Felix Contreras | KGOU
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Felix Contreras

Two South American countries have been in the news a lot lately. Venezuela's economy has collapsed in a political crisis and in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, the country's new far-right president, has made racist comments and been accused of stoking anti-gay violence. For musicians in both those countries, the news is affecting their work.

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NPR Music's Alt.Latino podcast recently released its year-end list of 2018's best songs and albums. Along the way, the team has done some reading and deep thinking about a trend that started in 2017 has only gained momentum: In the world of streaming music services, Latin artists have been cleaning up.

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.


It starts with one of the best known guitar riffs in rock and roll. What follows is a down-home ode to the state that is known as the heart of Dixie: folksy colloquialisms, eternal blue skies, family. Pretty simple, right? Maybe not.

Musician Jerry González has cut a swashbuckling path in his over four decades of playing music. He was a double threat on both trumpet and congas who came of age in The Bronx learning to play in the time-honored tradition of wood shedding with albums of his heroes.

We all knew vocalist Rubén Blades knew his way around the clave, the rhythmic pattern that propels the Afro-Cuban dance music he's known for.

But I bet you didn't know he could swing a big band jazz tune with an easy flair that recalls past masters like Mel Tormé, Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra.

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Let's remember this morning how Havana sounded back in the 1950s and 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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It's been quite the week. Many people have taken to social media to express not only their opinions of recent political news but also a sense of emotional exhaustion. Alt.Latino's Felix Contreras joins me now. Felix, welcome. And are you feeling exhausted?

When the 10 members of Tower of Power were in place behind Bob Boilen's desk, strategically positioned around the band's famous five-piece horn section, their first collective blast three beats into the sound check literally made the video crew jump. It was more a force of nature than a sound, and an impressive display of the "five fingers operating as one hand" concept of band cohesiveness.

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Joe Jackson, patriarch of the legendary Jackson family, which included Michael and Janet Jackson, has died, the estate of Michael has confirmed in a statement. No cause of death was given, though he had reportedly been diagnosed with cancer.

Officially, Joe Jackson was a band manager, taking five of his sons from a locally celebrated pop vocal group in Gary, Ind., in the mid-1960s to international acclaim, acting as the launchpad to superstardom for his son Michael. Their paths, however, would be revealed through the decades as ones paved in checkers.

Fifty years ago, Johnny Cash performed at Folsom State Prison in Folsom, Calif. The January 1968 concert and live album it produced, At Folsom Prison, helped revitalize Cash's career, inspiring him to testify for prison reform and cementing his reputation as a voice for the downtrodden.

I am not ashamed to admit it: I was overcome with emotion a few moments after entering Areito Estudio Ciento Uno (Areito Studio 101) inside the EGREM recording complex in the center of Havana, Cuba.

What are the holidays without Charlie Brown?

Nowadays, the quietly elegant and celebratory recordings by pianist Vince Guaraldi have become as much a part of the holidays as the sound of unwrapping presents. And every year we are treated to at least one interpretation of that classic Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack by one of the pianists on NPR's A Jazz Piano Christmas. This year is no exception.

Activist, hero, rebel, icon; those are just of the few of the adjectives often used in front of Dolores Huerta's name. They are well-deserved — for her part as a co-founder of a '60s labor movement, standing up for the rights of farm workers in this country, Dolores Huerta was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in May of 2012.

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(SOUNDBITE OF MANUEL GARCIA-OROZCO AND MAYTE MONTERO SONG, "OYE MI MAMA (AFROBEAT) [FEAT. AIFF])

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

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