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The second season of 'La Brega' tells the story of Puerto Rico through its music

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The podcast La Brega tells a history of Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TITI ME PREGUNTO")

BAD BUNNY: (Singing in Spanish).

CHANG: And in its second season, that history is told by way of Puerto Rican music - eight songs, each of which tell their own complicated story about the island. One of those songs is "Preciosa," a prideful love letter to Puerto Rico but one that, in the 1930s, did not find a way to include Black Puerto Ricans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRECIOSA")

RAFAEL HERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

CHANG: Another song this podcast features is the salsa classic "El Gran Varon," which advocated for tolerance of LGBTQ people at the height of the AIDS crisis but perpetuates the harmful idea that transgender women are really men.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL GRAN VARON")

WILLIE COLON: (Singing in Spanish).

CHANG: Alana Casanova-Burgess is the host of La Brega, and she is here to tell us more about these songs of Puerto Rico and the histories they have to tell. Hey, Alana.

ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So to you, what is it about the music of Puerto Rico that made you think to yourself, OK, this is a story that I want to tell?

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Well, it's really that it's everywhere. When you think about even the stars that we - you know, that we know today, like Bad Bunny, Marc Anthony, J. Lo, like, these are Puerto Rican stars. We're talking about our musical history. And really, across Latin America, Spanish-language music is just peppered with Puerto Rican excellence and talent. And so this season, we really wanted to celebrate that. But truly, you know, the influence that Puerto Rico has had in this industry, in music, is incredible.

CHANG: Well, I was going to ask you, like, why do you think Puerto Rico has so consistently punched above its weight when it comes to music? I mean, we're talking about an island that is - what? - just 100 by 35 miles. Why do you think Puerto Rican...

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Yeah.

CHANG: ...Music has had such global reach, such global impact?

CASANOVA-BURGESS: I think it's a few things. I mean, one is that the island or the archipelago, you know, has ties to the United States - so access to the U.S. market, perhaps, but also access to Latin America - you know, singing in Spanish, thinking in Spanish. But I think it's also - and someone says this in the first episode. You know, when you live on the margins, you have to be good at a lot of different things - right? - so good at boleros, good at salsas, good at merengues.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ESTAS ENAMORADA")

LIMITE 21: (Singing in Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: It means you have to be adaptable, right? As a colony, you have to - you know, something about the striving, the kind of scrappiness that comes from that, which is - which obviously has a dark side and a painful side.

CHANG: Yeah.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: But maybe that has something to do with it. I'm not sure.

CHANG: Well, there's no question that this second season of La Brega celebrates Puerto Rican music. But like I mentioned in the introduction, you don't shy away from taking a critical look at some songs that are beloved to Puerto Ricans but have problems. Like, you don't sugarcoat how some have not aged well. Why was that important to you, especially in a podcast that's otherwise focusing on showing love for Puerto Rico?

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Yeah. I mean, I think a lot of music, not just Puerto Rican music, can age poorly - right? - just like any art. But we really wanted to get to the messages behind these songs, right? What's behind the lyrics? What was going on at the time that they were written, right? And how do we contend, how do we grapple with that, which is a kind of brega in itself, right? The brega is the struggle. And so we're struggling with some of these messages in the songs.

Puerto Rico is a complicated place. You know, you mentioned "El Gran Varon." There's a huge problem with transphobic killings in Puerto Rico. We wanted to talk about "El Gran Varon" as a song that's hugely famous across the hemisphere that has, yes, in some cases, helped people come out or build relationships to their families but also, to a lot of listeners, to a lot of trans listeners, sounds like a really hateful song. And so we spoke with one pop artist, Ana Macho, who's a trans nonbinary star from Puerto Rico, from Caguas, who, in the interview said, you know, I really want to cover this song. And so we actually - we commissioned that work.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL GRAN VARON")

ANA MACHO: (Singing in Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: We also have a whole album coming out with covers of these songs to hear, you know, how do some of these problematic songs have new life in 2023? Maybe if they're not problematic at all, if we still love them, what kind of new meaning, new depth can we get from them through new artists?

CHANG: Well, you know, one of my favorite episodes was about the song "Suavemente."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUAVEMENTE")

ELVIS CRESPO: (Singing in Spanish).

CHANG: Can you just explain, like, how that song tells us the story of the relationship between salsa and merengue, like, the tension, the rivalry? - because I had no idea until I heard that episode.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Well, it was a surprise to us, too, and to a lot of our listeners, right? I think we broke new ground here in our reporting. But basically, you know, "Suavemente" is a merengue, which is a rhythm we most associate with the Dominican Republic, which is a neighbor to Puerto Rico. There was a period of time that we could not get away from this song. But it's sung by Elvis Crespo, who's a Puerto Rican man, right? How did that come to be?

Well, it turns out that during the wave of migration from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico, a lot of musicians came as well and, of course, brought their own music. All of a sudden, all these merengue stars are coming through. And there was tension. The salseros - a lot of them felt, like, hold on. You're coming in here. You're taking my jobs. It's sort of a classic xenophobia story but told through rhythm, right? There's this darker story, this more complicated story of that history that tells us something about, you know, Puerto Rico's relationship with the Dominican Republic.

CHANG: Yeah, that mix of dark and light, like so many of the other songs that you talk about in this podcast. What is it like to see an artist like Bad Bunny, who embody so much of Puerto Rican culture, as you say - to now see him rise to become one of the biggest pop stars in the world?

CASANOVA-BURGESS: I mean, it's incredible. I think what's cool about Bad Bunny is that he's singing from a place of love where he still lives in Puerto Rico.

CHANG: Yeah.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Of course, he tours all the time, but he's singing from this place where he's very honest in his lyrics. He sings about potholes. He sings about austerity and...

CHANG: Yeah.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: ...Gentrification, right? And so I feel very proud when I hear him and his accent be very faithful to the way that Puerto Rican Spanish works - right? - to the kind of words that we use.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "P FKN R")

BAD BUNNY: (Singing in Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: He's singing, and people are hearing it all around the world. For a long time, the Puerto Rican accent was derided as not as beautiful as other Spanish. But now all these reggaeton stars, all these people who are singing along to Bad Bunny - they're singing in this accent. And that is very cool.

CHANG: That is cool. OK. Well, if you had to pick one favorite song from this eight-episode series to play us out on, what would that song be, and why?

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Oh, gosh. It's like picking your children here.

(LAUGHTER)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: But maybe to get people dancing in the car or in the kitchen, maybe "I Wonder If I Take You Home" by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WONDER IF I TAKE YOU HOME")

LISA LISA AND CULT JAM: (Singing) Take you home.

CHANG: That is Alana Casanova-Burgess, host of the podcast La Brega by Futuro Studios and WNYC. It's in its second season right now. Thank you so much, Alana.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Thank you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WONDER IF I TAKE YOU HOME")

LISA LISA AND CULT JAM: (Singing) 'Cause I'm not too sure about how you feel, so I'd rather go at my own pace. And I know and you know that if we get together... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.