A 2017 Latin Grammy Preview From 'Alt.Latino' A look ahead at the 18th annual Latin Grammy Awards.

A 2017 Latin Grammy Preview From 'Alt.Latino'

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Finally today, we're going to spend a few minutes celebrating Latin music. Now ostensively, that's because the 18th Latin Grammy Awards are coming up this Thursday, but if you think about it, actually, we've been celebrating Latin music all year because of this song.


LUIS FONSI: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTIN: "Despacito" recently hit the 4 billion - yes, that's billion with a B, billion - views on YouTube. And it spent a record 16 weeks at the number one spot on Billboard's Top 100 chart. But despite its popularity and influence, it's only up for two Latin Grammys. Felix Contreras of NPR's Alt Latino podcast is here to give us a preview of this Thursday's Latin Grammys and to tell us what all the "Despacito" thing's all about. Hi, Felix.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Hey, Michel. What's up?

MARTIN: OK. So why is "Despacito" only nominated for two Grammys?

CONTRERAS: OK. Like most things, it's complicated. OK. But part of the answer lies in the rapper Residente. He's the former frontman of Calle 13, and he got nine nominations. Now, while "Despacito" was incredibly popular across cultural backgrounds all over the world, really, at the end of the day, it's a pop song calculated to attract as many listeners as possible. It's well-crafted, for sure, but Residente's album was an amazingly creative exploration of identity and also zeroed in on social justice themes. And it used hip-hop as a base. It's a logical extension of his groundbreaking work with Calle 13.

MARTIN: OK. So let's listen to some of Residente's music.

CONTRERAS: OK. This is the track "Guerra" or "War."


RESIDENTE: (Rapping in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: The concept of the album, it was very simple. He took a DNA test a few years ago. And what he did was he went to the places where he had unlikely connections. He's from Puerto Rico, so there was obviously Africa, Spain, some of that stuff. But he went to places like the Caucasus in Eastern Europe, China as just two examples. And that track that we're listening to has a little bit of the music that comes from the Caucasus.


RESIDENTE: (Rapping in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: It's just hard to ignore how powerful of a musician and how strong a presence he is in the Latin music industry. And it's reflective of that creative force that is Residente.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk a little bit more about the Latin Grammys then because, frankly, that's the issue that some people have with the the non-Latin Grammys, if you would, is that they are all about pop. So are the Latin Grammys different? Do they have a different relationship with the marketplace, with artists than the other Grammys?

CONTRERAS: It's more or less the same, you know. Usually, there is an emphasis on pop music. They have over - I think it's 48 categories, so there's a lot of different ways to dig into different stuff. But, you know, the top four or five categories are always reflective of pop music. I think overall, though, I think some of the Academy members in the Latin Recording Academy are a little bit more adventurous.

And I think that because the musicians these days are breaking down barriers, they're ignoring, like, well, if I'm making music in Argentina, there's no reason why I can't use electronic from Berlin, right? That's the nature of what's going on now. And I think the Academy members absorb some of this, and some of the nominations reflect that. And I think it has been for a couple of years.

MARTIN: Well, tell us more, if you would, about some of the nominees that you've got your eye on.

CONTRERAS: OK. There's a whole bunch. But about six years ago, I heard a vocalist named Danay Suarez. Now, she has an intoxicating mix of hip-hop, soul and Cuban music. And in March, she released her second album. It's called "Palabras Manuales." And I'm knocked out how much she has matured and developed. I've been able to track her and watch her, meet her, talk to her a few times. We had her on the show.

And when this album came out, I thought, well, it's a great record for an under-the-radar artist. But then it gets four nominations, including Album of The Year and Best New Artist. So, you know, it's almost like I'm extremely happy. It's not almost like - I am, I'm really happy to see her get that recognition because she's a favorite, and I really like what she does.

MARTIN: Well, let's hear some of it.

CONTRERAS: This is the title track. This is "Palabras Manuales."


DANAY SUAREZ: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTIN: It's jazzy. It's definitely distinctive.

CONTRERAS: There's so much on the record. She does a duet with Stephen Marley that's straight-ahead reggae but with a Cuban flair. And then there's also a straight-up swing tune that she does on the album. She's so diverse and so versatile.


SUAREZ: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTIN: So I understand that you are heading to Las Vegas to cover the Latin Grammys. Is this your first time?

CONTRERAS: Yes, it is.

MARTIN: Why is this your first time? Why do you want to go? Well, we all want to go, so who are we kidding, but...

CONTRERAS: I think it's mostly because, you know, it has been so pop-oriented with just a few of our Latin alternative artists along the way. But this year, there were so many, especially people like Danay Suarez, who we've covered, Residente, who like sort of defies - he's pop, not really pop, but he's so popular, but he's also an alternative. There were enough people that represented on our show, I thought I should go.

MARTIN: And who are you wearing?

CONTRERAS: If I give it away now, it's not going to be a surprise, right? I do have a spot on the red carpet to do some interviews.

MARTIN: OK. So before we let you go, so out of all of the artists nominated for a Latin Grammy, who should we go out on?

CONTRERAS: OK. There's a group called Flor De Toloache. They are an all-female mariachi out of New York, and we've played them on the show. They play traditional, but they mix and soul and other styles. And they're nominated for Best Rancheros/Mariachi Album for their record "Las Caras Lindas." They're, again, some alt-Latino favorites that we've been championing because I really like their music so much. So I think we should go out on them.

MARTIN: All right. Well, thank you so much for coming. Have a great time in Las Vegas. We don't want to read about you except in the news pages, you know.

CONTRERAS: I'll be good.

MARTIN: What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

CONTRERAS: I'll behave.

MARTIN: But we don't want to read about you, just being clear on that. OK. That's NPR's Felix Contreras. He is the host of Alt Latino. That's NPR Music's weekly podcast of Latino arts and culture. Felix, thank you.

CONTRERAS: Thanks, Michel.

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