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Moved By Music: Jorge Gonzalez

Cover image for podcast episode

Jorge Gonzalez deejays at the Mexico in the Bottle annual mezcal and food festival in Logan Heights in this photo taken in March 2020.

Ferron Salniker

Latin music has deep connections to Africa. In our recurring “Moved by Music” series, we talk to border people about music from both sides of the border. Today, Jorge Gonzalez takes us on a mini trip through the evolution of Latin music, helping trace some of its roots and influences back to West Africa. It’s like a playlist with a side of history lesson. Gonzalez is the director of the Afro-Mexican department at the Worldbeat Cultural Center in San Diego and a researcher of Afro-Mexican history. He's also a longtime crate digger and deejay.

Port of Entry Playlist
https://open.spotify.com/playlist/36075g71vs22og6334SmAK?si=2IfdPH7MTbKnxjcWk6q9Cw

Books:
Music, Race, and Nation: Musica Tropical in Colombia by Peter Wade
From Bomba to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity by Juan Flores
Rumba on the River: A History of the Popular Music of the Two Congos by Gary Stewart
Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae (Studies In Latin America & Car)
(3rd Edition) by Peter Manuel (Author), Michael Largey (Author)

LP Compilations w/ Liner Notes:
Africa Boogaloo: Latinization Of West Africa
Diablos Del Ritmo: The Colombian Melting Pot 1960-1985 (Part 1 & 2)
Son Palenque: Afro-Colombian Sound Modernizers

From KPBS and PRX, “Port of Entry” tells cross-border stories that connect us.
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Every group of friends has that person who knows everything about music…. But It's really no exaggeration when I say that Jorge Gonzalez,...is a bona fide expert on afro latin music - its roots, its history, its context.

I dig, I collect music. That's definitely something that I've been doing for, for many, many years.

And he credits his insatiable curiosity to growing up in our border region.

you hear just so many genres of music, even in Tijuana. Uh, you know, the, the, the, the diversity of immigrants that live in that city alone exposes you to a lot of styles. I think my, my mind would work like that.

I think it's my background, my identity of always trying to figure out my place in time, my own identity, um, that made me look into music and that same lens.

You might recognize Jorge’s voice from our earlier episode on the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement at the border.

He wrote his masters thesis on afro-mexican history and is now the Director of the Afro-Mexican Department at the World Beat Center in San Diego.

music...contains a lot of important historical documentation through the lyrics and….through the sounds

you know, for me, you know, on vinyl and the sleeve notes and everything that comes with it, uh, contains a lot of information.

Jorge’s love for latin music and history has led him on a lifelong quest to understand how these latin genres came to be. Naturally, that quest led him back to Africa and the long journey these sounds took to become latin.

BEAT FADE OUT

From KPBS and PRX, this is Port of Entry. I’m Alan Lilienthal. On this podcast we tell cross-borders stories that connect us. And maybe nothing connects us, or shows the connections between us, more than music.

Every once in a while on this program we do a music episode, where we ask border people to take us on a musical journey.

Today, we’re gonna take a mini trip through the evolution of Latin music... unpacking layers of its foundation... rooted in West Africa.

I for one had no idea just how African latin music really is. Black people have been in the Americas for centuries, and that has been integral to the development of latin music.

There is no way we can cover it all in one episode, so this is just Jorge’s little taster. Like a playlist with a side of history lesson.

Stay with me.

MIDROLL 1

We start our journey in West Africa… wayyyyy back in the 16th century. What’s now known as Senegal and Mali… was part of the homeland of the Mande and Bantu people, who were among the first to be enslaved and taken Latin America. And Jorge says the narrative that these enslaved Africans were uneducated is just... wrong.

imagine, you know, when, when the first slave ships, what would arrive to, to Veracruz imagined, uh, you know, and instead of, instead of thinking just a thousand slaves that knew, and didn't know how to read and write these were maybe a thousand slaves that had the consciousness of Malcolm X.
You know, they were organized amongst their people. They knew history, they were very conscious. They just happened to be, you know, stolen and taken.

The Mande and Bantu were also Muslim.

And if you know, Muslim culture, Islam, uh, they know how to read an oral tradition is a big deal. And music is a big deal and then spiritual music. Uh, so it's, it's, there's no question whether music is part of their daily lives

Basically… the West African ties to Latin American music... run deep.

Culturally, a lot of music that came from Africa straight into the port of Veracruz to Peru, to Brazil, um, to a new Orleans, you know, uh, these were the same people. Being, um, uh, getting off, uh, and, and for the first time, you know, building relationships with the indigenous communities

BEAT

Jorge says this is how a West African instrument called the Kora, became integral to the development Latin American music.

DOU DOU

It is a gourd with a bow, and you have chords that connect it to the drum... if you hear the sound, it's just very spiritual. It almost sounds like a voice, right. Singing. Cause it just has so many chords

This song is called “Dou Dou”, a collaboration by Malian artists Ali Farka Toure, and Toumani Dibiate.

When I heard it I was like, this is it, This is the track. That is a Testament, right. Of how similar, you know, their sound that they were creating a was replicated and cross-pollinated to the Americas.

This is the instrument that eventually some would argue that the harp comes from. And also This is an instrument that influenced a lot of the Spanish guitar, you know, like flamenco,the way it's played...And this was the same instrument that would inspire the requintos in Latin America, uh, in boleros you hear it.

From Mali, we’re headed to Peru.

SON DE LOS DIABLOS

This is “Son de los Diablo”s, by a group called Peru Negro.

they come from a town called Chincha... Chincha is a black community in Peru …. that whole area of Chincha is very rooted in the style of music…..I think one of the, the most, uh, unique characteristics of the sound is a call and response. ...you could hear it through the instrumentation alone. There's a call and response and the instrumentation, but also when they sing.

I had this, this moment right… Of like, wow, this sounds so similar to something. I can't figure it out. ...it hits me when I hear this track dou dou ...and if you hear Dou Dou and you hear Son de Los Diablos, it's the same track and just in a different version, right? It's the same rhythm. It's the same, harmony you hear behind it.

Next up on our trip… Veracruz, Mexico. Veracruz is Mexico’s most important port and is actually where the Spanish conquest of Mexico began. When the Spanish arrived, they brought a lot of African slaves from Cuba who, over time, started mixing with the European and indigenous people. This community eventually became known as Jarochos.

SON DEL MAR

This is “Son Del Mar”, by a group called Los Cojolites .

In Veracruz where son cojolites are from, there's all these African, named communities that are very much aware, and are Afro-descendants of this legacy.

During the early uprises in Mexico and Lain America… there was a law that passed that ban Africans from being in groups bigger than six, also their drums were taken away. So stomping and, and re rhythm, composition began to really be reflected and the instrumentation of strumming guitars, or known as jaranas, which are very rhythmic and very drum-like.

Jorge says this percussive style of playing the Jaranas ... is how these Maroon and Afro-Indigenous communities in Veracruz birthed the musical style... “Son Jarocho.”

They adopted the style, which was at one point very Spanishbased, and they redid it in their own way.

Next on our tour….the epicenter of the Cross Pollination of African and Latin Culture…. Cuba.

Cuba and Puerto Rico, would become like the layover, before African slaves would make it either get sold there or get sold elsewhere…

EL CARRETERO

The boats that would eventually go to Venezuela, Columbia, Brazil, New Orleans, would make a stop in Cuba.

This is “El Carratero,” by Buena Vista Social Club.

The African presence in Cuba is huge. It was Spain’s occupation that completely destroyed Cuba’s indigenous population in the 1500s.. And over the next few centuries, Africans were enslaved and taken to Cuba by both the Spanish and the British to expand production of sugar cane. Africans eventually outnumbered Europeans on the island.

This is a country life that a lot of Africans experienced. So it just, it just makes sense that a lot of the folk soul music ...would sound the way it does… very melancholic and you hear the, the mimicking of the kora.

Buena Vista social club was a 1996 reunion of some of Havana’s best Afro-Cuban musicians. It was also a real venue where some of these musicians would jam together in the 1940s and 50s.... a time when the Afro-Cuban Music scene thrived.

Every artist and musician that a participant in this album…. they were around, you know, at the, at the peak of the golden era of, of the music Cuban scene in the 1950s who had gotten forgotten, you know, after the Cuban revolution

Before the revolution ended in 1959, Havana felt more like Vegas. The government in place let the American Mob put up countless casinos and nightclubs. But post-revolution, Cuba’s new government shut many venues down, in an effort to clean up what it saw as a hedonistic lifestyle. Many of these musicians lost their livelihood almost immediately.

The 1996 Buena Vista Social Club project saw an enormous amount of worldwide success, but it was actually supposed to be a larger collaboration between Afro-Cuban musicians... and musicians from Senegal and Mali. That fell apart because the African musicians couldn’t get their visas on time.... though they were eventually able to get together. They called themselves Afrocubism.

MALI-CUBA

This song is called “Mali-Cuba.” To Jorge, this track by Afro Cubism perfectly encapsulates the ongoing and evolving conversation between Latin and African music.

You hear the Kora, uh, you hear the, the polyrhythm, the conversation, call and response, behind the percussion,

Polyrhythms are super common in Latin and African music. It’s when there are two or more rhythmic patterns played by different instruments at the same time.

The conversation that they're having, you know, we often think about jazz having the same kind of structure....There's no voice in this, in this track in particular, but for me, it's the conversation that these instruments are having, that becomes the voice, the music.

We’ve talked a lot about this east to west crossover, but Latin styles of music have also made their way back to West Africa.

It wasn't always a one way conversation. It's been always both ways. Just the way they were getting sounds from Africa, they were sending music back… early forms of vinyls…They were they were reaching, you know, uh, Senegal and they would be fascinated.

ORCHESTRA BAOBAB - EL SON TE LLAMA

This is “El Son Te Llama” by Orchestra Baobab, a band from Senegal who became popular in the 1970s for combining Afro-Cuban music with more traditional Senegalese sounds.

Orchestra Baobab have a long history of, becoming one of the pioneers of this Afro-Cuban African sound, in Senegal that became a, there, there was a big scene. There were people craved this Afro-Cuban sound. They sing it in Spanish with an accent…You hear it, you know in the way that, their style of singing.. There’s some other tracks of theirs where they sing and Senegalese, but the style is Afro-Cuban.

So… A lot of this continued zig-zag of African and Latin music... Jorge again credits Cuba… because of its radio transmitters. Especially before its government assumed control of broadcast media in the 1960s.

The radio airways would reach, anywhere in the Gulf of Mexico or anywhere in, in Columbia or Venezuela. So some, some of these little rural community towns would turn on the FM station and they would listen a radio station from Cuba that would be playing music from Africa.

In the 60s and 70s, along with radio, there was also a unique underground scene of record collectors in Columbia ...where we’re headed to next. These DJs were called PICOs.

Picos, Picos, right. P I C O and it has to do with pickups. Cuz they would put the sound systems on top of pickup trucks. And they would go around towns bringing that one vinyl that one DJ had that was from Africa and, and everybody wanted.

EBO TAYLOR - NGA NGA

Jorge says tracks like this one, were for sure blasted out of those PICOs in Columbia back in the day... This is “NGA NGA,” by Ghanain musician Ebo Taylor… A pioneer of highlife music and Afrobeat.

Highlife is like everyday music in Ghana. You hear it everywhere. You know, it's like reggae in Jamaica.

the Ghanian people…. we're bringing a lot of that jazz that was coming from, you know, the London scene and their, their access to it, through the British connection. the economy was thriving. Uh, the music scene was ...at a boom, you know, James Brown was coming to town and performing. And these artists, uh, who were playing high life, a lot them would gravitate towards that funk sound that James Brown would, would bring, right? We hear some synthesizers, we hear some effects...

The beauty of it it's, it's the connection of how these African sounds was reaching the coast of Columbia, and it all happened with the DJ scene.

But then, you know, they wouldn't wait until the next time the pico, or the DJ sound system would arrive to their communities to hear it, but they would start mimicking the sounds.

MICHI SARMIENTO

Jorge says one of the Columbian musicians to pick up on Afrobeat legends like Ebo Taylor, was Michi Sarmiento, who grew up in an Afro-indigenous community. This song is called “El Arruyo de Macuya.”

This is very much Ebo Taylor's track, Nga Nga that we were listening to earlier… You hear the call and response ...writing in Afrobeat, uh, West African. You know, polyrhythms, rhythm section,

Michi Sarmiento is one of those musicians that, uh, began to replicate those sounds ‘cause people wanted to hear more of those types of sounds…..it's very evident, you know, his influence of Afrobeat and from the musicians like Ebo Taylor.

Next we’re gonna pop over to the Dominican Republic - With a track that fuses reggae, a genre deeply tied to celebrating and connecting to African roots…. with a more Dominican flavor, bachata.

BACHATA IN KINGSTON - VICENTE GARCIA

Bachata is the most celebrated genre in the Dominican Republic. The songs are usually kinda ballad-y but always with a lively percussion driving the energy forward and giving it that classic Latin touch.

This is Vincente Garcia. The track is “Bachata in Kingston.”

Bachata in Kingston speaks to itself. This is a Bachata reggae track.

What you're hearing there, Bachata, is that guitar playing in the back. It's the, it's the bongos, that are very, notorious I think in bachata, the style of playing,...very fast polyrhythms being played…. the skanking guitar that I think defines the reggae sound in the back….and then the dubbing, uh when you “dub” music when you delay music, that originates from Jamaica.

I just love this track Bachata in Kingston, because it really, again, speaks to this, this relationship with the Caribbean, right, that there's always been an influence of the Caribbean to countries like Colombia and in this case, Dominica, Republica… there's cross-pollination happening all over.

The rest of our tour is going to be focused on the northern side of our border region, from San Diego to Northern California. As you've heard by now, African music has touched many corners of Latin American music. Here in California, the gateway to Latin America, the influence has taken on a life of its own.

QUITAPENAS

Next up is the LA Band Quitapenas. This is “La Education.”

As soon as the track hits, it, you know, you’re hering West African again, The guitar gives it away, it’s, if you hear west African music, you know it’s a key sound in high life music, you know, the guitar.

I think Quitapenas is one of those, those bands,that really, are, are paying homage to those sounds that come from Columbia and, and diversify the sound of what we know as Cumbia.

Cumbia is a style of music that has been adopted all over Latin America. The word Cumbia is thought to come from the African word “Cumbe” meaning Dance. The genre originates in Colombia, where African slaves started interacting with the indigenous populations.

For me, as soon as I hear that guiro doing the “tss tss tsss,” or really any instrument doing that rhythm, I know I’m in for some tasty cumbia.

B-SIDE PLAYERS

Next up...A band that’s been in San Diego for decades. B-Side Players. This track is called Calavera Negra.

This is definitely, you know, a band that's really reflect the border sound, that fuses reggae, Cumbia, funk, Latin jazz , and this track, Calavera Negra, you know, pays homage to the African root in, in in Latin music.

The whole track is built around the phrase, “En Africa nacio el tambor”, meaning the drum was born in Africa.

This sound, I think for me, it's more of a border hybrid Cumbia sound, I would say it's a very, Tejano style of Cumbia, which is sometimes has the accordion, but sometimes it's just that rhythmic section and the guitar, that really stands out a lot. And then just the cow bell, that's very, consistent throughout the whole song….it's very unique, I think to, to the border.

Alright we’re gonna wrap things up with a truly eclectic track by a group based out of the Bay Area.

SISTEMA BOMB

This is Capitan by Sistma Bomb, featuring Asdru Sierra of Ozomatli

Aside from the more modern Cumbia beat we’re hearing in the percussion, Jorge says there’s a lot more going on. First of all...

It's electro Son Jarocho. Like I had never heard anything like it.

So we’ve got a Cumbia beat, the Jaranas of Son Jarocho, even that reggae-influenced skanking guitar. What brings it home though… is a nod to the Norteño music that we hear all over the San Diego Tijuana region.

For me when I hear that, accordion style of playing, I think of like, the bandas in Tijuana, if you’re like in Revolucion, or in downtown Tijuana, all those bandas that, you know, you, you could just pay, and people, you know the bands would play you any song they want.

This project for me... It's, it's one of those sounds that I think really remind me of the border. Right.. And that style of Nortena music, right, and then... cross pollinating sounds...son Jarocho… but really rooted in Cumbia and paying homage to that African sounds.

That’s it for our mini tour, today. We hope you enjoyed it as much as we did, and that it widened your appreciation for the richness of Latin music. We covered a lot but it barely scratches the surface of Latin music’s diverse history. If you want to dive deeper into the African roots of Latin music... check out our show notes. Jorge put together a list of books and other resources. You can also find all the music you just heard and more on our Port of Entry playlist on Spotify. Just search Port of Entry Playlist in Spotify and it’ll pop up.

This episode was written and produced by Emily Jankowski. Emily is also our director of sound design. Curtis Fox edited the show. Lisa Morissette is operations manager and John Decker is director of programming. Port of Entry is made possible (in part) by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. I’m Alan Lilienthal. Thank you so much for listening.

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Port of Entry

These are cross-border stories that connect us. Border people often inhabit this in-between place. From KPBS and PRX, “Port of Entry” tells personal stories from this place — stories of love, hope, struggle and survival from border crossers, fronterizxs and other people whose lives are shaped by the wall. Hosted by Alan Lilienthal, produced by Kinsee Morlan and sound design by Emily Jankowski.