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Cruising Through Caribbean Music

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As part of Hispanic Heritage Month, Tell Me More is offering a weekly series on Latin music with guests Felix Contreras and Jasmine Garsd, hosts of NPR Music's Alt.Latino podcast. They've been sharing new music releases from across Latin America and Spain.

This week, they explore the sounds of the Caribbean.

Contreras says the African influence there on culture and music is unmistakable.

"In that part of the world, and in the rest of Latin America, the slaves were allowed to keep their drums, basically. And in the U.S., they were not. So all that polyrhythmic propulsion and all that stuff propels that music," says Contreras.

Garsd says the region is also known for its salsa and merengue music.

A classic, iconic example of salsa is the song "Anacaona" by the band Fania All Stars. The track is part of the recently re-released 1972 documentary titled Our Latin Thing, which is about the small, independent record label Fania.

"They [Fania] started updating these traditional Afro-Cuban and Afro-Puerto Rican dance forms that were kind of old people's music," says Contreras. "These young Puerto Rican, Dominicans, Cubans – they were all based in New York, and they came in and gave it a very New York attitude. It was hip, it was young. They sparkled it with jazz arrangements. "

Along with the documentary, the two-volume album Live at the Cheetah has also been re-mastered and re-released. The CDs feature live performances of some of salsa's biggest names: Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, Johnny Pacheco and Celia Cruz.

Garsd says that now, classic salsa and merengue are being mixed with techno and electronica.

She calls attention to rising star Rita Indiana, who started her career as an author, then became an actress and pioneer in techno merengue.

"She has almost a cult following in the Caribbean," says Garsd. "She is an openly lesbian woman who plays a lot with her sexuality, and you think of, kind of like a Caribbean Lady Gaga – although she hates being called that."

Garsd also discusses Maluca, a Dominican-American from New York who's lighting up dance floors with her electronica rhymes. She's also on the celebrated record label Mad Decent.

In addition to new music, Contreras says that the Caribbean is still inspiring artists who maintain strong connections to their roots, such as the Creole Choir of Cuba. These musicians from eastern Cuba are of Haitian descent, and they came together in 1994 to reclaim their history through music.

"They are singing songs of freedom, songs of lament, all these different aspects of Haitian history — based on it being the first African Republic," says Contreras.

What Caribbean musicians – classic and new – have you been listening to?

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