Traditional Latin American music is often overlooked because of the attention people give to main rhythms and styles such as Salsa, Merengue, Tango and Latin Pop.
However, there are hundreds of traditional styles that are worth to get familiar with if one wants to get a better understanding of Latin American music. Let's take a look at some of the most important rhythms and styles that define Traditional Latin music.
Zamba and Murga from The South
Besides Tango, the southern part of South America is home to very interesting traditional music. Zamba is, in fact, the national dance in Argentina and Chile.
The sounds of Zamba are produced by a combination of guitars playing along the beats of a prominent drum named bombo leguero. By contrast, Murga is more of a popular musical theater played in Uruguay and Argentina during the Carnival.
As its name says it, Andean music was born in the extensive region crossed by the Andes. Because of this, Andean music is very popular in countries like Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. This type of indigenous music is usually played with a set of different panpipes, charango (a small string instrument) and bombo (drums).
Choro and Sertaneja Music from Brazil
Choro and Sertaneja music are only two of the most popular forms of Traditional Latin American music coming from Brazil. Choro developed in Rio de Janeiro during the 19th century. It became popular in the 1930s but it lost its appeal during the Bossa Nova boom. Choro is usually played with guitars, flute and cavaquinho, a combination that makes this style quite pleasant to the ear.
Sertaneja music is a traditional style equivalent to Country music in the US. It is, indeed, quite popular in Brazil but not outside the country. Sertaneja has its origins in the sertao and caipira music, two traditional Brazilian music styles. In addition to Choro and Sertaneja, Brazil has many more traditional rhythms that include Maracatu, Afoxe, Frevo and Forro, among others.
Cumbia from Colombia
Cumbia is Colombia's most well known contribution to Traditional Latin American music. This rhythm was born in the Atlantic coast of the country during the 19th century. Cumbia offers a heavy percussion which is nicely combined with large gaita flutes. Despite being a Colombian rhythm, Cumbia has been extensively adopted as a musical expression in modern Mexican popular music.
Llanera Music from Colombia and Venezuela
Outside Colombia and Venezuela, very few are familiar with Musica Llanera, the music from the enormous area that includes the Colombian and Venezuelan plains above the Amazon. Llanera music takes inspiration from the country life in the plains and its rich sounds are produced by a standard combination of harp, string instruments (cuatro or bandola) and maracas.
Son and Danzon from Cuba
Cuba is by far one of the most influential countries in the making of Latin American music. It is also a land where we can find some of the most popular expressions of Traditional Latin music. Cuban Son, which was born in the Cuban country side, was originally played with guitars and percussion instruments such as clave and maracas. Cuban Son is, in fact, an essential ingredient of that musical mix we refer to as Salsa.
Danzon is one of those rhythms from which you can perceive a perfect combination of European sounds and African influences. It evolved from previous styles that included contradanza and habanera. This is definitely one of the most pleasant rhythms of Cuban music.
Plena and Bomba from Puerto Rico
Similarly to Cuban Son, the origins or Puerto Rican Bomba and Plena are also linked to country life. Both rhythms are heavily charged with African influences. Because of this, drums play a major role in the sounds of Bomba and Plena. While Bomba surged in northern Puerto Rico, Plena evolved in the southern, coastal part of the country.
Ranchera and Sones from Mexico
Overall, Ranchera is one of the most popular styles of Traditional Latin American music. It was originally played by a single guitar player but later became closely related to a full Mariachi band. During the troubling times of the Mexican Revolution, Ranchera music became a way to promote Mexican culture.
Nevertheless, two centuries before Ranchera, Mexico had developed its own Son, which was influenced by indigenous elements as well as African and Spanish traditions. Mexican Son was not a fixed rhythm but rather a flexible musical style whose sounds were heavily shaped by the different regions where it used to be played.
Besides Mexican Son and all the musical forms mentioned in this article, there is an amazing range of Traditional Latin music styles throughout Latin America. Each individual country in the region has nurtured Latin American music with its own contribution. This article is just an introduction for all of those who want to venture further in the rich universe of Traditional Latin music.
A Look at The Cultural Mix and Social Environment that Produced Latin Music
Latin music is the result of a complex social and historical process that took place in the Americas after the arrival of Columbus. Despite the traumatic experience, Latin music is one of the positive outcomes that came from that process. The following is a brief introduction to Latin music history that takes a look at the cultural mix and social environment that ended up producing one of the best music genres in the entire world.
Generally speaking, Latin music history starts with the cultural encounter that occurred after the arrival of Columbus. However, it is important to remember that the indigenous people of the New World had their own music. For instance, the Maya culture gave great attention to music producing all kinds of percussion and wind instruments.
Wind instruments were very popular among Pre-Columbian cultures. All kinds of flutes were made all over the American continent and fortunately, this original expression has persisted to date in traditional Latin music like South America's Andean music.
The Arrival of Europeans to The New World
Language was the first contribution that the Spanish and Portuguese powers brought to the New World. Latin music is, in fact, defined to a large extend by the Spanish and Portuguese languages. While Portuguese came to define the music from Brazil, Spanish language defined the rest of Latin America.
The second contribution that Europeans brought to the new land was their music. In fact, when the Spanish conquerors arrived to the American continent their homeland had rich musical expressions that included traditions from both the European and the Arab worlds.
Along with their music, Europeans also brought their instruments. Originally, these instruments were intended to recreate the music that was played in Europe. However, they soon became the ideal tools to express the feelings of the new inhabitants that were defining the roots of Latin America.
The African Influence
The African slaves that arrived to the New World brought with them all the traditions and beats from their continent. The African influence in Latin music is so big that this could be the single most important element in Latin music history.
That influence, of course, does not touch all the rhythms and styles that belong to Latin music. However, if we just take a look at the music that has come from Brazil and the Caribbean, then we know how significant this influence is. Samba, Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, Timba, and many more, are just some of the rhythms that have been shaped by African beats.
The full picture about this influence includes also African-American music. In particular, the development of Jazz had a tremendous impact in the making of Latin music rhythms such as Mambo, Bossa Nova, and Latin Jazz. More recently, African-American styles like R&B and Hip-Hop have defined the development of Latin music genres such as Reggaeton and Urban music.
A Social Phenomenon
The encounter of the three cultures mentioned before created the dynamic social environment that has shaped Latin music since the colonial times. This environment has been nurtured by foreign sounds, regional traditions, class divisions, and even national identities.
Latin Pop and Rock en Espanol have been shaped by the foreign sounds of Rock, Alternative and Pop music. Regional traditions like the cowboy way of life in the plains of Colombia and Venezuela have produced Llanera music.
Social conditions, especially those created by immigration and class divisions, are behind the development of Tango in Argentina. Traditional Mexican music was largely defined by a feeling of national identity that was incorporated into Mariachi music after the Mexican Revolution.
Considering all this, a serious study of Latin music history is definitely an overwhelming task. However, there is no other way to deal with it. Latin music is a complex phenomenon that reflects the complex history of Latin America, a mixed region whose social environment has forged some of the most beautiful sounds in the world.
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