The first song Johnson plays, "En La Navidad," proves just that. It's a classic salsa tune, performed here by Héctor Lavoe; he's one of Puerto Rico's most famous salsa singers, or salseros. Joining Lavoe in the song is fellow Puerto Rican Yomo Toro, who was among the most revered players of the country's national instrument, the cuatro.
From there, Johnson plays a song from Lila Downs, one of Mexico's most talented ranchera singers. She performs "Amarga Navidad," or "Bitter Christmas." The song strays far from the upbeat tone of much holiday music, and Johnson describes its words as a parting message at the end of a relationship: "December is, like, a really good time for you to leave, because I'd like to start the new year without you."
A lot of Latin Christmas music describes other popular traditions practiced during the holidays. Dominican salsa and merengue singer Cuco Valoy's "A Comer Lechon" is an ode to lechon, a suckling-pig-based dish popular in a number of countries; it's often eaten on Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve.
Finally, Johnson brings a North American interpretation of Latin Christmas music. "Feliz Navidad," originally written in 1970 by Puerto Rican singer-songwriter José Feliciano, has become part of the popular holiday-music canon, even outside of Latin America. Daddy Mack Blues Band's version adds Memphis twang to the popular tune.
Listen to the Christmas special at WorldCafe.NPR.org
Listen to Catalina Maria Johnson's holiday playlist on Spotify.
Yomo Y Daniel Hector / “En La Navidad” / Feliz Navidad
Lila Downs / "AMARGA NAVIDAD" / La Cantina
Latinos Band / "FAROLITO" / Navidad Colombiana – Para Cantar Y Bailar La Novena De Aguinaldos
Cuco Valoy / "A COMER LECHON" / Tira Pulla En Navidad!
The Daddy Mack Blues Band / "FELIZ NAVIDAD" / Bluestones