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The best Latin music entries to this year's Tiny Desk Contest

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This year, NPR Music got nearly 7,000 entries in our Tiny Desk Contest - the 10th annual Tiny Desk contest, by the way - and the winner was the California-based band The Philharmonik with a tune titled "What's It All Mean?"

(SOUNDBITE OF TINY DESK CONCERT)

THE PHILHARMONIK: (Singing) What's it all mean? What's it all mean? What's it all mean? What's it all mean? What's it all mean? What's is all mean?

KELLY: So good. But the judges also heard so many other really good entries. And so, this month, we want to share as many as we can with you. Here in the studio with me to help me do that is Felix Contreras, host of NPR's Alt.Latino podcast. Hi, Felix.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Hey there. What's happening?

KELLY: A lot. And, apparently, you're going to lay some more on me. You have brought us your favorite entries this year from Latin bands. So start by just - let's define the terms - because people hear Latin music, they think music in Spanish, but there's a whole world out there.

CONTRERAS: This is something we talk about on the show all the time. It's impossible to define Latin music. It just combines so many different things. So what we do is just sort of parse it out into the different genres and styles...

KELLY: OK.

CONTRERAS: ...That are sung in Spanish. And the number of amazing videos that we received reinforces what we're always talking about - that the term is just inadequate to reflect the width and breadth of expression of musicians with cultural musical ties to Latin America, the Caribbean and Spain.

KELLY: OK. So having teed us up that this is impossible...

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: ...Where are we going to start?

CONTRERAS: OK. First up is a song called "Taza De Cafe" - or "Cup Of Coffee" - from the vocalist Cathia. She's from the Bronx, of Central American heritage. Her family's from El Salvador. She attended a performing arts school in New York then placed in the top 20 during the fourth season of the TV show "The Voice." And you can hear why - 'cause when I first heard her video, I heard a fully developed voice working its way around a very well-written song. Check it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "TAZA DE CAFE - TINY DESK SUBMISSION 2024")

CATHIA: (Singing in Spanish).

KELLY: Felix, you just described Cathia as - how did you put it? - a fully developed voice. Tell me what about this performance stands out to you.

CATHIA: It's the way that she approaches the music. You know, she's part of a movement in Latin America embracing old-school R&B - soul singing - and that's what I hear. And sometimes they offer a cultural spin. Like, in this case, you know, she has the kind of vocal chops that I'm used to since I am of a certain age.

KELLY: (Laughter).

CONTRERAS: I grew up with soul singers, right (laughter)?

KELLY: A wonderful age, yes - go on.

CONTRERAS: And there were a whole bunch of other people who entered. But, you know, Cathia stood out to me - and also because of her video because it takes place in this Latin coffee shop with all the trappings of a local cafe - the whole package. That's what made her stand out.

KELLY: We talked about the huge umbrella that is Latin music. Are you going to take us somewhere totally different next? Cumbia - check it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "FLACO EL JANDRO - LLUVIA PESADA (NPR TINY DESK CONTEST 2024")

FLACO EL JANDRO: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: OK. This is a band called Flaco El Jandro. And they're from Watsonville, Salinas area, in California - on the central coast between Santa Cruz and Monterey. You know, one thing to know, cumbia is a Colombian folk rhythm and style that has its roots in the slave trade of the 19th century. While it started in Colombia, it's become one of the few musical traditions that's been embraced by countries all over Latin America, all over the Spanish-speaking world. The Argentines have their own version. The Peruvians psychedalicized and electrified the Cumbia in the 1960s. And what's happening now is that young folks are taking on old-school cumbia like we're hearing right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "FLACO EL JANDRO - LLUVIA PESADA (NPR TINY DESK CONTEST 2024")

FLACO EL JANDRO: (Singing in Spanish).

KELLY: Felix, pull back the curtain on one thing. The judges in this contest - what are they listening for?

CONTRERAS: They listen to all kinds of things. And first of all, I got to say, I'm glad I'm not one of the judges...

KELLY: (Laughter).

CONTRERAS: ...'Cause I would - I want to give everyone a chance to do it, right? But it's that one little esoteric thing. What is it? It's a combination of charisma, personality, performance, material - any number of things that make the song, the performance pop. And there could be three or four or five things that pop. So I've heard these conversations. We got to winnow it down. I'm glad it's them and not me.

KELLY: All right. You've established your neutrality. But just tell me, like, between us, what was your actual favorite from the Latin entries this year?

CONTRERAS: The one that stood out the most to me was Mireya Ramos.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "MIREYA RAMOS AND THE POOR CHOICES (LIVE FROM GREENWOOD HALL - KANSAS CITY) - TINY DESK ENTRY 2024")

MIREYA RAMOS: (Singing in Spanish).

KELLY: Ah, it's gorgeous.

CONTRERAS: OK. Mireya Ramos is a special situation, and she stood out to me because she has been part of the Tiny Desk already with her band, Flor de Toloache. And those young women in that band have these amazing voices that are perfect for the kind of operatic mariachi approach to rancheras. And for her solo shot at this, she teamed up with a band called the Poor Choices. So it's Mireya Ramos and the Poor Choices, and it's a mix of mariachi and Americana - kind of a country thing. And you hear later on in the song where it's just full-blown mariachi, but it's almost a country thing behind it. Check it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "MIREYA RAMOS AND THE POOR CHOICES (LIVE FROM GREENWOOD HALL - KANSAS CITY) - TINY DESK ENTRY 2024")

MIREYA RAMOS: (Singing in Spanish).

KELLY: What I would give to be able to sing like that...

CONTRERAS: Right?

KELLY: ...In any language.

CONTRERAS: Right.

KELLY: This has been so lovely, Felix. I want you to send us out on one last pick - one last thing.

CONTRERAS: OK. There was a band called Los Quinceaneros. They're from Southern California. They're song's called "Guero," and it's a mix of cumbia, 1960s surf guitar, hard-core punk vocals and a gloriously cheesy video with the guys wearing these collegiate kind of cardigan sweaters and folk cowboy jackets. I loved it because of the irreverence. These guys are having fun making music, and that's really what it's all about. That's what we forget about when we're competing, we're doing all this stuff. Like, where's the joy? And these guys brought the joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "LOS QUINCEANEROS - GUERO (TINY DESK ENTRY)")

LOS QUINCEANEROS: Hey, ho, hey, ho, hey, ho, hey, ho...

KELLY: Felix Contreras, all the joy - not a judge...

(LAUGHTER).

KELLY: ...Co-host of NPR's Alt.Latino podcast, where you can hear a full episode wrapping up even more of his favorite Latin music entries to this year's Tiny Desk Contest. Thank you, Felix.

CONTRERAS: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: And we will hear more contest entries throughout the month right here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "LOS QUINCEANEROS - GUERO (TINY DESK ENTRY)")

LOS QUINCEANEROS: Hey, ho, hey, ho... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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