Oye Como Va

Posted: Sunday, September 19, 2010

At just about seven this past Tuesday night, Leo Novoa rolled up his shirtsleeves, squared his cowboy boots and took a slurp of water from a BPA-free Nalgene.

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Libby Sterling / Juneau Empire
Libby Sterling / Juneau Empire

"I wish this was a mojito," he said, sliding into the KRNN DJ booth as the weather played - in English - at the top of the hour. He smiled wryly. "Just kidding. Maybe."

There are two Spanish-language radio shows in Juneau and Leo Novoa hosts both of them: KRNN's "Ritmo Latino" on Tuesday nights from 7 to 9 p.m., and KXLJ (1330 am)'s "La Musica Tu y Yo" (Music for You and Me) on Thursdays from 4 to 5 p.m. Blending language and music from all over the Hispanic world, for those three hours each week, the airwaves crackle (mostly) in Spanish.

Smoothing down his dark ponytail, Novoa sat poised at the control board. His musical selections run the gamut, from South American tango to Mexican norteño to Cuban son, and Leo is old school - he still uses CDs; he doesn't "do" email. Co-host Aida Santos leaned in and began Ritmo Latino as per usual custom: translating the weather - el tiempo - into Spanish.

"Esta noche, cielo despejado, cinquenta grados; manana, hace sol ..." she said - tonight, clear skies, 50 degrees; tomorrow, sunny...

"It's always easier when you have someone else to talk to," Novoa explained, hitting the play button - an upbeat number from the sountrack to Buena Vista Social Club. Energetic and loquacious in both languages, it seems he'd have little difficulty filling the space by himself.

Nonetheless, Novoa prefers to work with a sidekick, a Sancho Panza to his Don Quijote. Santos has been co-hosting Ritmo Latino off and on since the early 1980s (Novoa has hosted for the last five years). On "La Musica Tu y Yo," KXLJ jack-of-all trades Olga Lijo fills the role. Her brainchild, "La Musica" is the station's only live show. The rest of its programming is syndicated.

"Unless you count the community calendar and the weather," Lijo said earlier that morning at her desk in the tiny blue cottage that houses KXLJ (and CBS's Southeast Alaska network TV affiliate).

While deadlines precluded me from sitting in on La Musica Tu y Yo - in which, according to Novoa, there's even more repartee, with Thursday afternoon being the start of his weekend - the banter on Ritmo Latino was quick and lively, flipping back and forth with bilingual ease. It took all the old high school Spanish I could muster to follow who was saying what in which language.

"We're volunteers, but we try to be as professional as possible," Novoa said. "And if we make a mistake, we apologize." Se disculpamos.

"No, we don't," Santos corrected him - no disculpamos para; nunca jamas.

"In Spanish we do," he shot back - en espanol, se disculpamos. "That way no one understands."

Of course, some people do understand (even if it's not until several hours later, with access to online translation tools).

According to 2000 census figures, Latino/Hispanic Americans comprise about 4 percent of Juneau's 30,000 population - Novoa, Santos and Lijo represent 1 percent of that. Novoa is from Chile - Novoa es de Chile - Santiago, the country's government seat. Trading one capital for another, he came to Juneau more than 15 years ago "for a beautiful woman, not speaking a word of English, not knowing about winter." Santos es una puertorriquena - Santos is Puerto Rican - and has lived in Juneau for nearly 30 years, having relocated with her late first husband.

"He was from Bulgaria; San Juan was too hot for him," she said.

Lijo grew up in Spain - Lijo crecio en la Espana - and also came to Juneau for love, her husband a longtime KTOO volunteer - "he plays a lot more Latin music now."

In that way, the three provide an oddly accurate portrayal of Juneau's Latino community, which includes people from all over the world. ("Although I'm the only Spaniard I know in Southeast Alaska," Lijo offered.)

While Novoa recognizes the heterogeneity of his listenersship, he finds a common ground.

"Music is our energy, no matter where we're from," he said. "Put on some music and it's a party."

Above all else, Novoa's show is about sharing culture.

"Funny thing about Juneau, Spanish radio isn't just for native speakers," he said, estimating that 60 percent of his audience are, for lack of a better term, gringos.

"People here have the time - and make the time - to experience different cultures," he said, noting that it goes both ways. By blending native and non-native speakers alike and translating, constantly, back and forth, he, Santos and Lijo not only educate, but are able to invite audience members to interact with each other who otherwise might not.

In Spanish or English, that's community radio in its truest essence. Or as Novoa puts it: "We stay connected through music."

• Geoff Kirsch is a writer in Juneau. Visit his website at www.geoffkirsch.com.

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