delivered exploitation instead. In response to the strike, the company opens machine-gun fire on hundreds of people. At one point in the story, a relative of Segundo grimly remarks: "Look at the mess we've gotten ourselves into ... just because we invited a gringo to eat some bananas."

Marquez wasn't making any of this up. His day job was as a reporter, and he'd grown up in Aracataca on the Caribbean coast, which in the early 20th century was dominated by American banana companies. The story he tells happened in the late 1920s: The Banana Massacre ended the lives of anywhere between hundreds and thousands of protesting workers.

We consume fruit all the time, but we rarely think about it. The same can be said for Latino and Caribbean music about fruit — we dance to it, we hum it, but it comes from deep within our identity. So goes the song with which we end this week's episode: "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)," which most of us have sung along to at some point or another. If you listen closely, it's about a banana-plantation worker who has been picking all night long, and he wants the tally-man to take his tally so he can go home.

So listen closely to this week's Alt.Latino and let us know your thoughts — and tell us your favorite music about fruit.

Hear The Songs

Cumana — Nicomedes Santa Cruz Courtesy of the Artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the Artist

Nicomedes Santa Cruz

  • Song: El Frutero
  • from Cumana
YouTube

Siembra, por Willie Colon y Ruben Blades Courtesy of the Artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the Artist

Willie Colón/Rubén Blades

  • Song: Buscando Guayaba
  • from Siembra
YouTube

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Song
Siembra
Album
Siembra
Artist
Willie Colón/Rubén Blades
Label
Fania
Released
1978

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Angelitos Negros Courtesy of the Artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the Artist

Celia Cruz Y La Sonora Matancera

  • Song: Pulpa de Tamarindo
  • from Angelitos Negros
YouTube

Antiguos sones jarochos Courtesy of the Artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the Artist

Zacamandú

  • Song: La Guanabana
  • from Antiguos Sones Jarochos
YouTube

Fruta Amarga Courtesy of the Artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the Artist

Lidia Borda

  • Song: Fruta Amarga
  • from Tal Vez Serã¡ Su Voz
YouTube

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Song
Tal Vez Serã¡ Su Voz
Album
Tal Vez Serã¡ Su Voz
Artist
Lidia Borda
Label
Naxos of America
Released
2008

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Jorge Negrete Courtesy of the Artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the Artist

Jorge Negrete

  • Song: Me He de Comer Esa Tuna
  • from 15 Exitos Inmortales de Jorge Negrete
YouTube

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Song
15 Exitos Inmortales de Jorge Negrete
Album
15 Exitos Inmortales de Jorge Negrete
Artist
Jorge Negrete
Label
RCA Records
Released
1992

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Have you been to Bahia Donald Courtesy of the Artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the Artist

Three Caballeros

  • Song: Have You Been to Bahia, Donald?
  • from The Three Caballeros
YouTube

The Gang's All Here (Original Sound Track - 1943) Courtesy of the Artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the Artist

Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda, Phil Baker & Benny Goodman And His Orchestra

  • Song: The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat
  • from The Gang's All Here [Soundtrack]
YouTube

Chiquita Banan Courtesy of the Artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the Artist

Monica Lewis

  • Song:
  • from The Original Chiquita Banana
YouTube

Sings for Broadside Courtesy of the Artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the Artist

Phil Ochs

  • Song: United Fruit
  • from Sings for Broadside
YouTube

Harry belafonte courtesy of the artist hide caption

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courtesy of the artist

Harry Belafonte

  • Song: Banana Boat Song (Day-O)
  • from All Time Greatest Hits, Vol. 1
YouTube

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Song
All Time Greatest Hits, Vol. 1
Album
All Time Greatest Hits, Vol. 1
Artist
Harry Belafonte
Label
RCA Records
Released
1978

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Three Cabelleros Courtesy of the Artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the Artist

Three Caballeros

  • Song: Os Quindins de Yayá
  • from The Three Caballeros
YouTube