Immediately after the podcast La Brega launched in February of 2021, it was met with rave reviews from listeners and critics alike. The first season of the show — co-produced by Futuro Studios and WNYC — focused on historical and sociopolitical events that have shaped Puerto Rico over the past few decades. The storytelling struck a chord both with locals living on the archipelago and Puerto Ricans in the diaspora — and the program also drew in non-Puerto Ricans, who have been enthralled by the meticulous reporting showcased in each episode.
The story of Puerto Rico is filled with turmoil and heartbreak, something La Brega captured exceptionally well. However, after the second season was green-lit, podcast creator Alana Casanova-Burgess wanted to do something different. “You can’t talk about Puerto Rico without also talking about joy and a great sense of humor and everything,” she says.
The challenge, then, was how to balance joy while still preserving the serious tones of certain issues the podcast covers. “As a team, we’re all very conscious of not tipping over too hard to the other side, and making it all about the stereotype that Boricuas are always smiling and dancing, and Caribbean fetishism that we’re all just swinging maracas around all the time,” Casanova-Burgess explains.
So they came up with an idea: The team built season two of La Brega around eight songs that reflect the Puerto Rican experience. These include classics like “Preciosa,” originally composed by Rafael Hernández Marín in 1937 and popularized by Marc Anthony in the Nineties; the merengue favorite “Suavemente” by the Grammy-winning star Elvis Crespo; and “Boricua En La Luna,” based on a poem by Juan Antonio Corretjer. To take the concept even further, La Brega’s producers decided to release a full soundtrack — called La Brega: El Álbum — featuring rising stars reinterpreting six of the songs and giving them new weight.
A few highlights include alternative funk/R&B singer-songwriter Xenia Rubinos doing her own rendition of “Preciosa,” rising star RaiNao and ÌFÉ teaming up for a new take on Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s “I Wonder If I Take You Home,” cuir singing sensation Ana Macho delivering a stirring rock cover of Willie Colón’s “El Gran Varón,” and La Tribu de Abrante, a popular troupe from Puerto Rico’s historically Afro-Boricua town of Loíza, turning Tite Curet Alonso’s “Las Caras Lindas” into a rousing bomba production.
“We were thinking very carefully about matching the artists to the energy of the episodes,” Casanova-Burgess says. “For example, we talk about ‘Las Caras Lindas’ traveling the globe, going all across the hemisphere, […] and we’re thinking about its place in Latin America — but what would it sound like if we made it bomba?”
Many of the performances on the soundtrack brought out the different meanings and nuances embedded in each song. “Preciosa,” for example, has been considered one of Puerto Rico’s unofficial national anthems for decades: Hernández Marín wrote it in Mexico, when he was living far away from his homeland. The song reached new levels of mainstream fame through Anthony’s 1998 cover and a rhapsodic live performance at Madison Square Garden in 2004. Throughout the years, the beloved piece of music has often spoken to the relationship many Puerto Ricans living in the diaspora have with their home, something that the podcast focuses on in its opening episode.
Through the music, the team at La Brega could peel back the layers even more: “We were thinking, ‘We don’t often hear this come out of a woman’s voice, and, how cool would it be to have another diasporic interpretation?’” That’s ultimately what makes Rubinos’ version so compelling. Rubinos was born in Connecticut to a Cuban father and Puerto Rican mother, and she holds both places close to her heart. “Xenia brings a complication to that song. What if you’re not born in a place or live in a place, but you’re still from a place, right? You can hear in her voice this pride that’s complicated. There’s more yearning, there’s more pain behind it,” Casanova-Burgess says.
Rubinos shares that she wanted to infuse the song with a traditional rhythm and blues ballad sound, the kind you could “dance cheek-to-cheek with your crush.” Towards the end of her rendition, she segues into a more introspective tone. “When I began to sing it, a feeling of distance came to me, of longing for a love that is far away — and it occurred to me that the song is a long-distance love letter,” she says.
Another emotional moment comes on “El Gran Varón,” the salsa track made famous by Colón that tells the story of a father who works to raise a “proud man,” and learns years later that his child seems to identify as a woman. The song ends on a tragic note, with the child dying of a “strange disease” as an adult. Many have pointed out that this is almost certainly an allusion to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the Eighties, given that the song was written in 1986 and released in 1989. But what Colón and songwriter Omar Alfanno intended to communicate has been the subject of much debate: Alfanno himself is interviewed on La Brega, and he reveals the song is partly based on the true story of a classmate who had come out as gay. In his words, the lyrics are meant to be sympathetic, but as the episode recounts, there’s a problematic element to how the story is framed. The father is the protagonist, while the child is otherized, and though the chorus maintains that their queerness is part of “nature,” it compares them to a tree that grows bent out of shape.
Casanova-Burgess knew that despite how popular the song continues to be, an update in 2023 would have to address those issues — especially given the violence and homicides against queer and trans people in Puerto Rico. She reached out to Ana Macho, a Caguas native and rising alt-pop star who identifies as non-binary, and invited them to take on the challenge of bringing “El Gran Varón” into the present day.
“Originally, I told Alana I wanted to change the pronouns [in the song], but that opened up a legal conversation about whether we could change the lyrics,” they shared. Eventually, Ana Macho decided against it, realizing it’s hard to truly understand the wishes and gender identity of the character at the heart of the song. “Let me leave the lyrics as they are. This song tells a story [about people] I’m unfamiliar with,” Macho remembers thinking. Instead, they worked on a version that is an exciting hybrid of glam metal and tropical fusion, or as Casanova-Burgess says, quoting a conversation with Macho, “something queer people in the Eighties would listen to.”
The song has another painful layer. In recent years, Colón has gone from a salsa legend to a controversial figure who has embraced right-wing ideology, including ignorant attacks against the trans community. Macho chose their words carefully but held Colón accountable. “I respect [his] art, I respect him as Puerto Rican, and I think he’s one of the original Caribbean pop stars. I think he explored a lot in his lyrics, and I respect him as a songwriter and as a singer. I will give him his dues — before I drag him,” they laugh. “That being said, I was disappointed by the comments he’s made. I don’t respect them, and I don’t respect his perspective, because they come from a misinformed place and he feels comfortable making comments about it, regardless. That tells me a lot about his ego. [Trans people] are not an abstract thing. We’re real people, who exist and feel and suffer.”
For other artists, the songs on La Brega: El Álbum were an opportunity to take a risk. Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s “I Wonder If I Take You Home” is one of the defining songs of the Latin freestyle genre that peaked in the late-Eighties and early-Nineties. For the update, the team at La Brega recruited alt-urbano musician RaiNao and music veteran ÌFÉ, who also did the original music for the podcast. ÌFÉ produced the track, combining a freestyle beat with an oriza salsa rhythm that was popularized by the orchestra Cortijo y Su Combo. The track is sung entirely in English, a first for RaiNao who has only sung Spanish. Still, exploring with the oriza sound made things a little easier. “I might be doing a song in English, but at the same time I was comfortable because these [Caribbean] rhythms live inside us,” she says.
When it came out, “I Wonder If I Take You Home” spoke to the sexual awakening and agency of young Latinas, something the podcast explores. RaiNao connected with that freedom and the way Lisa Lisa’s music freed many young listeners to muse about sex and desire in ways they hadn’t before. “Speaking openly about sexuality is very important. My parents never spoke to me about that, and it was very taboo – but I grew up in a generation that was very exposed to that and that was more open to experiment,” she says. “And I like talking about that – or more accurately, I like speaking my mind.” Even though she hadn’t sung in English, she connected with the message of the song. “It was another generation, another way of communicating, but in the end it’s still two women talking about their sexual and romantic experiences, emotions, and how they love. To me music is a way to tell stories and express yourself, and I don’t know her but I’m sure for Lisa Lisa as well.”
So much of the soundtrack expands the complex issues that La Brega tackles on the podcast. It’s just the beginning: Later this month, La Brega is going to dive into more of these conversations with a Q&A and performance featuring Ana Macho at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The event will come just before the popular exhibit “no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria” closes.
Casanova-Burgess admits that simultaneously juggling a podcast and a soundtrack wasn’t easy. However, she’s pleased with how the musical companion to La Brega turned out and how it adds more context to the show’s subject matter through song. “We were so lucky that people said yes, and also that [they] intrinsically understood the assignment: Make this your own, make it come out of your voice today.”
La Brega: El Álbum is out April 11th everywhere.