Forward by McKim (GLOCAL VI): GLOCAL brings a wide range of people from many fields with various interests together to learn about “Local Markets” and “Local Creativities”. My fellow cohort member, Francisco, shared with us his thoughtful reflection on Spanish speaking artists and their local, regional, and global impact. In this thoughtful piece below, we dive into the world of the hispanohphone music scene, learning about what makes each of these artists unique; exemplifying the way that local cultures are influenced by the world, and that local cultures can influence the world.
(By the way, this article has a part II!)
The summer is over. A month has passed since the end of the GLOCAL Summer School 2023 in Kyoto and the VI Cohort is as scattered around the world as it will ever be: we have now started our third semester at the Erasmus Mundus International Master in Global Markets, Local Creativities in the cities of Rotterdam, Göttingen, Bogotá, and Kyoto.
Looking back at our second mobility, which took me and 12 of our friends to the Nordic city of Uppsala, in Sweden, while the rest lived in Barcelona for the first half of this year, I thought of writing about music in Spanish for the Glocal Experience blog: something I know and love, as a Mexican, that I think those who were in Spain can use to relive their life in Catalunya.
After all, I like to think of the entries we write here as letters we send to our friends in other mobilities—letters we send across continents, but which happen to be open for the rest of the world to read. In the words of Robyn Brooks (from Hulu’s re-adaptation of High Fidelity, played by Zoë Kravitz), “Making a playlist is a delicate art. It’s like writing a love letter—but better, in a way. You get to say what you want to say without actually saying it. You get to use someone else’s poetry to express how you feel”.
That being said and without further ado, here’s a brief non-ranked list of whom I think are the greatest artists making music in the Spanish-speaking world as of today—based on the depth of their impact, influence, and outreach. Plus, some of my favorite tracks from them for you to dig into as you please.
1. Jorge Drexler
Perhaps the best lyricist in Hispanic music today, and heir to the legacy of Spanish legends Joaquín Sabina and Joan Manuel Serrat, Uruguayan Jorge Drexler is both a great composer and a gifted poet. His main instruments are his words, beautifully exploited in rhythm and meaning, and the acoustic guitar, which in some of his songs is the only instrument played and drummed.
It feels almost unfair to share his music without the meaning behind his lyrics. That is why even before naming some of his songs, I would rather start with his TED Talk: “Poetry, Music and Identity”. With a historical tour through the origins of the Décima, a complex style of stanza invented by a Spanish poet in 1591 but very much alive today across all of Latin America, Drexler reflects on identities: who and what we are is only pure when looked at from afar. Truly global in our roots, “we are not completely from any place and a little bit from everywhere”.
Then there’s his NPR Tiny Desk Concert, which is all subtitled as a necessary exception to the YouTube Channel’s common policy of sharing music from all over the world as it is. Drexler’s songs typically come tainted with philosophical reflections on current themes: “Movimiento” talks about migration (“I am not from here but neither are you”), “Silencio” thinks of silence as a gift for the mind in an increasingly loud contemporary reality, and “Asilo” imagines the embrace of a lover as an offer of asylum to the refugees from the hardships in post-modernity.
Jorge Drexler has earned countless awards over his 30 years of career. One of them is an Oscar, which the Hollywood Academy awarded for his song “Al Otro Lado del Río”. It was the theme song of the film “Diario de Motocicleta”, a re-telling of the trip a young Ernesto “Che” Guevara took through all of Latin America in his motorbike and which would eventually shape the political views of the revolutionary.
Although there are great lyrics and great songs in each and every one of his albums (if you choose any at random I could easily pinpoint a great poem within it in a matter of seconds), my favorite ones are Eco, 12 segundos de oscuridad and Bailar en la cueva. In Transoceánica, for instance, it never fails to move me when he sings: “Give me calmness and give me vertigo, come fill my few lucid hours. What a strange way to drown the thirst of you in here, so far away from your tears”.
This past couple of years, Drexler released “La Guerrilla de la Concordia” and the single of his newest album, “Tinta y Tiempo”. Before those came “Universos paralelos” (“Take away from the air the perfume of your hair”), “La trama y el desenlace” (“Let’s love the plot more than the outcome”), and “Todo se transforma” featuring Chilean political rapper Ana Tijoux (“Nothing is ever lost, everything transforms”), to name only a few of his greatest hits.
2. C. Tangana
2021 was the year in which Spanish rapper C. Tangana released El Madrileño, an album that shook every corner of the Hispanic music scene. Powered by a wide array of folkloric music genres, each track either features or pays homage to a sound from Spain and Latin America while mixing it with his signature beats to construct a truly contemporary Spanish rap sound. It is, by all accounts, an in-depth music theory research and a gorgeous art piec
The best way to begin approaching this album is, again, through his NPR Tiny Desk (Home) Concert. It is not only, in my opinion, the best Tiny Desk Concert made during the lockdown era of the YouTube Channel (take a look at that set design, those camera shots, those guests and vocals…), but a key element in the proposal he offers for El Madrileño: “la sobremesa”.
Notice how he is surrounded by people of all ages who come and go to a table with cups and plates, singing joyfully all together as they rhythmically clap and chant “Me maten si no pueden entrar. Me muera, no les puedo fallar. Yo sin esta gente, ¿pa’ qué cojones quiero pasar?”. That is the essence of “la sobremesa”, a typical moment in Spanish culture after eating lunch; people will remain seated for another half an hour to just chat, laugh, sing, dance, and enjoy each other’s company. It is also the theme of El Madrileño, which goes beyond this video and gets to be beautifully played on stage during his concerts as well.
This is a no-skip album. Every track is rich and unique. Plus, C. Tangana managed to bring great artists to collab on most of these songs to build bridges with the genres he meant to embed in his style. “Tú Me Dejaste de Querer” and “Un Veneno”, for instance, feature flamenco in the voices of La Hungara, Niño de Elche, and José Feliciano. “Ingobernable” mixes flamenco with the gypsy rhapsody of Gypsy Kings and “Los Tontos” is sung in a duet with notorious Spanish composer Kiko Veneno.
“Comerte Entera”, on the other hand, includes hints of bossa nova with Brazilian great guitarist Toquinho while “Hong Kong” features Argentinean rock legend Andrés Calamaro and “Muriendo De Envidia” does so with Cuban star Eliades Ochoa (from Buena Vista Social Club). Meanwhile, México plays a major role in three other songs in El Madrileño: “CAMBIA!” features norteño musicians Adriel Favela and Carin Leon, “Párteme La Cara” is a collab with young indie songwriter Ed Maverick, and “Te Olvidaste” mixes rap with the R&B music of Mexican-American Omar Apollo.
- Tangana’s “Demasiadas Mujeres”, one of his solo songs in El Madrileño and the single released prior to the album, was an international sensation. This was not his first time breaking charts, of course: before El Madrileño, everyone knew him for hot tracks such as “Mala Mujer” and “Llorando En La Limo”.
Rosalía’s concept album, El Mal Querer, is one of the best albums of the 21st century period. With 11 songs and slightly over 30 minutes of runtime, this 2018 release was an instant sensation across Spain and all of Latin America, earning her not only the Best Album of the Year Grammy Latino Award but a spot in the Rolling Stones’ 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. An impressive feat for a breakthrough, first solo album.
There is too much to be said about El Mal Querer, and much indeed has been said already. My favorite take was videoessayist Jaime Altozano’s thorough deep dive into the melody, harmony, instruments, themes, and references—to which Rosalía herself replied with her personal insights on each element discussed by him. Both videos are available with English subtitles.
Based on Flamenca, an anonymous book from the 13th century, this flamenco and urban music fusion album tells the age-old yet incredibly relevant love and heartbreak story of a woman victim of an abusive relationship with a violent man. El Mal Querer, must I say, was also Rosalía’s thesis to graduate as a Bachelor of Arts in Flamenco from the Escuela Superior de Música de Cataluña.
As can be seen in the album’s track titles, each song in El Mal Querer simultaneously references a chapter from Flamenca and represents a chapter in a new story told by Rosalía. “MALAMENTE – Cap. 1: Augurio”, released as a single in May 2018 and an instant hit, presents us with a woman choosing the jewelry for her wedding as we see bad omens of a tragedy to come. In “PIENSO EN TU MIRÁ – Cap. 3: Celos”, our protagonist feels the ominous jealousy in her husband’s eyes as his stare feels “like a bullet in her chest”. “BAGDAD – Cap. 7: Liturgia” is, later on, the lament of our protagonist as she prays to God for salvation from the abuse she suffers from this man she is trapped with.
Her next album after El Mal Querer, MOTOMAMI, was just released last year. Now a worldwide pop star, Rosalía toured in 15 countries playing much less sober tracks from this award-winning album, among which I personally love “SAOKO”, “MOTOMAMI”, “BIZCOCHITO”, and “LA COMBI VERSACE” featuring Dominican rapper Tokischa. Later in 2022, she released 12 more songs for the deluxe version MOTOMAMI+, in which we also got “DESPECHÁ”.
Finally, whenever I speak of Rosalías songs, I always like including her albumless singles and collabs with other artists—they are just too good to go unmentioned. There’s “Linda” by Tokischa, “Con Altura” with reggaeton superstar J Balvin, and “KLK” with electronic prodigy Arca, just to name a few. There’s also “MILLONÀRIA” sung in Catalan and, of course, “¡Ay, Paquita!”: the opening song of a fantastic Spanish mockumentary comedy series produced by Netflix, Paquita Salas.
4. Bad Bunny
Chances are that if you have only ever listened to one song in Spanish before, you heard a Bad Bunny song. The Puerto Rican reggaeton superstar has been the most streamed artist in the world for the past 3 consecutive years, earning over 18 billion streams in 2022 according to Spotify. He is the current frontman of the Latino wave that has had the world starstruck for over a decade now.
Bad Bunny was breaking records before even releasing his first album. Originally a SoundCloud rapper and a service industry worker, his first massive trap hit was “Soy Peor” back in 2016. He already had too many hits to name here before X 100PRE released in late 2018, featuring now classics such as “NI BIEN NI MAL”, “Si Estuviésemes Juntos”, “Solo de Mi”, and “Caro”—plus a personal favorite of mine, “Cuando Perriabas”. Many of them oscillated between melancholy and nostalgia, now a staple of Sad Bunny that can be traced down to his other 2016 successful single “Amorfoda”.
In between 2019 and 2020, Bad Bunny released 4 albums (the 2 latter during lockdown) with continued massive popularity. Some of his most popular songs are from this prolific couple of years: “LA CANCIÓN” is featured in OASIS, a co-album with J Balvin, while “Safaera” was released in YHLQMDLG (an acronym for “Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana”, I Do As I Please) and “DÁKITI” and “CALLAÍTA” are part of EL ÚLTIMO TOUR DEL MUNDO. His homage to Japan, “Yonaguni”, wrapped up that era in 2021.
What I like most about his later work is how he started not only refining his sound but also embracing themes of social justice and using his platform to preach Latin American social issues to a worldwide audience. In “Yo Perreo Sola” Bad Bunny famously sings about bodily autonomy, condemning sexism in reggaeton while doing full drag in the music video. In “El Apagón”, he baits a music video, and less than a minute in it switches into a full documentary about the neo-colonialist gentrification of Puerto Rico in the hands of American venture capitalism voiced by independent journalist Bianca Graulau.
His most recent album, Un Verano Sin Ti, is to me his best work yet—both theme and style-wise. Not only did we get some of his hypest songs, like “Tití Me Preguntó”, “Me Porto Bonito” and “Después de la Playa”, and some certified Sad Bunny anthems such as “Dos Mil 16”: he goes further. In “Neverita” he explores retro sounds while paying homage to Elvis Crespo’s classic 90s music video. In this album he also collabed with some of my favorite Caribbean indie bands: with The Marias in “Otro Atardecer”, with Bomba Estéreo in “Ojitos Lindos”, and with Buscabulla in “Andrea”, a song that deals with sexual harassment and sexual abuse as it tells the story of Andrea Ruiz, one of the many victims of femicide in Puerto Rico.
This past Friday the 13th of September, Bad Bunny released his newest album nadie sabe lo que pasará mañana. Be sure to check it out
5. Natalia Lafourcade
If Jorge Drexler is the best lyricist, Mexican Natalia Lafourcade is the best melodist of all music in Spanish today.
The best introduction to her music is also her NPR Tiny Desk Concert: for many years and until very recently, when the Home Concerts managed to surpass in views some of the classics, Natalia Lafourcade’s 3-song set was in the top 10 most viewed videos on the YouTube Channel and the number 1 featuring a language other than English. The reason comes as no surprise: the beautiful arrangements and voice put into these boleros by Natalia and Los Macorinos, guitarists Juan Carlos Allende and Miguel Peña who previously played with legendary Chavela Vargas, are as memorable as breathtaking.
How she reached the forefront of the new Latin American folklore music is as important as her current stardom. Natalia Lafourcade started in the early 2000s as a promising pop rock musician, with now classics “En el 2000”, “Casa”, “Ella Es Bonita”, and “Piel Canela”. 2012 happened, however, and two major events marked a turn inwards in her career: one of them was the massive YoSoy132 student movement, which was Mexico’s take on the global wave of protests of those years along the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and 15M and for which Natalia composed an anthem, “Un Derecho de Nacimiento”, for Mexican musicians to show their support.
The second event was the release of Mujer Divina, a groundbreaking album paying homage to one of Mexico and Latin America’s greatest bolero composers, Agustín Lara. Similar to El Madrileño but 10 years earlier, each song featured renowned Latin American musicians: “La Fugitiva” features Kevin Johansen and Lila Downs, “Amor de mis Amores” comes with Devendra Banhart and DLD, “Aventurera” does so with Alex Ferreira, and “Piensa en Mí” ídem with Vicentico and Los Daniels, to name only a few. I couldn’t recommend more any songs in Mujer Divina.
Later, in 2015, Natalia released “Hasta La Raíz”. Here we met a fully matured Natalia Lafourcade composing poetic and soulful new Latin American classics of her own making, including “Nunca Es Suficiente”, “Lo Que Construimos” and, of course, “Hasta La Raíz”. This prowess is no feat of chance, and as proof, we got her newest album De Todas las Flores last year.
In between, Natalia released two major albums. One of them was Un Canto por México, an ode to Mexican music compiling some of her greatest hits as well as covers from classic Mexican folk songs. The other one is my favorite (double) album from Natalia Lafourcade: Musas, an homage to Latin American folklore. Along with some of her best originals, “Tú Sí Sabes Quererme”, “Rocío de Todos los Campos” and “Mi Tierra Veracruzana”, she sings Violeta Parra’s “Qué He Sacado con Quererte”, María Grever’s “Alma Mía”, Agustín Lara’s “Te Vi Pasar”, and Frank Domínguez’s “Tú Me Acostumbraste” featuring Cuban muse Omara Portuondo (also from Buena Vista Social Club).
All these five musicians are great according not only to me but to each other. With all the influence, following, and talent Natalia Lafourcade, Bad Bunny, Rosalía, C. Tangana, and Jorge Drexler have, you wouldn’t be wrong to assume they have collabed in what seems more like a crossover than a simple featuring.
In 2021, Bad Bunny and Rosalía released “LA NOCHE DE ANOCHE” while Jorge Drexler and C. Tangana recorded “Nominao” for yet another star-colliding track of El Madrileño. As a repayment, the latter also released “Tocarte” for Jorge Drexler’s most recent album Tinta y Tiempo.
Being good friends for many years, Drexler has also dueted with Natalia Lafourcade on three separate occasions. The first time, they sang Agustín Lara’s “Oración Caribe” for Natalia’s Mujer Divina, in 2012. The second time was in an intimate and unedited session chanting “Salvavidas de Hielo”, Drexler’s single for his 2017 homonym album. Finally, in 2021, they reprised an acoustic version of Natalia’s “Para Qué Sufrir” for her Un Canto por México.
The most mythical collaboration among these titans, however, is none other than that of C. Tangana and Rosalía. They used to be not only friends but lovers, and they wrote together “Antes de morirme” back in 2016; now an anthem for long-lost loves who used to pray to the sky for one last time before death comes by. This was not the only time they collaborated, as C. Tangana famously co-wrote with Rosalía at least 8 of the 11 tracks in El Mal Querer; credits are proof of it despite their love not living long enough to see the songs released and airing.