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Within SXSW, A Smaller, Latino Conference Has Something To Say About America

Mar 17, 2017
Originally published on March 20, 2017 7:21 am

The annual South by Southwest conference is in full swing in Austin, Texas, where thousands of musicians go in hopes of making the right connections for their big break. The number of bands from Latin America and from Latino communities has increased so much that organizers have created a mini-conference within the larger festival. It's called SXAmericas and Felix Contreras — the host of Alt-Latino, NPR Music's weekly podcast about Latino arts and culture — spoke with NPR's Audie Cornish about a trend he's spotted there.

Audie Cornish: So this year, in terms of the music, what are we hearing from these Latin American artists?

Felix Contreras: In a word, resistance with a capital "R." You know, ever since the election in November, there's been a growing movement among artists of all stripes that's been a reaction to the immigration policies of the new administration. Musicians in particular have been critical of the mass deportations — what immigration activists are referring to as the breaking up of families — and they have reacted through their music. Last night, the voter registration group Voto Latino sponsored a big concert here in Austin. It was an official South By Southwest show, but it was also free to the public and held in a very large outdoor facility known as Auditorium Shores, just south of downtown.

And that's kind of a big deal — the fact that the public could attend this, right? Usually, you go to these showcases and you have to have a badge or you have to be some kind of industry person who's paid all this money to be there.

They do have shows there once a night for folks who don't have badges. And every year since they started doing SXAmericas, which has been a couple of years now, they've always had these large Latin concerts that bring in the population around Austin, which is largely Latino. Judging by the flags flown last night that I saw in the crowd, it was largely Mexican or Mexican-American, some of whom I'm sure were affected by the recent immigration raids here in Austin that were attracting headlines. They were incredibly enthusiastic about the themes of resistance in the anti-Trump messages shouted from the stage, and it felt really more like a rally than a concert.

I want to focus on one artist in particular who is huge: René Pérez Joglar. He goes by the stage name Residente, and he was part of one of the biggest Latin groups for a decade, Calle 13.

Calle 13 was a phenomenon in Latin music — there's no other way to say it. Residente and his half-brother, who calls himself Visitante — they've won a total of 25 Grammys and Latin Grammys. That is unprecedented.

This artist grew up in Puerto Rico and his music, I guess, makes a lot of sense when you know that his dad was a labor lawyer and his mom was an actress.

Correct. I mean, they were definitely paying attention to what was going on in the island, and it was absorbed — all of the social conditions and the political situations — in their personalities and their musical vision. And so their music has often been considered stridently political, but I've always considered it more of a reinforcement of what we Latinos have in common: a language, a shared history. You know, it's music that definitely brings people together.

To hear the band take on things like racism, income equality and violence in their home — not just in Puerto Rico but throughout Latin America and here in the US — Calle 13 is that rare example of intense, critical and popular success so far unmatched in anything that I've ever seen.

NPR producer Christina Cala caught up with Residente in Austin to talk about his latest project — a self-titled documentary and an album based on his DNA. Hear their conversation in the full version of this story, at the audio link.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The annual South by Southwest conference is in full swing in Austin, Texas. Thousands of musicians go there hoping to make the right connections for their big break. And the number of bands from Latin America and from Latino communities across the U.S. has increased so much that organizers have created a mini conference within the larger festival. It's called South by Americas.

Felix Contreras is there. He's the host of Alt.Latino, NPR Music's weekly podcast about Latino arts and culture. And he has spotted a trend. He's here to talk more about it. Hey there, Felix.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: What's up, Audie?

CORNISH: So this year in terms of the music, what are we hearing from these Latin American artists?

CONTRERAS: In a word - resistance with a capital R. You know, ever since the election in November, there's been a growing movement among artists of all stripes. There's been a reaction to the immigration policies of the new administration. And musicians in particular have been critical of the mass deportations, what immigration activists are referring to as the breaking up of families. And they have reacted through their music.

Now, last night, the voter registration group Voto Latino sponsored a big resist concert here in Austin. It was an official South by Southwest show. But it was also free to the public and held in a very large outdoor facility known as Auditorium Shores just south of downtown.

CORNISH: That's kind of a big deal, the fact that the public could attend this, right? Usually you go to these showcases and you have to have a badge or you have to be some kind of industry person who's paid all this money to be there.

CONTRERAS: Yeah. Every year, they do have shows there once a night for folks who don't have badges. And every year since they started doing South by Americas, which has been a couple of years now, they've always had these large Latin concerts that bring in the majority of the population here around Austin which is largely Latino.

And judging by the flags flown last night that I saw in the crowd, it was largely Mexican or Mexican-American. They were incredibly enthusiastic about the themes of resistance and the anti-Trump messages shouted from the stage. And it felt really more like a rally than a concert.

CORNISH: I want to focus on one artist in particular who is huge, Rene Perez Joglar. He goes by the stage name Residente. And he was part of basically one of the biggest Latin groups for a decade - they're Puerto Rican - Calle 13.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LATINOAMERICA")

CALLE 13: (Rapping in Spanish).

TOTO LA MOMPOSINA: (Singing in Spanish).

CORNISH: Felix, they have such a sleek, fun sound. Tell us a little bit more about Residente today.

CONTRERAS: Calle 13 was a phenomenon in Latin music. There's no other way to say it. Residente and his half-brother, who calls himself Visitante, you know, they've won a total of 25 Grammys and Latin Grammys. And it's unprecedented.

CORNISH: This artist grew up in Puerto Rico. And his music I guess makes a lot of sense when you know that his dad was a labor lawyer and his mom was an actress.

CONTRERAS: Correct. I mean, they were definitely paying attention to what was going on in the island. And it was absorbed. All of the social conditions and the political situations was absorbed in their personalities and their musical vision. And so their music has often been considered stridently political, but I've always considered it more of a reinforcement of what we Latinos have in common - a language, a shared history.

You know, it's music that definitely brings people together to hear the band take on those things like racism, income inequality and violence in their home, not just in Puerto Rico but throughout Latin America, here in the U.S. Calle 13 is that rare example of intense critical and popular success, so far unmatched in anything that I've ever seen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL AGUANTE")

CALLE 13: (Rapping in foreign language).

CORNISH: Felix Contreras, host of Alt.Latino, NPR Music's weekly podcast about Latino arts and culture, thanks so much.

CONTRERAS: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: We wanted to know a little bit more about residents. So our producer Christina Cala met up with him to talk about his latest project. It's a self-titled documentary and an album based on his DNA. What started with a simple test took him on a journey around the world.

RESIDENTE: When I got the results of my DNA test, I started to make music. I started to make research about the places that I learned that I had blood. And I - at the studio, I had a map with all the places to understand it better. And then I started to conceptualize the ideas for the song.

CORNISH: Residente traveled to Burkina Faso, China, Ghana, England, Siberia. He also visited a region called South Ossetia, officially part of Georgia, a region long mired in conflict.

RESIDENTE: So you have North and South Ossetia. South Ossetia is separated from Russia. North Ossetia is part of Russia. So I went to North Ossetia. And then I went to the South. Before I visit the South, I knew that they were in a conflict in 2008 with Georgia. So I wanted to go to both places because I was going to talk about war.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUERRA")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language).

RESIDENTE: But before I got there, I knew with whom I wanted to record. Like, I know this group of people - Chechnyan - who sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUERRA")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language).

RESIDENTE: Like, I was looking for a specific boys and sound, a chant that sounds very from there, more than a story. But when I went there, I met with these people. And they had like incredible stories. They're not from Georgia. They live in Georgia because they are Chechnyan refugees. And their voices, you can feel their pain in their voices, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUERRA")

RESIDENTE: (Rapping in Spanish).

(Speaking Spanish). If you listen to the first two verses, even though it's something sad, I'm talking about war in a way that, like, let's say that you are about to die and they already surrounded you. And your - and you have a gun. And you're just - that moment. And you're going to go all the way because this is it. And you're going to - so I was talking about that moment.

And war, it could be - you know, even though it's awful, you can see it in a different way. Like, for example, Lionel Messi against five is war. And when he score a goal, he won. So that kind of thing that you can use it for anything. So I wrote it in a way that even people from sports, they can use it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUERRA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

RESIDENTE: Those are the times that you're saying, like, why these things happen in the world? And also I was questioning myself. I felt it bad, like, for a few days. But I wanted to feel it in order to write. And when you're making art, you have to be like that, like, honest and real. And that thing of bringing back that connection with human beings, it's - I think it's missing in music. I want to bring it back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMOS ANORMALES")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

CORNISH: That was Puerto Rican rapper and producer Residente. He spoke to us about his latest self-titled album and documentary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.