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Latin Music Celebrates Lives For Day Of The Dead


November 2 is the day many people around Latin America celebrate the Day of the Dead, a holiday tradition that originated in Mexico. And the holiday is often linked to Halloween but it is not about the kitschy scary stuff. Rather, it's a time to remember friends and family who have passed away.

And the Day of the Dead is really more like a party than a wake. Altars are set up in memory of the departed with photos, candies, or in the case of our friends at Alt.Latino, music. Jasmine Garsd and Felix Contreras are here to tell us about their sonic altar, so to speak, and as always, play some music for us. Hey, guys.



MARTIN: All right, sonic altar. What does that even mean, Felix?

CONTRERAS: OK, it's a collection of songs that remind us of people who passed away this year. Now we note the famous people like the Nobel Prize winner Gabriele Garcia-Marquez, who passed away in April of this year. But we also celebrate the not-so-famous.

GARSD: Yeah. Basically, what we do, we ask listeners to send in people they loved and cared about who passed away this year and celebrate their lives. And Felix and I also brought some of our own picks.

MARTIN: That's a lovely idea. So Jasmine, you, I understand, included a dedication that is not really about a death.

GARSD: Yeah. Well, you know, Rachel I was really wary of how to approach my dedication. As you and listeners might know, 43 college students have gone missing in Mexico over a month ago. And you know, I'm hesitant to say something about Day of the Dead for them because they're disappeared and nobody knows where they are, if they're dead or alive. But there's been this really dark mood cast over the entire country because in searching for these kids, they've uncovered dozens of mass graves and dozens of bodies that don't belong to these kids. So it's definitely a time in Mexico that feels like a peak of violence and death again. And I was telling Felix, I saw this graffiti downtown in Mexico City that was so powerful. It said every day is Day of the Dead in Mexico. And it made me think of this one song by Argentine musician Charlie Garcia. And the lyrics talk about just disappearing, about people not knowing if you're dead or alive. You're just no longer there. And this song is called "Los Dinosaurios."


CHARLIE GARCIA: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTIN: That's beautiful. Felix, you also asked listeners for their own personal dedications. What kind of stories did you hear from them?

CONTRERAS: We heard from them through social media. And like last year, people wrote in dedications for family members, the really heartfelt, personal stories about people they lost. And this year was no different. We got an e-mail from Maribel Falcon, one of our listeners. And she wrote about her great-grandparents. And she asked for a really old mariachi song called "Dos Arbolitos." She wanted the version recorded by Linda Ronstadt in 1987, which happens to be recorded with a mariachi called Mariachi Camperos de Nati Cano. Nati Cano is a gentleman who passed away last year. He was an educator and one of the foremost authorities of mariachi here in the United States. He passed away...

MARTIN: So it's a good way to remember him, too.



LINDA RONSTADT: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: This is the song "Dos Arbolitos." It's a love song about these two trees who grew up together like twins. And it's a reflection on both Maribel's grandparents and for Nati Cano.


RONSTADT: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTIN: There is a sobriety to what we've been talking about, you know, remembering the people who have passed on.


MARTIN: But this is a holiday, right? Dia de los Muertos can also be very celebratory.

GARSD: Absolutely. You know, this weekend I was invited to a party at a cemetery.


GARSD: People go to the tombs of their loved ones and take beer and tequila and good food and just kind of celebrate the life that these people you cared about so much had. The next musician I brought was really a legend of Latin music. His name is Gustavo Cerati. He was a rock musician. And after several years of being in a coma, he passed away this year.

His band, Soda Stereo, was the first band to tour Latin America as rock artists. And they really proved that you could be a Latin rock band and be popular in Argentina, in Puerto Rico, in Cuba, in Mexico. Just groundbreaking. And he's a really good example of what we're talking about, about Day of the Dead. You know, he had been suffering for so long. It was almost - when he passed away, it was almost like I just want to remember what great music and joy he brought.

So I brought a song by Gustavo Cerati and his band, Soda Stereo. This was one of the last songs they played together before he embarked on a solo career. And it's called "Zoom."


GUSTAVO CERATI: (Singing in Spanish).

GARSD: I love this song.

MARTIN: Felix, we asked Jasmine earlier about her personal dedication that she made to the missing students in Mexico. Did you include any dedication that has special meaning for you in this program?



CONTRERAS: I dedicated a song to Cuban-born percussionist Armando Peraza, again, another Latin music legend but going back even further than that, from the earliest days of Afro-Cuban Jazz in the late forties, early fifties up through two decades with Santana that ended in the mid-1990s.

I play music part-time, and he was one of my heroes strictly because of his skill, his sound, but also just his real bearing.

The song I brought in is from 1958. This is called "Estampa Cubano," and it's from the George Shearing Quintet.


MARTIN: Well, I love the idea of remembering those who have passed on with musical tributes. Thank you so much to you two for sharing your sonic altar with us.

CONTRERAS: Thanks for having us.

GARSD: Thank you.


MARTIN: You can hear the rest of Alt.Latino's sonic altar at npr.org/music. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.