¡Mami! Four Latin Songs For Mother's Day

May 13, 2012
Originally published on May 13, 2012 11:09 am

This Mother's Day, Felix Contreras and I pay a visit to Weekend Edition Sunday to share some of the songs the women who raised us listened to — music that made its mark as the soundtrack to our childhoods.

My grandmother was, at heart, a singer. As an Argentine growing up in times of turmoil, she'd had her fair share of daunting experiences to sing about: She'd seen dictatorships rise and fall, and had endured a tumultuous marriage. She also basked in the love of grandchildren who adored her. I remember her cooking one Saturday morning and belting out a bolero romántico with full force. She stopped suddenly to focus on something else, and a construction worker from the building next door yelled for her to please keep on singing. She had a beautiful, soulful voice.

Felix's mom introduced him to the rich sounds of Mexican music in all its forms while he was growing up in California. She has a special place in her heart for mariachi, but she also taught Felix and his brothers the two-step dance style of corridos and Mexican cumbias.

We come into this world unaware of music, so those who raise us steer us in a certain musical direction. For Felix, it was his mother's love of all kinds of music that permeated his soul from a very young age. He's confessed on air that when he was a child, he found the polka-influenced rhythms of Mexican rancheras annoying, and would sneak up to the radio and turn the dial to a station that played The Jackson 5. But the seed had been planted. Felix went on to play in his uncle's conjunto band in high school, and today he embraces the Tex-Mex style as one of his favorites.

That's why Felix chose to share "Canción Mixteca" by The Chieftains and Los Tigres Del Norte, a melancholy song about missing one's home. He also offers a more contemporary tune by Bostich & Fussible, a side project of the band Nortec Collective that fuses norteño styles with electronica.

Felix adds that he has strong memories of his mom and dad singing boleros together at home, in two-part harmony. Music was and still is a passion of his mother's, and he says he's thankful to have inherited music-loving genes from both his parents.

As is customary in Latin families, my grandmother played a fundamental role in raising me. She'd pick me up at school, cook meals and, for a good chunk of my life, we even shared a bedroom. She's also the reason I love music so much: I probably heard her singing boleros and tangos as much as I heard her talking.

Her death last year was truly like losing a mother, and on this Mother's Day, I'm choosing to honor her by sharing one of her favorite milongas (a predecessor of tango, which is quite similar). "Se Dice De Mi" ("They Say About Me") is a feisty and suggestive track by Argentine actress and singer Tita Merello. The women of tango were tough as nails, lyrically akin to Lil' Kim and Nicki Minaj. They were outspoken and unapologetically sexual. I imagine that my grandmother, like so many Argentine women caught in a culture that kept them down, viewed singing those songs as an act of rebellion in itself.

Later on, I also share a newer track by Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux. I'm not sure what my grandmother would have thought of Spanish-language rap. My guess is that she would've grumbled about how noisy and artless it was, but nonetheless admired Tijoux's brash political outspokenness and hummed the tune while making arroz con pollo.

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It is the second Sunday in May, and in this country and many others, that means it's Mother's Day, the day we honor our moms with flowers and phone calls, maybe some music. To put a Latin musical spin on the holiday, we are joined again this morning by Jasmine Garsd and Felix Contreras. They are the cohosts of Alt.Latino, NPR's online show about Latin alternative music. Felix and Jasmine, thanks for coming in.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Thanks for having us.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Thanks for having us again.

MARTIN: OK. What musical delights did you bring us today?

GARSD: Well, I wanted to start us off with a little bit of milonga. Milonga is a precursor to tango. This Mother's Day, I am honoring my grandmother. Like in so many Latin families, my grandmother was essential in bringing me up. She was like a mom to me. And she would pick me up in school and get mad when I'd stay out too late. And she passed away recently, so I definitely have her in my mind. And her favorite song was Tita Merello, who is an Argentine movie icon, doing "Se Dice De Mi," or "They Say about Me."


TITA MERELLO SINGER: (Singing in Spanish)


MARTIN: You guys are laughing 'cause you know what she's saying.


CONTRERAS: We got to translate.

GARSD: What I love about tango and milonga is tango and milonga are gangsta rap decades before gangsta rap...

MARTIN: Really?

GARSD: ... was invented. Yes. And the women on tango are, you know, move over...

MARTIN: The Mafia wives?

GARSD: Yeah. Move over, Nicki Minaj and Lil' Kim. This - Tita Merello is an OG. She is an original gangster. This song, which is essentially a song saying haters gonna hate. It was written in the '40s. She interprets it in the '50s. Now, listen to these lyrics. She says: they say about me that I am fierce, that I walk like a thug. All I know is that in love, I've left more than one sucker on the curb. And those who say I'm crooked, well, they ain't never seen me in my nighties. For the '50s, that's pretty racy.

CONTRERAS: You know what's interesting too is, like, there's a spoken word cadence there. Almost a rap flow to it, right?

GARSD: Yeah, yeah. Sounds like it.

MARTIN: And I understand there's, like, a new twist on this. You brought an updated version of this song.

GARSD: What I brought is I brought some Latin hip-hop. And the reason I brought that is because I really do think there's a continuum, there's a line connecting the women of tango and the women of hip-hop, especially Latin hip-hop. Now, I don't know what my dear abuela would have thought about Latin rap. But something tells me she would have seen kindly the next artist, which is Ana Tijoux from Chile. This song is called "Telling It Like It Is," "Las Cosas Por Su Nombre."


ANA TIJOUX: (Singing in Spanish)

MARTIN: Wow. So, not exactly the 1940s version that your abuela loved.

GARSD: It has that same playfulness and that same, you know, (Spanish spoken), like femme fatale that you just don't mess with.

MARTIN: OK. So, Felix, follow that.


CONTRERAS: We're - you know, that's one of the things we do on our show, on Alt.Latino, is like we try to find these traditions and then people who are, like she said, stretching them out on the continuum. I'm Mexican-American. I was raised in California. My mom really likes mariachi music, and she really has a fondness for what we call norteno music, which is the accordion-based music that's popular along the U.S.-Mexican border. I brought a song called "Cancion Mixteca," and it's by a group called Los Tigres Del Norte. And they're doing it in a special performance with the Irish group The Chieftains.



CONTRERAS: It's a sad song, obviously. You can hear it in the language. And it's about wanting to be back home, back in Mexico, or wherever you're from. And it's a universal message. People always like to be back. And I brought the song, and just for the drama, just for the melodrama, just for the style, the one-two-three of the border. You know, I heard a lot of this as we were growing up. You know, that's the one thing I remember, that and mariachi music, when I think about my mom.

MARTIN: So, when we think about what Jasmine was saying, how these musical traditions have evolved over time, what today speaks to this music do you think?

CONTRERAS: I brought in a group called the Nortec Collective, and they're based in Tijuana. And it's a group doesn't exist anymore. There were, like, four or five musicians, DJs basically, who were taking that tradition and mixing with it techno and electronica - Nortec, nortena and techno - that they kind of combined the words together and combined the ideas and the genres and the sensibilities. So, what I brought in is an updated version. I've never played this for my mom. I don't know if she would dig it or not, you know, but my mom's pretty hip. I mean, you know, she might, she might...


MARTIN: She might be down?

CONTRERAS: She might be digging this.

MARTIN: All right. Let's take a listen.



CONTRERAS: This isn't exactly a waltz, like we heard with the first song. It's more of a polka. But it all comes from that style, from that era. I'm just fascinated by how they took something that was so simple and something so prevalent. And what I grew up in is that I played in polka bands, I played in these norteno bands. And the way they just brought it all together with a whole new perspective is just fascinating to me.

MARTIN: Well, I don't know about Felix's mom, but I dig it.

GARSD: Yeah, I'm sure she'll dig it.


MARTIN: That was Felix Contreras and Jasmine Garsd from NPR's Alt.Latino with traditions and updated traditions for Mother's Day. Thanks so much for coming in, you guys.

GARSD: It was so much fun.

CONTRERAS: Yeah, thanks for having us. Happy Mother's Day, mom.

GARSD: (Spanish spoken)



MARTIN: And you can hear more Alt.Latino tunes inspired by mom at NPRMusic.org.


MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.