X Alfonso Is A Cuban Hip-Hop Pioneer Still Making Vibrant Music

Feb 3, 2020
Originally published on February 2, 2020 6:24 am

In 2001, X Alfonso produced one of those kinds of key moments n Cuban music that reverberate long after the fact.

His album Moré, a tribute to iconic Cuban vocalist Beny Moré, made a huge impact on how compatible hip-hop was to Cuban music.

This past September, Alfonso launched a series of monthly single releases that will culminate this coming September in his first album in 10 years.

This week, Alt.Latino host Felix Contreras joins Weekend Edition Sunday guest host David Folkenflik to share three new tracks. Listen in the player above.

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DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

Alt.Latino host Felix Contreras headed to Havana for a week of performances and workshops by the New Orleans band Tank and the Bangas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FOLKENFLIK: He produced a podcast capturing the sights and sounds of the trip, including that second line through Old Havana. And while he was there, he also checked in on some other Cuban artists. And he's here today to talk about one of those musicians to shed light on an element of Cuban music. Felix, welcome.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Hey, David. How you doing, man?

FOLKENFLIK: Good. First, tell us a little more about that musical exchange.

CONTRERAS: OK. So Tank and the Bangas - they were the 2017 Tiny Desk contest winners.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOXES AND SQUARES")

TANK AND THE BANGAS: (Singing) And your sister washed your laundry. I think it's time I did laundry, too.

CONTRERAS: So Tank, as well as the band called The Soul Rebels were invited by Cuban musician Cimafunk to go to Havana. And the trip highlighted a musical connection between the two cities that goes back to the late 18th century. The podcast explains everything. It has lots of music, so you can check all that stuff out there.

FOLKENFLIK: So from what you're saying, you kind of strolled away pretty far from the proverbial beaten path to find other musicians, also, that you're interested in who are based right there in Havana.

CONTRERAS: Just about every path in Cuba leads to some amazing music. So yeah. But I want to tell you about X Alfonso. He's a Cuban hip-hop pioneer. And in 2001, he had a tribute album to Cuban singer Benny More. And he has since been making some of the most captivating music on the island. Now, since this past September, he's been releasing a single a month that will stretch to next September, when he'll release an album of all the tracks.

FOLKENFLIK: I'd love to hear some of it right now.

CONTRERAS: OK. Let's check this out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SE PUEDE PENSAR COMO UN PRISIONERO")

X ALFONSO: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: That's called "No Se Puede Pensar Como Un Prisionero." It's a meditation on resisting the corrupting power of money and influence as an individual and as a society.

FOLKENFLIK: It's got a driving pulse to it at the same time. That's an interesting theme, particularly given Cuba's kind of ambivalent relationship to money in sort of the post-Fidel Castro world.

CONTRERAS: You know, he's making a statement that can be interpreted that's going up to an audience around the world. So that's how he sort of works around - or at least the government is not giving him a hard time about that.

FOLKENFLIK: Tell us more about what he's doing with music there.

CONTRERAS: You know, he has a wide scope of the entirety of Cuban music. His parents famously led a jazz fusion band called Sintesis that bases its sound on Afro-Cuban Santeria music. He has a sister, whose music is a mix of soul and that same sacred sound as his parents. He has a complete grasp on history and what's happening right now because he's also the director of Fabrica De Arte Cubano. It's an arts complex in Havana with two performance stages, space for arts exhibition, bars, restaurants. It's an old cooking oil factory, and it's ground zero for all contemporary Cuban art.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you for more of that music. Play some now.

CONTRERAS: OK. All right. This is called "Siento Que..."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIENTO QUE...")

X ALFONSO: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: He still has that electronic feel, but it's toned down. This one starts as a love song. He's talking about how to maintain a loving and respectful relationship. But at one point in the middle of the song, he says, it's time for us to construct a great legacy and a great future as a nation unafraid to say how we feel about our country. It's a fascinating rumination on patria or patriotism.

FOLKENFLIK: And this is all from an X Alfonso. That's, in English, the letter X.

CONTRERAS: Correct.

FOLKENFLIK: His sister, also a musician - M Alfonso.

CONTRERAS: M Alfonso, yeah. We had her at...

FOLKENFLIK: The letter M?

CONTRERAS: Yes, correct.

FOLKENFLIK: You mentioned one point that his early album made an impression on you. What made that album so powerful?

CONTRERAS: You know, it was the first time that we understood the uncanny compatibility between traditional Cuban dance beats and hip-hop. And let's use this next track as an example. It's called "Se Te Cayo El Tabaco." You can hear some of the sampled vintage recording mixed with a 2001 hip-hop feel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SE TE CAYO EL TABACO")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Spanish).

FOLKENFLIK: You got me dancing here in the studio, I swear.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).

FOLKENFLIK: All right. So if I were to get you to conjure up one more track from your files, what would you pull?

CONTRERAS: OK. So each of the five tracks so far has a common musical element of this electronic thing that you mentioned. But it's manifested in so many different ways on each of the tracks that he's released so far. This last track we're going to play is called "Reflexion." And I really like the sparse texture and very, very minimalist backing track, which puts the emphasis on the lyrics, which is a riff on environmentalism.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REFLEXION")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

CONTRERAS: This is sampled Yoruba Orisha chanting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REFLEXION")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FOLKENFLIK: Nothing goes to waste, not even the canines in the background.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter) Exactly. Exactly.

FOLKENFLIK: Felix Contreras is the host of Alt.Latino. It's NPR Music's weekly podcast about Latino arts and culture. Make sure to listen in on his trip to Cuba with Tank and the Bangas. Thanks so much.

CONTRERAS: Thank you, man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REFLEXION")

X ALFONSO: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.