National Hispanic Heritage Month — beginning on Mexican Independence Day and extending for a month — is a time to celebrate the vast cultural contributions of Hispanic Americans to music and the greater culture of the United States. Now that we’re about halfway through the month, to honor this time of year, here are five artists who portray the vast array of cultural enrichment and the greater Hispanic-American experience within their music.
The Mars Volta
The Mars Volta are a genre-defying, amorphous band centered around the dynamic creative partnership of Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala. Forming in 2001 after the split of their post-hardcore band At The Drive-In, the band gained acclamation for their fiery live performances and invigorating mix of progressive rock, jazz, Latin and hardcore punk music — often all taking place within the same song.
After a 10-year hiatus, Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala reunited in 2022 to release “The Mars Volta,” a pop album that retains the darting, layered percussion and interwoven melodies of their progressive rock albums. On the ebullient album opener “Blacklight Shines,” Bixler-Zavala uses Spanish lyrics as a way to interrogate his true feelings. After alluding broadly to underlying emotional tension in the previous verse, he lets slip, singing “Lastimado/sentimientos/en mi cinturita/Dame todo el dolor” (“Hurt feelings/in my waist/give me all the pain”).
Listen to The Mars Volta here.
From her first album release in 2013 to today, Xenia Rubinos’ music has been very difficult to label. On her first two albums, she actively refused the catchall of “Latin music,” explaining that despite her heritage and how that naturally reflects itself on her art, pigeonholing her into this does not reflect “the totality of her work,” according to an interview with Remezcla.
Rubinos is a bracing experimentalist, fusing together strains of glitch, soul, funk and hip-hop into dazzling, bracing pop songs. She can go from M.I.A.-style rapping in one song — like in the gleefully acidic “Mexican Chef,” which highlights the overlooked labor of BIPOC people in everyday life — to warping a Puerto Rican danza into an icy, beautiful instrumental in another, like in “Una Rosa.”
Listen to Xenia Rubinos here.
Roberto Carlos Lange — who has recorded under many names, but is most strongly associated with Helado Negro — has seen his songwriting crystallize over the years into a dreamy, hypnotic pop that centers his lived experience as a child of Ecuadorian immigrants. On 2019’s “Please Won’t Please,” Lange softly intones how “Brown won’t go/Brown just glows” over chiming vibraphones and a gentle synth pad.
Lange’s 2015 album “Private Energy” is a thorough exploration of his psyche in the wake of the riots following Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, MO. Helado Negro takes the messy, rewarding, and oftentimes contradictory experience of being Latine in the U.S. and casts a glistening, dreamlike, peaceful pallor over it all, as if to simultaneously highlight the positive experience with the negative.
Listen to Helado Negro here.
Alan Palomo, recording as Neon Indian, has spent years honing and perfecting the indie synthpop song. From his chillwave beginnings to the tropical fantasia of 2015’s “VEGA INTL. Night School,” to go through his discography is to see an artist fully come into their sound. The 2019 single “Toyota Man” is a milestone in two parts: it is the first Neon Indian song to be biographical and it is the first to be sung in Spanish, his native language. Over a summery, off-kilter beat that sounds like a Selena record left out in the sun, Paloma sings of crossing the Rio Grande in Reynosa, Mexico, his father making a living washing cars, and his family collectively learning English from HBO shows (at the same time that line is sung, Paloma interjects with a tongue-in-cheek aside — “Como sé dice Larry Sanders?”).
Listen to Neon Indian here.
For some listeners, their first introduction to Cola Boyy — the Oxnard-based musician who is legally known as Matthew Urango — was in his memorable appearance on The Avalanches’ “We Go On.” Beyond that, Urango has cultivated a unique body of work as one of the 21st century’s most unique disco divas. As an artist and producer, he possesses an immediate and vital grasp of the liberatory role dance music plays for marginalized communities, creating music that reinforces themes of solidarity and uplifting community over blissful disco and funk reveries. The 2018 single “All Power to the People” takes Parliament-Funkadelic’s tendency for funk sloganeering (i.e. “Free Your Mind…” or “Give Up The Funk”) and translates it into a rabble-rousing cry for political solidarity. “Don’t Forget Your Neighborhood” leverages an urgent plea to remember your home and the people who shaped you against a twinkling disco beat, forming a bittersweet tone that is heightened by Urango’s inimitable vocals.
Listen to Cola Boyy here.