The Complexities of Tania León

Composers like Tania León infuse their work with Caribbean instruments, Yoruba rhythms, and atonal piano work: elements that make their music a much more global experience.

Tania’s compositions and operas have been performed internationally. They have received countless awards from places like ASCAP and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Grammy and Latin Grammy nominated León was the first musical director and a founding member of Arthur Mitchell’s famous Dance Theatre of Harlem and has been a visiting professor at Yale, the University of Michigan and others.

At 72 years old, there is no sign of López slowing down. She assembled a month-long music festival called Composers Now featuring New York-based composers of all kinds. Plus. she collaborated on an opera with Harvard African-American Studies professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., about the Little Rock Nine–the group of black students who bravely enrolled at a white high school in Arkansas in the 1950s.

Born in Havana in the 1943, Tania León was classically trained, but Afro-Cuban music and other Cuban traditions, as well as a variety of postmodern musical forms have always found a way into her unique style. She sat down with Maria Hinojosa to talk about her life and her work.

Photo courtesy of Ernesto Mora

My Top Five Spanish-Language Rock Songs Ever

On March 25, NPR’s Latino USA is premiering our “Latino Heroes of Rock & Roll” show, with co-hosts Nadia Reiman and Marlon Bishop:

In anticipation of the show’s premiere, I thought I would have a little fun today and start a debate about one genre that I love: Spanish-language rock songs. Now, just to be clear, the focus of our “Latino Heroes of Rock & Roll” show will not really be about the great Latin American bands of the rock en español genre and it will not be a definitive history of every Latino or Latin American who has ever sang or played in an instrument in a rock band. It will be a show that celebrates some very unique rock stories and the Latino and Latina music icons behind those stories. And by celebrating those stories, we step back and appreciate that rock & roll has impacted millions of us in a good way.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we can’t have actual discussions about music as we all wait for the March 25 show, and that those discussions doesn’t have to be limited to rock songs in English. To be honest, what I am sharing with you below isn’t any different from the musical conversations we have on a daily basis at the Latino USA office. The following top five list (and feel free to spam me @julito77 with all your critiques and omissions) is based on this simple question: If I could add just five Spanish-language rock songs to my playlist, what would they be? Or another way to put: If had to get up and sing karaoke for my friends, what Spanish-language rock songs would I choose? And no, I didn’t consult with anyone for this list, and I really don’t care if some (ok, ALL) of these songs are old or that some are just overplayed to some.

One more thing: I am not going write why I love each song. I love them all. But if you have to ask—they all have that “hook” that makes a great rock song, and yes, all of these songs are a soundtrack of my life, both the good and the bad.

Here is my list, from number 5 to number 1:

“La bolsa,” Bersuit Vergarabat, 2000

“Clandestino,” Manu Chao, 1998

“Canción del Fin del Mundo,” Los Planetas, 2004

“La Ingrata,” Café Tacvba, 1994

“Matador,” Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, 1993

So I took the plunge and created my list. Now you tell me yours or just feel free to destroy this one. Tweet me @julito77 or add your comments below.


Afro-Spanish flamenco-soul-jazz singer Concha Buika is as talented as she is fearless. Growing up on the island of Mallorca in an immigrant family from the tiny former Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea in Central Africa, Buika says her mother was “a happy mama” despite raising several kids by herself in a strange new country.

That undying appreciation for life has been bred into her music as well. With help from frequent producer Javier Limón and an album collaboration with Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés, Buika seamlessly blends her influences and interests with deep emotion.

Buika talks about her art and music, her childhood, and why she believes women are united by their experiences.

Featured image: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Want to Tune Up Your Relationship? Record an Album Together

Lots of people make a point to keep their personal life separate from their work life. But not Otmaro Ruiz and Catina DeLuna. They’re both Latin jazz musicians—and husband and wife. They enjoyed having separate music careers, but recently they thought they’d switch it up and record an album together. Right in their own home.

Otmaro and Catina tell us what it’s like to work with your spouse in very close quarters, and how this collaboration really paid off in the end.

Latino USA’s Preshow Video Riddle of the Week

Riddle me this. (I have always wanted to start a digital post with that sentence.)

But seriously…

This Friday August 14, Latino USA premieres a new show. It’s about music, although it’s not just about music. I mean (and I can’t reveal much), it’s about music that is “off beat.” (Not offbeat—there’s a difference.)

Producer Marlon Bishop and our Music Consultant Nadia Reiman will co-host the show. They both love music. A lot. In fact, our entire Latino USA loves music. A lot.

Anyway, we decided to do a little preshow promo for the show. After brainstorming with Marlon, Nadia and the rest of the team about what the show will cover, we decided to create this little video riddle teaser to get you ready for the August 14 premiere (subscribe to iTunes if you haven’t yet). Because of this video idea, I can proudly announce that we now have an official Preshow Video Riddle of the Week. Don’t expect a weekly series just yet because I want to know first if you like this idea or not. So, here is the video riddle:

The answer to the video is pretty obvious, right? I mean, you won’t win anything—except for the bragging rights to say you were the FIRST one to share the winning response with me.

Tweet me @julito77 or comment below.

Thanks to Marlon for the audio tracks and the entire Latino USA team for the inspiration and support.

Stay tuned for the latest show this Friday, August 14!

Kumbia Queers: Cumbia Is More Punk Than Punk

Six girl punk rockers got together one day and decided to start a side project, just for fun.

But Ali Gua Gua, the lead vocalist, refused to start another rock band. She believed rock had gotten too fancy, too conservative, and too macho.

So they decided to go form a cumbia cover band and call themselves las Kumbia Queers. Latino USA interviewed vocalists Ali Gua Gua and Juana Chang.

Kumbia Queers vocalists Ali Gua Gua (left) and Juana Chang (right). Ali and Juana also play the charango and the guiro, typical cumbia instruments. Photo by Flikr user Montecruz.

They released their first album, Kumbia Nena! in 2007, queering up classics like The Smith’s ‘Lovesong’ (‘Kumbia Dark’), Black Sabbath’s Iron Man (‘Chica de Metal’ or ‘Iron Girl’) and even Madonna’s ‘La Isla Bonita’ (“La Isla con Chicas”, or ‘The Island With Chicks’).

The side project became a hit in Latin America, and their interest in cumbia just kept growing. For their second album, La gran estafa del tropi-punk (‘The Great Swindle of Tropi-Punk’), the Kumbia Queers teamed up with Pablo Lescano, the “godfather” of Argentine cumbia villera, an urban style of cumbia born in the shantytowns of Buenos Aires. Lescano produced the album and mentored the Kumbia Queers in the ways of urban cumbia.

For their latest album, Pecados Tropicales (‘Tropical Sins’), they decided to go back to their DIY roots.

Like other queers before them, the Kumbia Queers have been out to disrupt the disruptors. They’ve gotten backlash from the very male-dominated Latin American rock community.


Kumbia Queers in concert. Photo by Flikr user Montecruz.
Kumbia Queers in concert. Photo by Flikr user Montecruz.



“All the rockers started getting angry because we touched their precious The Cure or their precious Black Sabbath,” says Ali Gua Gua.  “In that way it’s good to find that playing cumbia is more punk than playing punk.”

They’ve also been booed off the stage with lesbophobic insults when opening for traditional cumbieros. But the Kumbia Queers thrive in the backlash. They’re used to being picked on for being different, queer, and the criticism fuels their punky spirit.

The Kumbia Queers took up the word queer as a rebellion against labels. But it’s not queer theory or queer issues that interest them. Politically, las chicas are very committed to changing the situation of women in Latin America. “I hope we encourage queer Latino women to do whatever they want to do,” says Ali Gua Gua.

In the US, different forms of cumbia play at parties and concert venues organized by queer Latinos. The Kumbia Queers’ message resonates with the queer Latino communities in California, Texas, Chicago and New York, where they visited on their 2014 US tour.

“We know it’s really hard for Latino people, they have to resist a lot,” says Juana Chang, vocalist and charango player. “People were really grateful for us being here because they had a little space of Latin Americanity.

Las Kumbia Queers are Ali Gua Gua and Juana Chang on vocals, Pat Combat-Rocker on the bass, Flor Linyera on the keyboard, Ines Pektor on the drums and Pilar Zombie on the guitar. Ali and Juana also play the charango and the guiro.

Photo courtesy of Kumbia Queers website




Snow In Africa: A Puerto Rican’s Musical Dream

By the time he was twenty-one, J.T. Lopez had the kind of success many musicians can only dream of. He was a highly sought after session player in his native Puerto Rico, playing gigs and touring with some of the island’s top musicians. But he gave it all up to follow his own beat.

Photo by Maria Loewenstein

Get a peek of J.T.’s new band, Snow In Africa.


photo_dbockDiane Bock produces stories for public radio. She’s inspired by this quote from Pete Seeger: “The key to the future of the world is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”



DJ Orion: Using Tech To Bring Culture To Life

DJ Orion is half-Colombian, half-Puerto Rican and was born in Panama to military parents. You can hear him spinning live throughout the Latino USA SXSW show. In this segment, he talks to host Maria Hinojosa about his multicultural musical influences, how technology empowers his art, and even teaches her how to spin!



Photo by Wikimedia commons user Moehre1992