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C. Tangana embraces tradition on his groundbreaking album, 'El Madrileño'

Javier Ruiz
Courtesy of the artist

"El Madrileño" — the man from Madrid.

That's the easiest way to describe Antón Álvarez Alfaro, who performs as C. Tangana.

But it's also the title of his 2021 album — an ambitious musical journey across generations, genres, and lyrical traditions that earned him a 2022 Grammy nomination for Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album.

There are hints of tango, urbano, rock , Spanish copla — and they're all seamlessly brought together by Tangana's modern approach to the rich musical heritage that shaped his worldview.

He spoke with NPR's Eyder Peralta about making a 180 from rap to folklore, working with the flamenco maestros and decolonizing Spain's cultural mindset towards Latin America.

The following has been condensed for clarity and length.

Interview Highlights

On going from Spanish trap to folklore music

Well, I've been listening to that music my whole life, but I had never tried it in the studio. So I was 28 years old or 29, something like that. And I started feeling like the [other] music wasn't enough for me, that my ambitions were bigger in the moment. So I just started to do the music that I've been listening [to] my whole life. "El Madrileño" es el resultado.

On working with Gipsy Kings and pushing the boundaries of flamenco

I'm a huge fan of Gipsy Kings. I still play them in every party that I have. They're like legends, but they're also a little bit criticized by the purists of flamenco here in Spain. So for me it's like a statement to do a collaboration with them because I'm not a purist, and this is an album which talks about not being a purist and being mixed and trying to make culture go outside the boundaries. It was kind of, "OK, what do you want for this song?" And my dream was to have them, so it's crazy for me.

On his songwriting process

No soy muy técnico, I didn't study music. But I have this kind of feeling about popular music. In Spain, we don't understand popular as "pop." Pop music is like mainstream. But here in Spain, when we say popular, it's talking about tradition. Talking about feelings that everyone has, or something you get from your grandpa. That is the popular thing. Something a grandpa and su nieto can vibe to. So when I write a song, normally, it's something easy. It's not pretentious. It's always trying to get to the heart of simple things and most people can understand.

On sonic layers of his song "Muriendo de Envidia" with Cuban guitarist Eliades Ochoa

We start with a classic rumba son called "Lola." It's a son that El Pescaílla used to sing to Lola Flores, who is one of the biggest names in Spanish music. So we start there, but we have the special kind of color of the Eliades [Ochoa] guitar, which is a mix between a classic guitar and tres Cubano. It's a mix that he only has that instrument. He made it and it's the instrument that he plays. And then the son continua con un son cubano with a mambo. You know, the origin of salsa is in Cuba. So it's kind of a mix of the traditional way of playing son, and the modern way, or the Faniaway, '70s way of Nuyorican salsa.

On what he describes as Spain's "colonial mindset" toward Latin American music

I think it's something about an older generation. They used to think that Spain was culturally the main one, and the other countries were trying to reach the level of Spain. And that is something that my generation — we don't feel good about it, and we don't feel it's real because we grew up listening to Latin music and having all those superstars. No se, sentíamos que eran mucho más grandes que los Españoles. And the people here were looking only at themselves, y estaban equivocados.

They were wrong because creian que estrellas from here from Spain were bigger, and they weren't. And we were listening to [Latin] music. And also with the reggaeton, the explosion of reggaeton — it was super clear that the culture with our language estaba dominada por el Caribe fundamentalmente, pero en general por América Latina. So I think with this album, a lot of people — old people here from Spain — les ha dado un paso hacia esa música y ese reconocimiento.

On whether he was worried about cultural appropriation by taking on Latin genres for this album

I think es como un topic de nuestra generación. It's something that everyone's having on their minds. But I really feel that el Mediterraneo — you know España, Marruecos, Turkia, Grecia e Italia — it's not the same here as it is in the United States, you know? For us, being mixed is the natural thing. We don't understand culture, we don't understand progress, and we don't understand society without mixing. So my approach is only trying to reflect that. Lo mismo que con los maestros. If you want to reach a level, you have to go to that level and work with the people on that level. So it's the same with culture. If you want to understand bachata, you have to go to the Dominican Republic and dance in a little bodega there.

On his Tiny Desk performance, which became the the top-streamed Tiny Desk of 2021

The first time that we played live in the pandemia was in the Tiny Desk concert — the first time we were together. We had to [take] a lot of tests, after being with no one for months. And then we just stayed together for one day. And that's a real party. We were eating and drinking, and we were there having real fun for the first time in a long period. We were feeling it. That's a very special piece for me. I think it's something very meaningful for Spanish people because it represents our way of living music, and I'm super proud and also super grateful for being able to do that.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Samantha Balaban is a producer at Weekend Edition.
Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.