From Samba To Flamenco, A Latin Grammy Preview

Nov 5, 2011
Originally published on November 6, 2011 4:28 pm

The 2011 Latin Grammy Awards will take place this Thursday in Las Vegas. For those unfamiliar with the categories and nominees, Betto Arcos of KPFK's Global Village returns to weekends on All Things Considered to play songs from a few of his favorite nominated performers. Included are a samba artist best known for his film role as a singing sailor, the reigning king of flamenco, one of Mexico's biggest bands and an L.A. ensemble that channels the various sounds of its city.

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Time now for music. Today, global music deejay Betto Arcos is back to share some of his favorite nominees from this year's Latin Grammys coming up next week, including this track called "Cirandar" from Brazilian artist Seu Jorge.


SULLIVAN: Betto is host of "Global Village" on KPFK in Los Angeles, where he joins us from our studios at NPR West. Betto, thanks so much for being here.

BETTO ARCOS: Thanks for having me, Laura.

SULLIVAN: Betto, Seu Jorge. He's pretty famous. I mean, not only a musician, but he's an actor, right?

ARCOS: That's right. He starred in the Brazilian movie "City of God." But American audiences probably know him for Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic." He appeared in the film, and he also did the soundtrack, which feature covers of none other than David Bowie.


ARCOS: That was the first time that he was really noticed on a big level as a musician. The great thing about Seu Jorge is that he has a tremendous gift for reinventing songs. And this album is full of cover songs of different artists that he admires from Jorge Ben Jor to Roy Ayers. This particular tune we're listening to right now is one of my favorites. It's a traditional samba that was written by and initially sung by a well-known samba singer Martinho da Vila. But Jorge's version transforms it into a sort of cinematic acid jazz samba. Let's take a listen.


ARCOS: Anything Seu Jorge sings is just great, no matter what. I mean, he once said in an interview: I guess I could pursue another career, but I feel like I was born to sing samba. And you could certainly tell that this is his music.

SULLIVAN: Hmm. This is Brazilian artist Seu Jorge. He's nominated for the Best Brazilian Contemporary Pop Album at this year's Latin Grammys. Betto, I hear the next track that you've brought us sneaking up behind me here. Tell me a little bit about this one.

ARCOS: Oh, this is the Spanish singer Diego el Cigala, who I just saw perform a couple of weeks ago here in Los Angeles. Right now, he's perhaps the most well-known flamenco singer from Spain. People know him because of the work that he did with the Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes. The collaboration with Bebo Valdes turned him into a sensation overnight. This is an album nominated for Latin Grammy in the Best Tango category.



ARCOS: Yeah. And what's funny about it is that he's not a tango singer. He's not from Argentina. He's from Spain, and he's a flamenco singer.


ARCOS: Now, it doesn't matter, though, because he delivers the spirit of the song through his flamenco sensibility.


ARCOS: The song is called "Nostalgias" or "Nostalgia." It's a very popular tango standard interpreted through a flamenco style known as bulerias. It's a great example of, you know, how Spanish and flamenco singers, like Diego el Cigala in particular, find a way to interpret music from Cuba, from Mexico, and in this case, Argentina. It's nothing new. It's been done before. But the way he sings this tango, making it his own, it's just fantastic. It's tango and flamenco fused together creating something original and so touchy.


SULLIVAN: My guest is Betto Arcos, host of KPFK's "Global Village" in Los Angeles, and we're listening to some of his favorite nominees from this year's Latin Grammys. Betto, let's move on to the next band. They're called Los Tigres del Norte, and they're one of the biggest Mexican bands in the world.


SULLIVAN: That's Los Tigres del Norte. And they're singing with so much passion here, Betto. And you even detect a sense of urgency. What are they singing about?

ARCOS: This is sort of a protest song. It's especially an anthem for immigrants and right now who are feeling the pain of being an immigrant in the U.S. I think Los Tigres del Norte are kind of like modern-day Woody Guthrie because they're singing the plight of those who don't have a voice. This song is called "Somos Mas Americanos," which can be translated as "We Are More Americans."

And what the lyrics say is basically, I am as American as anyone else. Why am I being told to leave this country? They recorded this before, but this version is from an "MTV Unplugged" that's been nominated for Best Norteno Album. What makes this version so special is that Zack de la Rocha, from the rock band Rage Against The Machine, joins them on this song.

SULLIVAN: You're kidding.

ARCOS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. It's - and you might say, well, they're kind of apples and oranges. I mean, they have two different fan bases. What's the idea here? And I'd say, hey, when they sing this song together, it really works.


SULLIVAN: That's the Mexican band Los Tigres del Norte. And you can just tell how much the crowd loves them. We've got time for just one more band, and these guys are one of your favorites, right?

ARCOS: Oh, God. This is bar none my favorite Los Angeles band right now. And I can't tell you how excited I was when I saw that they were nominated for Latin Grammy in the same category as this super, very popular group from Puerto Rico called Calle 13. This song is called "La Negra," and it's up for Best Tropical Song from Los Angeles.


ARCOS: La Santa Cecilia is a band that came from the streets of Los Angeles. The band is named after the patron saint of musicians in Latin America. And I can't think of another band that honors their namesake so well. This tune is off the hook. It's funky and it's juicy, and it's got layers of music. You can hear a taste of cumbia, the sensual lyrics of a romantic bolero, a little jazz vocalese, a rich mix of different sounds that the musicians are exposed to in this great city. I love this band. I love their music.


SULLIVAN: That's the band La Santa Cecilia. They're just one of the many artists that are nominated for a Latin Grammy this year. And you can hear all of them on Betto Arcos' show "Global Village" on KPFK in Los Angeles. Betto, we'll have to tune in this Thursday night to see if any of your favorites are going to win.

ARCOS: Hey, I'll be cheering for them all, but especially for La Santa Cecilia.

SULLIVAN: Betto, always so much fun. Thanks for sharing this music with us.

ARCOS: My pleasure, Laura.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA NEGRA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.