Felix Contreras

Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering program about Latin Alternative music and Latino culture. It features music as well as interviews with many of the most well-known Latinx musicians, actors, filmmakers, and writers. He has hosted and produced Alt.Latino episodes from Mexico, Colombia, Cuba, and throughout the U.S. since the show started in 2010.

Previously, Contreras was a reporter and producer NPR's Arts Desk and, among other stories and projects, covered a series reported from Mexico on the musical movement called Latin Alternative; helped produce NPR's award-winning series 50 Great Voices; and reported a series of stories on the financial challenges aging jazz musicians face.

Contreras is a recovering television journalist who has worked for both NBC and Univision in Miami and California. He's a part-time musician who plays Afro-Cuban percussion with various jazz and Latin bands in the Washington, DC, area. He is also NPR Music's resident Deadhead.

When I presented Cimafunk at the Alt.Latino SXSW showcase last year, it was easily one of the most dynamic performances I had seen in more than ten years of attending the annual music festival. I couldn't wait to get them behind the Tiny Desk so the band could strut its intoxicating mix of Afro-Cuban dance music and 1970s funk-and-soul from the US.

There must be something in the water down in Austin, Texas, because as soon as Brownout started playing behind the Tiny Desk, it was pretty obvious that a deep musicality is just a fact of life for Austin bands.

When the crew that is Spanglish Fly pulled in behind the Tiny Desk, the group's vibrant version of boogaloo raised the temperature in the NPR Music offices quite a bit. Whether displaying their party spirit or even the slow burn of social consciousness on the song "Los Niños En La Frontera," this band plays from the heart and engages both the mind and body.

It's impossible to not be drawn in by the visual specter of Balún. The band has refined their electronic roots with their turn toward self-discovery on beautifully crafted studio albums, and this set behind the Tiny Desk shows how expertly they deliver the same meticulous, artful music live.

Their mix of traditional instruments with electronics creates not just a sonic treat but also a visual feast, as our eyes dart from one instrument to the other, drawn in by a Puerto Rican cuatro and a makeshift drum set.

When Los Lobos gathered behind the Tiny Desk, it felt like they were cramped in the back room of a family Christmas party. "The only thing missing today are the tamales!" I told my office mates while introducing the band, a reference to a Mexican-American Christmas meal staple. The vibe in the room was definitely familia, with the presence of many longtime fans as well as folks who came for the holiday cheer, Lobos style.

For just about fifteen minutes, the members of Rio Mira created a living and very melodic connection to Africa. Set behind a large marimba — and drums that are unique to their corner of the world — the members of the band performed music that is the legacy of enslaved people who were in both Ecuador and Colombia. Rio Mira takes its name from a river that separates Ecuador and Colombia and empties into the Pacific Ocean.

Something happens for me when I hear jazz mixing it up with Brazilian rhythms. In the right hands it falls into the realm of magic.

Pianist, multi-instrumentalist and composer Jovino Santos Neto certainly cast a spell over those who gathered for this joyful turn behind the Tiny Desk.

His trio rushed right out of the gate with the samba-influenced "Pantopé" that introduces the concept of the trio: seamless interaction between the musicians that make the band sound like one big, melodic rhythm machine.

It's no coincidence that the Tiny Desk concerts I've selected here all happened within a year of each other: There was a stretch when a huge rush of A-list Latinx artists passed through the D.C. area, allowing them an opportunity to stop off at Alt.Latino World Headquarters for a turn behind Bob Boilen's nearby desk.

Obviously, there's no way for this list to account for the dozens of performances by musicians working under the gigantic umbrella known as "Latin music" — that's why we'll explore more in future volumes.

Luz Elena Mendoza has such a far-reaching creative spirit that it's almost impossible to confine her to a single musical identity. Which is why she's one of just a handful of artists who've been invited back to the Tiny Desk to offer a revised musical vision.

There was a distinct feeling of history in the air when Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley took his place in our office with his band, and it wasn't just the legend behind his surname. For fifteen minutes, we were treated to the same socially relevant reggae that his father, legendary Jamaican reggae icon Bob Marley, made popular when he put the genre on the international music map.

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