Six Immigrant Songs Of Triumph And Tragedy The Alt.Latino hosts share music that misses home and treks dangerous terrain to make a new one, from Calle 13 to Celia Cruz.
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Six Immigrant Songs Of Triumph And Tragedy

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Six Immigrant Songs Of Triumph And Tragedy

Six Immigrant Songs Of Triumph And Tragedy

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to close things out on this special 4th of July broadcast by hearing some music. Music's a big part of how many of us celebrate the 4th of July, whether it's hearing the "Stars and Stripes Forever" while we watch fireworks hit the sky or just turning up the radio at a backyard barbecue. And that made us wonder about the music that captures the immigrant experience.

We all know that this is a nation of immigrants and songs about immigration have a long history here. Let's listen to one that dates back to the mid-19th century, performed here by Pete Seeger. It's called "No Irish Need Apply."


MARTIN: Once again, that was Pete Seeger singing "No Irish Need Apply," a song from the mid-19th century. But artists have continued to tell stories of the lives of immigrants, so we decided to call upon Jasmine Garsd and Felix Contreras to tell us more. Once again, they're the hosts of Alt.Latino. That's NPR's online program about Latin alternative music.

Welcome back to you both. Thanks for coming, once again.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Thanks for having us again.


MARTIN: I think we're going to focus a lot on the Latino immigrant experience because, in recent years, the bulk of immigrants have come from Central and Latin America. So give us a sense of what some of the themes have been that have emerged in the last, say, decade or so, Jasmine.

GARSD: Well, absolutely. There's a lot of themes about how difficult it is for immigrants to get here. It's a very dangerous trek from Central and South America and Mexico. There's a lot of things about missing home, about how immigrants are treated here, about illegality and about wanting to go back, about being ready to go back.

In fact, the first song that I brought for you today, Michel, is a song about that very dangerous trek that a lot of immigrants make from Central America and South America on foot, on train, just basically smuggled into the U.S. and this is Calle Trece featuring Orishas Pa'l Norte, which means heading north.


MARTIN: Can you just translate a little bit for us, Jas?

GARSD: Sure. This is just saying through the road of the wind, I go blowing (Spanish spoken), which is a type of...

CONTRERAS: It's like an alcoholic drink.

GARSD: It's an alcoholic drink and the lyrics of this just talk about how - the trials of having to come here. And one of my favorite excerpts of the lyrics is: I learned to walk without a map with stories wrapped in tin, with tales the moon spins, to walk without commodities, without luxuries, protected by saints and witch doctors.

MARTIN: Hmm. Shall we play a little bit more of the song? Let's hear a little bit more.


CONTRERAS: You know, I think it's significant in that a band that is based in Puerto Rico...

MARTIN: Which is a part of the United States.

CONTRERAS: Correct. That they are - it sort of gives a shout-out to the Pan-Latin interest in immigration and it's not just for, you know, people from those countries. Like we said, Mexico, Central and South America. I think a lot of Latinos across the country, no matter where they're from, are looking at these issues and that they are, in fact, making it part of this presidential election season, as they have in the past.


MARTIN: I would imagine, though, Felix, that even if you're from Puerto Rico, which is a part of the United States, and you moved to the mainland, there is still that experience of being distant from family if, in fact, you're leaving family. That feeling of, you know, the pain of separation, of being away from what it is that you know best and those closest to you. Are there a lot of songs about that, about the - kind of just the - I mean, this is a song about the difficulty of the journey, but are there songs just about how hard it is to leave those you love?

CONTRERAS: There's - there are quite a bit of songs. There are quite a few songs. And, in fact, given the Puerto Rican community, in the 1970s, the Salsa label Fania, they created a new brand of Afro-Cuban dance music and they called it Salsa. And a lot of those musicians were either from the island or their parents were from the island. So they had a - there was a lot of longing in a lot of those songs as well. So the golden age of Salsa was in fact a tribute to their new home in New York but with a little tinge of nostalgia for the Caribbean.

MARTIN: And I understand though, that you've got some songs from Juanes, who's one of the most prominent artists singing in Spanish.

CONTRERAS: Yeah. Right. The next track we brought in is features Juanes who is from Columbia. And it's from an album that he did with a band called Los Tigres Del Norte.


CONTRERAS: Which is a, I guess you could call it a Cojunta band, an accordion band - an accordion with a cowboy hat and a cowboy boots. It's very a reflection of the very traditional lifestyle of Mexico.


CONTRERAS: Los Tigres are like a combination of the Rolling Stones and The Who everybody else, very legendary Cojunta musicians from Mexico. And the way they write their songs is that after every show they spent hours talking to their fans afterwards and somebody's taking notes, so that whenever they get back and they hear the stories of triumph, of tragedy, of, you know, longing, those notes becomes songs.


CONTRERAS: So that's made them so popular with their fans. They...

MARTIN: It's like reporting.

CONTRERAS: Yeah. It's like straight reporting.

GARSD: This song is called to "La Jaula De Oro" or the "The Golden Cage."


GARSD: So this song was originally released in 1984 on an album that was also called "La Jaula De Oro." And they remade it last year as an MTV Unplugged, in which is Colombian superstar, Juanes, is featured. And it basically tells a story of a man who came to the United States. They used the word mojado, which would be...

CONTRERAS: Like wetback.

GARSD: Yeah. Translated to the word wetback. And he came illegally here. He has his children. He has his wife. And he has a comfortable life by the strap A, it his status situation and he really, really misses Mexico. But he also kind of knows that like so many immigrants who are here undocumented know that if they go back there is a chance they're not going to make it back in and they might regret that decision. And the lyrics say what good is money to me if I lived like a prisoner in this great nation when I remember I cry? Because even though the cage is made of gold, it's still a cage.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. (Unintelligible)

CONTRERAS: You know, and there's also alienation from society because he is trapped and kind of isolated. But also from his children because there is a reference in song about how his kids are losing the language and the culture because they didn't even born here or raised here from infancy. So the narrator is alienated from society in which he lives, he's longing for his home, and he's alienated from his own family.


MARTIN: What else do you have for us?

GARSD: I've got a Guatemalan singer whose name is Gaby Moreno. She's a very young singer and she's up-and-coming. And she's been compared to Edith Piaf and she has a very malleable voice. She's toured with Tracy Chapman, Ani DiFranco, and this is a beautiful song "Ave Que Emigra" or "Bird That Immigrates."



MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. On this Fourth of July, we are talking about songs that capture the experiences of immigrants, particularly people who've immigrated in recent times, many of whom are of Latino heritage. We're joined by Felix Contreras and Jasmine Garsd, co-host of NPR's all Alt Latino. That's an online show about Latin alternative music.

Felix, what else do you have for us? I mean I would imagine that the whole question of the legal status of immigrants is something that would be very top of the mind and would find its way into song.

CONTRERAS: It's very topical. And it's not always the case with immigrants but when it is it has been addressed in song. The first song we're going to play about the illegal status is by a gentleman by the name of Manu Chao, who is Spanish, born of parents who fled Spain in France. So he's got a very multi-cultural background and his music is very popular because it does take on political issues. This is a track called "Clandestine."


MARTIN: Hmm. So, Felix, tell us what he's saying.

CONTRERAS: The literal translation is, you know, I come here. I have to be clandestine. I come from another land and that are not legal.


CONTRERAS: It's very similar to some of the other songs that we played but in this case, he's also talking about immigrants in Europe, immigrants from African countries that come to these European countries. So his appeal is very broad-based because he is based in Europe and his crowds, his audiences across Latin America flocked to him for the obvious reasons for, you know, their own political situation, but he is incredibly popular in Europe right now too.

GARSD: He then really, as immigration songs go, this one is iconic. I mean this one is the immigration song.

CONTRERAS: Let's hear it.


MARTIN: And you have another one too.

CONTRERAS: This is a group called Outernational. They are a very young band. And this is a thing called "Todos Somos Ilegales," so we're all "We Are All Illegals."


CONTRERAS: It's an example of, you know, they're wearing their hearts on their sleeves. You know, there's no question about what it is that your point is or their mission.



GARSD: This is a song "Por Si Acaso No Regreso." "In Case I Don't Make It Back." And here's a sample of the lyrics, they say I always felt so joyful to have been born in your arms. And even though you are no longer here, I made you a piece of my heart just in case, just in case I don't make it back. And she's talking about Cuba.

MARTIN: Let's hear it.


MARTIN: Well, thanks for bringing us this music that continues to reflect the things that people are care about most, that they're thinking about most that's closets to their hearts. Before we let you go, you know, I have to put on the spot. Do each of you have a favorite? What are you going to be cranking on this 4th of July.

GARSD: Probably Celia.

MARTIN: Celia?

GARSD: I think she's the goddess. She's the queen? Felix, what about you? Are you going to be cranking anything in particular?

CONTRERAS: It'll either be Celia or Los Tigres, one or the other. Those two are -really strike home.

MARTIN: Felix Contreras and Jasmine Garsd are co-hosts of NPR's all Alt Latino. That's an online program about Latin alternative music. They brought songs about immigration on this 4th of July holiday. Thank you both so much for joining us, and happy 4th to you.

CONTRERAS: Thanks. Same to you. Thank you.

GARSD: It was a lot of fun. Thank you.

CONTRERAS: All right. Well, let's hear a little bit more Celia Cruz.


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.


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