South American Music and the World

The Spanish and Portuguese didn’t just bring their own musical culture to the New World, but also the one of their enslaved Africans. The African music they brought with them became perhaps the single most recognisable ingredient of Latin music.

Latin American music is the product of the mixture of three main cultures: Indigenous, Spanish-European and African. The music of today reflects this tri-cultural heritage in its instruments, rhythms and lyrics.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards, native cultures used percussion instruments such as Maracas, Güiro and Turtle Shells, and wind instruments such as Quena and Zampona.

During the Conquest, the Spaniards and Portuguese settlers introduced the ancestor of the guitar and other stringed instruments to native people and slaves throughout Latin America, who adopted these instruments and eventually adapted them to their environment.

This regional adaptation gave birth to a wide variety of string instruments that differ in shape, construction, material, number of strings and tuning.

When Africans were brought to the Americas to work as slaves, they brought with them many of their traditions, further enriching the music and culture of Latin America. To this African influence we owe many of our drums, and also the way many of us sing, such as the call and response style, in which a leader sings a line followed by a response from the group.

Drumming was the very pulse of religious ceremonies in Africa, imbued with the spirit of these lands and their inhabitants. During the slave trade era, drumming served as a form of communication, a way to send codes over long distances. Drumming was among the few rights that fortunately weren’t taken away from the African people in the New World. As such, it became a backdrop for free-form dancing and grew into perhaps their purest source of joy.

At busy ports all over the Americas and the Caribbean, slaves and natives mingled and exchanged their unique takes on different rhythms, dances, and songs, giving birth to spontaneous musical collisions that could never be replicated in the very same way elsewhere.

The African musical influence is considered most dominant in widely popular Latin genres like Son, Samba, Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, Rumba, Conga, Tango and Timba.

Salsa (Puerto Rico)

In many musical discussions, styles of music found in the Americas and the Caribbean are often referred to as African-derived. Salsa is no exception and the following discussion explores what is particularly African about the music: clave, a rhythmic concept found in a variety of Latin-American styles.

Similarities in sound and function to African bell patterns provide evidence towards a theory of Clave’s origins and an evolutionary link between African music and Salsa.  

In Spanish, clave literally means key, clef, code, or keystone Clave. To many the word goes beyond explanations and definitions. It means life, salsa, the food of our leisure time, the motion of intense rhythm, the emotion of 20,000 people simultaneously grooving to the natural sounds of life. It’s being in beat, on key, on clave… it means to be on top of things, to be playing it right.

Clave is history, it’s culture. African drums from far off places like Nigeria, Dahomey, and Ghana married the Spanish guitar to bring us clave. The seeds were planted in the Caribbean and now their grandchild is Salsa.

It is said that Salsa is more African than all Black-American musical forms

Tango (Argentina)

Initially, it was just one of the many dances, the Tango is a partner dance, and social dance that originated in the 1880s along the Río de la Plata, the natural border between Argentina and Uruguay. It was born in the impoverished port areas of these countries, with enslaved African populations. 

The Tango is the result of a combination of African Candombe, Spanish-Cuban Habanera, and Argentinian Milonga. The Tango was frequently practiced in the brothels and bars of ports, where business owners employed bands to entertain their patrons with music. The tango then spread to the rest of the world. Many variations of this dance currently exist around the world.

Rumba (Cuba)

With a name that means ‘party’, Rumba is a vibrant form of music and dance that dates back to mid-19th century Havana. Again, the spirit of the African slaves and their drumming pulses through the rumba rhythms, which is accompanied by the melodies of Spanish colonizers.

The original form of rumba was the spontaneous outpouring of Cuban hot blood that never stopped simmering even under slavery’s cold embrace. Slavery ended in 1886, but rumba lived on and for a while kept being suppressed because of its primal nature in the eyes of rulers.

In 1925, President Gerardo Machado basically banned it by making bodily contortions and drums of African nature illegal in public, but later, Fidel Castro embraced it as the Afro-Latin music of the working class.

Samba (Brazil)

It all began with Candomblé and Capoeira. Candomblé was practised in Brazil’s slave quarters and settlements inhabited by fugitive slaves (‘quilombos’). Hailing from Africa, Candomblé became a fully-fledged Brazilian religion, mixing traditions brought from Angola, Benin, Congo and Nigeria.

It’s funny to think that what is now one of the vibrant symbols of Brazil and its cultural diversity was once the subject of rebuke and contempt by the upper-class citizens and European settlers who saw it as obscene.

Samba was born in the region of Bahia, or ‘Little Africa’, where it was performed to honor the Gods in the traditions of Angola, where most African slaves in Bahia came from.

In fact, the word Samba is considered to have a dual origin – from the Angolan Semba, meaning Naval Bump, and from Kusamba, Samba being the infinitive form, which in Brazil signifies ‘to pray’.

Son (Cuba)

This is the predominant musical force in Cuba and the symbol of the island. Structurally, there are two parts: an opening verse followed by a montuno section in which the improvising singer is answered by a chorus. Son’s are centered upon a clave rhythm.

Francophone immigrants brought new elements to Cuba’s African and Spanish mix, forging son in the 1880s. Its success is attributed to the advent of Cuban radio in 1922 and the broadcasting of live bands.

In the late 1920s, a trumpet was added and the son began to swing. One of the most significant ensembles, Septeto Nacional, began in 1927. The son, ‘El Manicero’ (1928) was the first Cuban in Europe. By the 1940’s, Cuban Son had become part of the main-stream popular music in North and South America as well as the Caribbean.

Bossa Nova (Brazil)

This 50’s incarnation has at its core a rhythm based on Samba. Samba combines the rhythmic patterns and feel originating in former African slave communities. Samba’s emphasis on the second beat carries through to Bossa Nova (to the degree that it is often notated in 2/4 time). The sound worldwide rivaled that of Britain in the 60’s, however this Afro inspired music became the sound of middle class Brazil.

Bossa Nova’s story really began in 1958, in Brazil. One of its key architects was Antônio Carlos Jobim (1927-1994), a classically-trained Rio De Janeiro born pianist who also played the guitar, sang and wrote songs.

He had risen to fame in Brazil as the composer of music for a 1956 play, Musicas De Orfeu Da Conceição (which inspired the influential 1959 movie Black Orpheus), and as that decade progressed, he helped to fuse elements of jazz with indigenous Brazilian music to create what became known as the Bossa Nova sound.

Merengue and Bachata (Dominican Republic)

Merengue and Bachata are by far the two most iconic genres that came from the Dominican Republic, and similar to other types of Latin music, they are the products of the diverse influences Spanish settlers brought to the island through the African slave trade.

Despite both dissolute genres, traced back to brothels and low-class bars in the 19th century, dictator Rafael Trujillo was bothered only by Bachata’s roots and branded it the lower art form. He imposed Merengue as the national music, especially between the 1930s and 1960s, while Bachata was enjoyed only in the countryside.

Conga (Cuba)

Congo was the word used to designate African slaves brought to Cuba from the Congo region of Africa. The history of the Conga (also known as Comparsa Conga or Conga de Comparsa) is obscure and its origins remain largely unknown. In the early 19th century, although the word Conga is not found in written sources, there are references to Tumbas, and, Tumba refers to the percussion ensemble of the conga.

Tumba is mentioned in connection with Mamarrachos (summer festivals in Santiago de Cuba) as early as 1847. A word that may be synonymous with Tumba is the word Tango, mentioned as early as 1856.

Unfortunately, most 19th-century writers were extremely negative towards Afro-Cuban culture and little information about the Tumbas or Tangos was recorded. In the early years after the establishment of the Republic of Cuba in 1902, there were numerous decrees by successive mayors of Santiago de Cuba banning ‘African drums and Tangos’.

The conga dance was believed to have been brought over from Africa by slaves in the West Indies, and became a popular street dance in Cuba.

The style was appropriated by politicians during the early years of republic in an attempt to appeal to the masses before election.

Reggaeton (Panama/Puerto Rico)

Reggaeton is the youngest of Latin music genres, but that doesn’t make the tropical cocktail of its musical influences any less rich, with its flavors of Jamaican Reggae Rhythms, Merengue, Bomba and Plena (Puerto Rican percussion-heavy music styles and dances with African roots, originally performed spontaneously on the streets) and sometimes Salsa.

There’s a reasonable debate whether Reggaeton originated in Panama or Puerto Rico.

On the one hand, the Panama Canal is credited as the place where Jamaican music finally collided with Latin rhythms and dances, as in the early 20th century a lot of Jamaicans migrated to work there. On the other, some of the most influential and earliest purveyors of this music come from Puerto Rico, and today, the Caribbean island instantly evokes this deeply percussive music and the signature panache of its performers.