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X Alfonso's 'Ancestros Sinfonico tops Alt.Latino's mid-year top albums roundup

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We're now six months into the year, and that's when our friends at NPR Music will be taking a look at or, better yet, a listen to the best of the year so far. As usual, the Alt.Latino podcast has been keeping track. And host Felix Contreras is here to talk about an album that is so good that it may even top his list at the end of the year.

So, Felix, that sounds like this is some kind of album. What is it?

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: (Laughter) It really is. The album is called "Ancestros Sinfonico." And to really get a feel why I think the album is so important, I have to quickly explain a couple of things. First, the album is a symphonic interpretation of an Afro-Cuban spiritual tradition that is commonly referred to as Santeria, which originated in West Africa and is still widely practiced on the island and among the Afro-Cuban diaspora world wide. What we're listening to is a tribute to the deity Babalu-Aye.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASONANA AGO MADDO (BABALU AYE)")

JUAN CARLOS ALFONSO: (Singing in Non-English language).

RASCOE: Wow. So you said you have to explain two things for us to appreciate the album. What's that second thing?

CONTRERAS: The album is a family affair. In the 1990s there was a band in Cuba called Sintesis, and they reinterpreting the drumming and singing traditions of Santeria using jazz fusion instruments, think synthesizers and electric guitars. That band was led by a bass player named Carlos Alfonso and his wife, the vocalist Ele Alfonso (ph), all right? This album was produced by their very musical son, X Alfonso, and includes both of his parents on vocals, as well as his incredibly talented sister, Eme Alfonso.

RASCOE: OK, so play something for us that move this album to the top of your, you know, best-of list so early.

CONTRERAS: OK. The sonic magic of this record to me is how the orchestra is used like one of the ceremonial drums of Santeria. It's very percussive, but without using symphonic percussion. Check this song out for the deity Ochosi. Look how it starts.

(SOUNDBITE OF X ALFONSO, SINTESIS, EME ALFONSO'S "YAKUMA KARERE (OSHOSI)")

J C ALFONSO: (Singing in Non-English language).

CONTRERAS: After the vocals enter, you can hear those rhythms performed on the traditional bata drums of Santeria as the orchestra completely shape-shifts and gracefully accents both the vocals and the drumming. Check this out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YAKUMA KARERE (OSHOSI)")

J C ALFONSO: (Singing in non-English language).

SINTESIS: (Singing in Non-English language).

J C ALFONSO: (Singing in Non-English language).

RASCOE: It's definitely, like, transporting you to a place, right? It's taking you somewhere.

CONTRERAS: Most definitely. Most definitely.

RASCOE: Talk to us about the vocals.

CONTRERAS: Each track of the album is dedicated to a specific deity or orisha, who have their own rhythms and chants. And the lyrics are singing praise to those specific orishas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YAKUMA KARERE (OSHOSI)")

SINTESIS: (Singing in non-English language).

CONTRERAS: The tradition is African call and response, a lead singer accompanied by a choir. We hear that here in the United States in all the gospel choirs.

RASCOE: Yes. Yeah, yeah.

CONTRERAS: When I interviewed Carlos Alfonso for the podcast a few years ago, he told me that his main inspiration for arranging the vocals for Sintesis was, believe it or not, Freddie Mercury and Queen from songs like "Bohemian Rhapsody," right? Now, see if you can hear some of that in this track dedicated to Eleggua.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IBARAGO MOYUGBA (ELEGGUA)")

SINTESIS: (Singing in Non-English language).

J C ALFONSO: (Singing in non-English language).

SINTESIS: (Singing in non-English language).

J C ALFONSO: (Singing in non-English language).

ELE VALDES: (Singing in non-English language).

RASCOE: I think I can hear a little bit of that. I see where you're going with that. Let's go back to what you said at the beginning that this album had a powerful impact on you. I understand that it's a mashup of the African and the European, but is there something else that really grabbed you?

CONTRERAS: You know, to my ears, the musical arrangements reflect both the power and majesty of that tradition, something I've been studying for many years. But, Ayesha, I ain't going to lie. The tragedy in the news these days is just too much to bear - and the good folks we lost in Buffalo, those beautiful babies in Uvalde and too many others, you know? The message of veneration of this album, the idea that there's something greater than all of us - that's something I can wrap myself in. Otherwise, it's just too much. And I think that this album, the music and its message - it heals. It's just something that we all definitely need these days.

RASCOE: Yeah. Well, we definitely need it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RASCOE: Felix Contreras is the host of the Alt.Latino podcast. The album is called "Ancestros Sinfonico" by X Alfonso.

(SOUNDBITE OF X ALFONSO, SINTESIS, EME ALFONSO'S "OYA WIMILORO (OYA)")

RASCOE: This is NPR WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. BJ Leiderman writes our theme music. I'm Ayesha Rascoe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Felix Contreras
Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.