From raw Afro-Venezuelan percussion to the thundering boom of mariachi trumpets, folkloric and traditional sounds continue to have an impact on music of the Latinx diaspora. For this year’s best of 2018 coverage, we’ve elected to create a list of the most impressive folk fusion songs, a category that aims to capture the vast body of work that artists who reimagine traditional genres are creating. While this umbrella term may not encapsulate every one of these styles and sounds, we feel that it epitomizes how, even with the legacies of colonialism and slavery, these traditions still exist and are continually evolving. By experimenting with ancestral sounds, artists like Mala Fama, Hidden Memory, and Chancha Via Circuito are showing that this music has longevity and present-day relevance. Accordingly, this list features all kinds of folk fusion sounds, from neoflamenco to technomerengue.
Our list cuts across region and genre, capturing the sounds we believe are leading the pack in different diasporas. Selected by our editorial and freelance staff, these are the top 10 folk fusion songs of 2018.
STEFA* - “Sepalina”
Queens-born artist Stefa Marín Alarcón wrote “Sepalina” after finding out her grandmother hailed from the Emberá-Chamí tribe, a discovery that changed her life forever. While researching the Emberá people online, she encountered a traditional chant that she transcribed and adapted for “Sepalina.” Both the track and the album tell the story of an amnesiac “native alien” who washes up on the shore of an unfamiliar world, stripped of her memories and her language. The alien tries to piece together her background, creating a thinly veiled metaphor for STEFA*’s own story. On “Sepalina,” STEFA*’s multi-tracked vocals summon forebears she will most likely never know, a choir of ghosts responding to her own call through harmonies and ecstatic hollering. Her vocals are the musical setting for her ancestors to connect to a modern world that doesn’t fully accept her, but they also transport her to a new life. For generations of immigrants, refugees, and colonized people both old and new, disconnections between the past and present are all-too-familiar. STEFA* manages to harness this sentiment into a restless, naturalistic, and futuristic song to which so many can relate. It’s an ambitious undertaking that hits its emotional highs with intensity. – Marcos Hassan
Huaira - “Ochiemay”
For many of us, Nicola Cruz’s 2015 single “Colibría” was the first introduction to Huaira. Just in time for the summer solstice, and backed by musicians Diego Illescas and Pablo and Julio Vicencio, the Ecuadorian vocalist released her debut EP Ñuka Shunku (“I’m all heart” in Quechua). Its second track “Ochiemay” conjures vivid visions of the Americas, as well as its wild and ineffable landscapes and indigenous cultures.
“Ochiemay” radiates healing energy, as Huaira brandishes plucked strings, Andean flutes, and Afro-Ecuadorian rhythms to summon Mother Nature, even if we’re trapped in concrete in the middle of a harsh city, illuminated by a laptop screen. The lyrics, sung both in Quechua and Spanish, are charged with symbolism, resembling a prayer that honors nature and our ancestors. We can feel the warmth of the blood running through our veins, and in a world that’s growing colder by the day, who doesn’t need that? – Cheky
Hidden Memory - "Ritmo Oscuro"
Nothing makes a person seek a deeper connection to their roots than distance from their homeland and culture. Venezuelans have learned this the hard way, with a continually worsening immigration crisis. Producer Emmerson Hernández fled Venezuela 10 years ago, and after cutting his teeth abroad while dabbling with experimental club music, he relocated to the Netherlands this year, just in time to unleash Hidden Memory, a new project where he reconnects with his own Afro-Venezuelan ancestry.
“Ritmo Oscuro,” from his debut Dark Rhythms EP, is the best example of this quest to embrace his heritage and spark a dialogue between afro-diasporic genres. His use of raw percussion samples from the black Venezuelan coast sound perfectly at home when paired with a dark, heavy-hitting gqom beat, especially when layered with echoes of ritualistic chants from Mali’s Dogon tribe. Thanks to his profound understanding of bass music, Hernández can twist these sounds to find a home on international dance floors, where his music can accomplish its main goal: uniting people and celebrating a sense of community through the use of ancestral rhythms. – Cheky
Chancha Via Circuito - "Ilaló" ft. Mateo Kingman
“Ilaló” opens with what could be an Andean prayer, a plea to divine figures and the morning star to deliver light and calm. There’s no context for why the song conjures tranquility and good vibes, but we’re living in a time where peace and illumination are needed everyday, and procuring these forces gets more difficult with each passing moment. Chancha via Circuito offers an escape, a response to the entreaty recited by Ecuadorian musician Mateo Kingman in the opening moments of “Ilaló,” giving us a musical backdrop that continues to evolve the subgenre the Buenos Aires artist helped pioneer a decade ago. But on “Ilaló,” the pair has found fresh ways to arrange folkloric instruments with electronics – there’s not a second in the song that sounds like generic electrocumbia. Through percussion of the past and beats of the present, the track is an invitation to revel in nature, one that leads to a sanctuary for the soul, like a psalm for the elements. – Marcos Hassan
Cuco - “Amor De Siempre” (Mariachi Version)
Cuco’s retooled version of 2016’s “Amor Por Siempre” kicks off with a wah pedal-driven guitar that invokes the holiest of Chicano entities, San Francisco’s Malo. The moment is brief – perhaps just a gentle summoning of his Chicano ancestors – but it opens a path for the incoming wall of mariachi sound that follows. Mariachis Lindas Mexicanas, an all-woman outfit from Boyle Heights, gently cradle the song with the guitarrón rhythms and mellow horn arrangements that permeated so many Chicano childhood pachangas, like the parties the 20-year-old singer’s grandparents hosted. “To be able to make something that is very much my culture into also something that I created definitely puts two worlds into one kind of really great crossover,” he told Remezcla earlier this year.
With the holidays coming up, it’s the perfect time to sneak “Amor De Siempre” in between repeat singalongs of “El Rey” and “Amor De Siempre’s” spiritual ancestor “Amor Eterno.” You might even catch your drunk tíos singing along before the sun comes up. You know, when posada really starts popping off. – Eduardo Cepeda
Carolina Camacho – “Tingó”
One of the year’s most poignant pieces of social criticism came from Dominican leona Carolina Camacho, who, on “Tingó,” her sole release of 2018, unpacked and eviscerated oppressive patriarchal structures while promoting empathy in lieu of anger. “Tingó” is inspired by and dedicated to Afro-Dominican activist Mamá Tingó, an influential figure of resistance who was murdered in the 1970s while defending her land. Beyond presenting a straightforward feminist anthem, Camacho aims to break the silence that women are subjected as a consequence of machismo-driven violence. “Quítame la mano de la boca/la venda de tus ojos/y camina conmigo,” she sings, inviting men everywhere to join her on the path to freedom, equality, and self-love. Camacho’s musical choices should not be overlooked either, as highlighting her Afro-Caribbean heritage continues to be an essential component of her sound. Blending traditional tamboras with trap production and the faintest whisper of West African guitar picking keep “Tingó” firmly rooted in Camacho’s musical birthright, while paving new avenues for innovation and self-actualization. – Richard Villegas
Ile - “Odio”
In the aftermath of Hurricane María, Puerto Rican artists committed themselves to work that proved their community’s resilience, and Ileana Cabra’s single “Odio” may have been one of the most powerful examples of the island’s strength and resistance in the face of documented abuses and neglect from the U.S. government. The former Calle 13 rapper-turned-solo-singer leverages her hair-raising vocals to honor the 1978 Cerro Maravilla massacre, the police killing of two young pro-independence activists and its resulting government cover-up. Combining Puerto Rican traditions like a thudding bomba rhythm, Cabra links the past and the present and defiantly announces that hatred won’t ever win: “Que el odio se muera de hambre/Porque nadie le da de comer.” A video that doesn’t shy away from the brutality Puerto Ricans have overcome throughout history is just as arresting as the song — and it serves as a testament of Ile’s commitment to defending and demanding attention for the island. – Julyssa Lopez
Trending Tropics - “Elintelné” ft. Wiso G
2018 may have been the year of the cynical, label-made feature, but Trending Tropics displayed a broader understanding of Latin America’s rhythmic commonalities, tapping a world of musical influences and guest stars for one of the wildest and most exuberant collaborations in recent memory. Comprised of Eduardo Cabra, better known as the Visitante half of Calle 13, and Dominican multi-instrumentalist Vicente García, Trending Tropics and their self-titled debut album unfold with all the twists and turns of a rollercoaster in hyperspeed. This should come as no surprise considering Cabra’s history of sonic alchemy and García’s own scholarly investigations into Afro-Caribbean musicology.
While the album beams with standouts, the epic techno merengue madness of “El Intelné,” featuring Puerto Rican reggaetonero Wiso G, soars to the top of the list. The premise is simple: an alien falls to Earth and cannot understand how humans are hopelessly addicted to electronic devices and a strange force called the Internet. The rest is a relentless three-minute game of perico ripiao Dance Dance Revolution that bounces from a drum machine and güira scrapes to Wiso G’s bars. García’s high-pitched vocals in the chorus add to the lively and humorous energy of “El Intelné,” making it one of the year’s most whimsical bangers. – Richard Villegas
Mala Fama - “Yara Huaita Yura Huaita”
A real good reason to experiment with folkloric music traditions in electronic settings (or anywhere at all) would be in pursuit of a phrase I learned from the press release for Mala Fama’s Anta EP, released by ambitious experimental label APOCALIPSIS. “Non-linear retellings,” it said, an expression of the Ibarra, Ecuador producer’s goal of recording services at the local church in the indigenous community of Cotacachi. In so doing, and via the punctilious production work that followed, Mala Fama creates an out-of-body sensation, some kind of portal out of a reductive reality and into a wraparound view of another neighborhood’s seismic shifts. Anta itself means “machine” in Quechua, a clever fusion that at once identifies the aural vibe of the APOCALIPSIS project. If it all sounds well-planned, that is because the single is one of the first releases from a new label that seems hellbent on multi-dimensional storytelling of indigenous South American traditions, with language that invites connection in even our most moment-anchored mentalities. And if the haunting track inspires someone to educate themselves with some actual linear readings of life in Ecuador’s indigenous communities, all the better. – Caitlin Donohue
Rosalía - "Pienso en Tu Mirá"
Rosalía’s “Pienso Tu Mirá” came to the world like a live grenade wrapped neatly in a bright bubblegum wrapper. At its surface, the infectiously bouncy song was another way in which the Catalan singer ably combined flamenco traditions and contemporary pop — in this case, she married a hand-clapping beat with woozy R&B influences. But a deeper inspection of the track exposes new layers that reflect Rosalía’s provocative brand of folkloric synthesis. There are the disturbingly chipper chants from the Spanish women’s choir Milagros, eerie lyrics about a man’s descent into jealousy, and Rosalía’s own vocal dynamisms, which smoothly convey male insecurity (“Me da miedo cuando sales”) and a tormented woman’s rage (“Pienso en tu mirá’, tu mirá clavá’ es una bala en el pecho”). All of these elements make Rosalía’s message of possessiveness and toxic love much darker and deeper than expected, showing she’s firing on all cylinders and willing to stretch the boundaries and expectations around her music in every way. – Julyssa Lopez