NPR’s ‘Alt.Latino’ Celebrates Culture Through New Music


Masters of the Latin alternative music radio world Felix Contreras and Jasmine Garsd are blowing up the airwaves. The hosts of NPR’s Alt.Latino talked about blending folk traditions with contemporary sounds and who’s tuning in.

What are your musical backgrounds?

Felix Contreras: My grandparents were from Mexico. And though both of my parents were born here, they still listened to lots of Mexican music, mostly corridos and mariachi. I was fascinated by that early-’90s explosion of bands from Mexico: Maldita Vecindad, Caifanes, Cafe Tacuba. That new interpretation of Mexican sensibilities found a place in me, and I embraced it completely.

Jasmine Garsd: I’m from Buenos Aires, Argentina. My grandfather was kind of a player. He’d go dancing in tango clubs until he was well into his 70s, while my grandma would stay home and belt out boleros at the top of her lungs. As a trained gymnast and dancer, I started out being really into pop and dance music; for four to five hours a day, I would listen to music with my body, and I think that shows still in my musical tastes today. One day when I was a very young kid, I walked into a store to buy a pair of black tights, and I heard the Sex Pistols for the first time. It was like I had been struck by lightning.

How and why did you start Alt.Latino?

Garsd:I was fresh out of college, working as a producer with NPR’s Tell Me More. There was this dude I’d always run into at the vending machine. We’d talk about bands, and we shared a sense of humor; we were always cracking each other up. His name was Felix Contreras, and he really knew his stuff. More importantly, he shared with me a feeling that there needed to be more Latin programming on our airwaves. One day I said, “We should tape a podcast.” We both started jumping up and down in excitement.

How would you describe the style of music?

Contreras:A mash-up of Latin folk traditions with contemporary sounds like electronica, hip-hop, rock and dance music.

Garsd:It’s quintessentially Latin: A little bit of everything—stuff your parents listened to, stuff you listen to—mashed up.

If this type of music is characterized by diversity, what unifies it? What makes this “a sound” and not just a bunch of songs that happen to be made by Latinos?

Contreras:The unifying sensibility is the rejection of things as they have been done in favor of exploring new ways to express yourself with a respect for the past. It’s very much like the advice given to young jazz musicians: “In order to break the rules, you have to know what the rules are first.”

How is this music reflective of the world today?

Contreras:What’s called Latin Alternative now is a reflection of a pan-Latino sensibility—things like mixed marriages (Colombian/Cuban, Mexican/Puerto Rican, for example) that are changing the character of the Latino demographic. The mashing of cultures is reflected in the mash-ups of musical genres. If politicians want to know how this huge block of young Latinos thinks, they should listen to this music—and our show!

Why does Alt.Latino matter?

Garsd: Alt.Latino matters because Latinos matter, and because we aren’t getting our due. Latin culture is so varied, so rich. But if you look at the media landscape, the little attention we do get tends to be this really reductive, simplified, often stereotyped version of Latin culture. That is changing, and we’re excited to be part of it. We love focusing both on what unites us as Hispanics, and what makes us a really varied group that is hard to categorize.

Who is going to have his or her world most rocked by your show?

Garsd:Probably people who are looking for a more thoughtful, accurate representation of Latinos. I have had young people tell me they really appreciate the depth of the show and finally feeling like there’s a voice to represent them. I am also just as thrilled when I hear from a retired Jewish lady in the Midwest who doesn’t speak Spanish but says she loves us.

Contreras:Given my age, 54, I tend to think of my age group when doing our shows. I don’t think Latino Baby Boomers believe that anything can rock our musical worlds anymore. And I always tell anyone who will listen that I have not been this excited about musical discovery since 1972, when I was discovering jazz, rock, classical music and various ethnic musics. I mean, what some of these young Tejanos are doing with Flaco Jimenez’s music would blow your mind!

What do you like to do when you listen to this music?

Garsd:I listen to music when I exercise and when I go dancing. People who listen to the show know Felix is more in charge of bringing the mellow music to the table.

Contreras:I like to listen when I work out. But mostly I discover the intricacies of the music by tapping along to the beats that I hear. As a musician, this is another level of discovery.

–Courtesy of USA Today

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