Women Are Instrumental To Latin Music : Alt.Latino We dive back in time to understand the roles women have occupied in Latin music, and look forward at the artists blazing new trails — pushing progress for both female instrumentalism and the entirety of Latin music.

Women Are Instrumental To Latin Music

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FELIX CONTRERAS, HOST:

From NPR Music, this is ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras. We are right in the middle of International Women's Month. So let the celebration continue.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA VIDA ES UN CARNAVAL")

CELIA CRUZ: (Singing) Todo aquel que piense que la vida es desigual tiene que saber que no es así, que la vida es una hermosura. Hay que vivirla.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUMITO DE COPAL")

LILA DOWNS: (Singing) Llevan tus palabras, palabras con alas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMO LA FLOR")

SELENA: (Singing) Como la flor con tanto amor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEÑORITA")

CAMILA CABELLO: (Singing) I love it when you call me señorita.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORD SCRATCH)

CONTRERAS: But let's do things a little differently this time. Here's ALT.LATINO intern Anamaria Sayre to explain what we're going to do this week. Anamaria, welcome to ALT.LATINO.

ANAMARIA SAYRE, BYLINE: Thank you, Felix. While we love our vocal powerhouses, we wanted to turn our attention in a different direction this week - female instrumentalists.

CONTRERAS: So we're going to hear from a jazz saxophonist...

(SOUNDBITE OF MELISSA ALDANA'S "VISIONS")

CONTRERAS: ...A lead electric guitarist...

(SOUNDBITE OF ELJURI SONG, "NUNCA VOLVERÉ")

CONTRERAS: ...A Mexican folk multi-instrumentalist...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CARTA")

SILVANA ESTRADA: (Vocalizing).

CONTRERAS: ...A woman who plays a Venezuelan folk instrument...

(SOUNDBITE OF SILVINA MORENO SONG, "ESPERANZA")

CONTRERAS: ...And a woman from Spain who plays the Galician bagpipe in a jazz setting.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRISTINA PATO'S "SAETA/PAN PIPER")

SAYRE: Latin music - well, pretty much all music - is dominated by men. So we know there's no shortage of challenges women have to go through to step out from behind the mic and make a name for themselves as instrumentalists. We wanted to understand female instrumentalism in the past, the present and the implications of its growth for both music and la cultura in the future. So we sat down with four very impressive instrumentalists to give us some insight into this new era of music we're currently living in. We also invited a historian to give us some context and a historical perspective.

CONTRERAS: First up, let's meet Silvina Moreno, an instrumentalist and vocalist from Argentina, someone I met at South by Southwest a few years ago and whose knowledge of Argentine folk music really impressed me. Here's Silvina.

SILVINA MORENO: Hello, I'm Silvina Moreno from Argentina, and this is ALT.LATINO.

One of the challenges I've encountered as a female in this male-dominated industry is this subtle underestimation by certain men or, in some cases, women as well regarding mainly my musicality or my music business abilities. In an old-fashion mentality, when you show up somewhere with a guitar or any instrument for that matter, it is assumed that you either are not a very good instrumentalist or that you have a male companion who will play your instrument for you, especially if you're a singer. I think it's funny when this happens. But sometimes I've been congratulated because I knew how to play guitar pretty well. And I've seen people go, like, oh, wow, you're actually a pretty good player, meaning for a girl. And that's crazy to hear. So someone with a chauvinistic mentality can quickly assume that if you're a female singer, you probably don't know much about music theory or music history or how to play an instrument or the music business, for example.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRANCES APARICIO: Women have to break boundaries. They have to carve a path, right? They have to do what they have to do to be able to make themselves well known and visible enough to be part of the industry.

SAYRE: This is professor Frances Aparicio speaking, a professor emerita of Spanish and Portuguese studies and the former director of the Latino, Latina studies program at Northwestern University. She sat down with us to give us some more context on the history of female instrumentalism in Latin music.

APARICIO: In other traditions - if you think, for example, about classical music, about orchestras, piano, vocals - most women are also seen mostly as singers. And so there seems to be less participation of Latinas in the performing of instruments and particular instruments as such. So it's safer to have women play the piano. It's safer to have women trained as classical musicians - right? - play in orchestras. It's not as safe to have women play the trombone, for example, in a salsa band coming from New York. So I think it is interesting to think through and think about what are those differences. And I think part of what I learned in my scholarship was that instruments also have social meanings. We also associate particular instruments with particular social classes, with particular communities, sometimes with geographical areas.

And I think it is important to think - for example, if we think about the piano, so many young Latina women are training piano playing or in violin - right? - because those are sort of the two instruments that are more classic, and they're safer for women, for young women. This is very much part of the tradition going back to, you know, 18th, 19th century. You think about women at home in the domestic sphere playing the piano because that was one of the few skills that they could learn. And it was beautiful. It was the thing to do for the señoritas. But again, that was not the same if you had them play the percussion. How come we don't have so many more women playing drums - right? - or doing the percussive elements in any kind of band or ensemble? So I think, like, there's something to be said about what instruments you're talking about and what is the lack of access or access to these instruments based on social tradition.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONTRERAS: OK, next up, meet Cecilia Eljuri. She's a very talented guitarist who's subverting expectations using an instrument she loves with power and purpose.

ELJURI: Hola, my name is Eljuri. I'm from Ecuador, and I live in New York City. I'm a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist and an activist. My favorite instrument is guitar - la guitarra. Navigating in the male-dominated music world has presented some obstacles over the years. In my experience, touring internationally - let me share a situation that happens in just about every city and country I've performed in. You show up to sound check. It doesn't matter if it's a small venue or big festival. And the sound engineer, almost always male, asks if I'm the lead singer. And I say, yes, and then kind of looks past me and ask, who's the guitarist? And I say, that's me, looks past me again and said, OK, who's the lead guitarist? And I say, that's me too. They're almost always a bit surprised. And then they get a little condescending and say, do you need help on how to use the amp? - and tell me what I need. So I turn that right around very professionally and tell them exactly what I need from them for my setup the way I like it. Then you proceed to let your solos do the talking. After sound check, attitudes in the room change drastically, and I get the respect.

SAYRE: Cecilia Eljuri goes by just her last name. Check out her guitar work on this next track, "Nunca Volveré."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NUNCA VOLVERÉ")

ELJURI: (Singing) Es un mundo que está lleno, lleno de confusión, caminando y buscando en la desolación (vocalizing). Sigo adelante y nunca imaginé, nunca volveré. Sigo adelante, y nunca volveré, nunca volveré. Sigo adelante, y nunca imaginé, nunca volveré. Sigo adelante, y nunca volveré. (Vocalizing) Es un lago congelado sin embarcación. Me quede encallada sin tripulación (vocalizing). Sigo adelante, y nunca imaginé, nunca volveré. Sigo adelante, y nunca volveré, nunca volveré. Sigo adelante, y nunca imaginé, nunca volveré. Sigo adelante, y nunca volveré. (Vocalizing) Sigo adelante, y nunca imaginé, nunca volveré. Sigo adelante, y nunca volveré, nunca vovleré. Sigo adelante, y nunca imaginé, nunca volveré. Sigo adelante, y nunca volveré (vocalizing). (Singing) nunca volveré (vocalizing).

SAYRE: The experiences of these women are varied and nuanced and shaped by a lot more than our expectations. Here's Melissa Aldana, a Chilean saxophone player offering her perspective on what she feels has been a general absence of sexist obstacles in her career.

MELISSA ALDANA: Hi, everyone. This is Melissa Aldana. I personally feel I haven't encountered as many situations. But also, one of the reason is because there has been very important female instrumentalists, musicians, that have paved the way for me to be here these days and not have to deal with these issues. At the same time, I'm very aware there's a lot of things that are - were normalized for me that are not. And I think that that is one of the biggest issues that we're having these days.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SAYRE: Here's the professor again discussing the narratives we've lost and the ones we are taught to believe.

APARICIO: I think it is important to recognize that that logic of exceptionalism for women is really not true. It's not factually true, that in fact, there have been a lot of women figures participating in Latino music or Latin popular music in all different types of genres and traditions but that the historiography, the media and pretty much the way we document this music has not given them, you know, their place - right? - in the map. And so what I find interesting - there's been a number of historical books now that are trying to recover precisely, you know, the participation of women in Latino popular music. In my own work, I talked a lot, too, about the importance of La Lupe, who was the Cuban singer, too, who was a little bit more controversial - right? - because of her performances but who, next to Celia, really opened up also, you know, the spaces for salsa music to develop in the early years.

The other thing I wanted to mention about, you know, different instruments and different social meanings to the instruments is that even if you have a particular instrument, too, that may be considered safe or neutral or, you know, appropriate for women, like the violin, if you're classically trained - I had a student - a former Latina student some years ago who actually was a wonderful violinist. And she performed classical music. She was trained in orchestras in her youth. And then when she came to college, she became a feminist and dismantled everything that she had been taught. And she found herself playing in a queer feminist multiracial group called Cabrona, which was a punk music. So she used her violin in the tradition of punk. And that was a very different type of performance that actually was more radical, more alternative, and it expressed who she was at the moment. So I think that we can't just say it's just the instrument, but it's also what do you do with that instrument, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONTRERAS: Now meet Silvana Estrada.

ESTRADA: Hi, my name is Silvana Estrada. I'm a singer-songwriter from Veracruz, Mexico. I grew up in a house full of music. My mom - she's a clarinet player. And my dad - he's a double bass player. But they are actually also violin-makers. My mom - she does violins and violas. And my dad - double basses and cellos. So I grew up in this house also full of instruments and also full of musicians, and I think that's how I learned that music is a beautiful way of living and a beautiful way of feel happy and just to find what do you want to be in this world. Even if you don't do it professionally, I feel like music - it's so important to find your own voice and your own personality.

I remember I was really young when I started to learn how to play the piano and the violin and the trumpet. But, like, eight years ago or something like that, I discovered the cuatro venezolano, which is a beautiful, beautiful instrument from Venezuela. I just completely fell in love with this instrument, and it's the instrument where I compose most of my music. And I feel really, really happy just to be just an artist growing and learning every day how to just be better at playing and creating and thinking and singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CARTA")

ESTRADA: (Singing) Yo sé que eres libre de irte, como también de quedarte hasta que afinemos gestos y olvidarnos del lenguaje. Que baste con la mirada para decir que te quiero. Que baste con un suspiro para descifrar tus miedos. Quizá por eso te vas. Quizá por eso regresas - por la nueva seriedad insoportable que nos aterra. Por eso este mantenerle, olvido a la soledad. Pero es que cuando nos vamos, los dos volteamos atrás. Y puede que eso sea cierto y un día también me iré, que el amor no dura un siglo y el río no corre al revés. Y puede que se equivoquen y el miedo nos juegue mal, y por ahorrarnos dolores el viento nos deje atrás (vocalizing).

CONTRERAS: Silvana is the first Latin artist signed to Glassnote, a big-deal record label in the indie music world. And in her own way, she's become a representative for all Latin artists, not just women.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CARTA")

ESTRADA: (Singing) A mis labios que ahora te nombran, queditos para no afrontar, que yo te propongo un trato porque ya no puedo más con este constante intento de huir para regresar.

CONTRERAS: While she's leading with vocals, she's the first Latin artist signed to Glassnote, a big-deal label in the indie music world. So she's already leading the way, acting as a representative for all Latin artists, not just women.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CARTA")

ESTRADA: (Singing) Dejar las armas en paz, dar sentido al movimiento de un paso que no va atrás, y puede que eso sea cierto y un día también me iré, que el amor no dura un siglo y el río no corre al revés. Y puede que se equivoquen y el miedo nos juegue mal, y por ahorrarnos dolores el viento nos deje atrás. Y puede que eso sea cierto y un día también me iré, que el amor no dura un siglo y el río no corre al revés. Y puede que se equivoquen y el miedo nos juegue mal, y por ahorrarnos dolores el viento nos deje atrás, nos deje atrás, nos deje atrás.

SAYRE: Our final instrumentalist, Cristina Pato, points us towards the future. She plays the Galician bagpipe in a jazz setting. And her childhood was a space where gender had no bearing on the idea of musical talent or skill. You either have it, or you don't.

CRISTINA PATO: My mother comes from a big family. Her family consisted of 10 sisters and two brothers, but only six of them survived childhood - six sisters. And I am the youngest of four sisters, and everything I have become is because they were there before me. Growing up, in my mind and in my home, there wasn't such a thing as a female something. We were just people doing what we loved doing. And written history is filled with untold stories, and I always felt that I was incredibly lucky to have all those references at home. The women of my life, the women I admire, gave me the strength and the resilience to pursue my path in whatever I felt passionate about. And I feel indebted to all of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRISTINA PATO'S "SAETA/PAN PIPER")

APARICIO: When you think about history, you have to think about these things long term. They're not processes that happen overnight. But again, with every younger generation, you begin to see women feeling more comfortable exploring what their interests are and their passion. And sometimes they end up having access to an instrument that they had not planned on - right? - as musicians. And sometimes musicians play different instruments. They don't always play one. So I think that there is something to be said about the fact that there are more women out there feeling the freedom to think about other instruments, the fact that we may have more women teachers and mentors available now for them in music schools and so on.

There are still challenges. Therefore, I don't want to say, you know, we've made it there in terms of people having free access and the freedom to do that. But I think we are at a different moment right now than we were, for example, even in the '80s - now because there's more acknowledgement, and I think because we have also important feminist projects. For example, we think about mariachi music - right? - as something that has been always male-led and exclusively for men. But, no, we have now all these mariachi bands that are all women - right? - in California and Texas, the Southwest, and Mexico, right? So I think that there are certain musical traditions that have been pretty much transformed by women participating in it. So I think that things have changed, definitely. And I do feel optimistic about the fact that we will begin to see more different instrumentalists playing in different types of ensembles.

PATO: I feel like trying to be the better version of myself is the best contribution that I can do regarding this issue. I think that having a strong mold is something very, very important. And in my case, I just try to focus on the music and stay strong with what I want to say as an artist.

ELJURI: The good news is that there's a positive shift for the better, and I do feel and see that. I want to encourage women to be leaders. Be confident with your talent, and own your power.

MORENO: I've encountered these types of mentalities in certain people, thankfully not in everyone. And I have seen it less and less nowadays. I hope I don't have to run into people who think like this anymore and that future female artists don't feel like they need to face this kind of sexism ever again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ESPERANZA")

MORENO: (Singing) Se terminó. Caen las hojas sin compasión. Esa mañana que diluvió llevaste tus cosas y entre ellas, mi corazón.

SAYRE: Thank you so much for joining us as we hopped around the globe to check in with women making a difference in their communities and in the larger music industry. Our thanks again to Cristina Pato, Silvana Estrada, Melissa Aldana, Silvina Moreno, Cecilia Eljuri and professor Frances Aparicio. And thank you to all women who make music meaningful - instrumentalists, vocalists and everyone in between.

CONTRERAS: And thank you, Anamaria Sayre, for joining in on the podcast this week. Ana is also the curator of our weekly new music playlists on both Spotify and Apple Music, so be sure to check those out. And she's also been doing the amazing sound design work on the last few ALT.LATINO podcasts. So thank you so much for that as well. You can hear the music of all the artists that we featured this week on our website at npr.org/alt.latino. We're going to close out this week's show with some music from Silvina Moreno and her track called "Esperanza."

You have been listening to ALT.LATINO from NPR Music. I'm Felix Contreras. Thank you so much for listening, and please be careful out there, folks. Mask up. Keep your distance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ESPERANZA")

MORENO: (Singing) Soy un desastre en olvidar. Es el sonido de tu andar. Y me ausento por un momento. Solo quiero saber si todavía queda un poco de amor, si todavía existe una ilusión, si me estás olvidando o extrañando. Solo quiero saber si todavía queda un poco de amor, si todavía existe alguna ilusión de que te encuentre un día y te vuelva a dar mi corazón.

AGARRATE CATALINA: (Singing) Esperanza, tengo un poco de esperanza. Solo un poco, no hace nada. Vivo por esta esperanza, un poco de esperanza. Esperanza, tengo un poco de esperanza. Solo un poco, no hace nada. Vivo por esta esperanza, un poco de esperanza.

MORENO: (Singing) Solo quiero saber si todavía queda un poco de amor, si todavía existe alguna ilusión, si me estás olvidando o extrañando. Solo quiero de saber si todavía queda un poco de amor, si todavía existe alguna ilusión de que te encuentre un día y te vuelva. Esperanza, tengo un poco de esperanza. Solo un poco, no hace nada. Vivo por esta esperanza, un poco de esperanza, esperanza.

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