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Latin American Music.

Latin America has produced an enormous diversity of musical genres, styles, instruments, and performance practices. Beyond its immediate local and national impact, music from Latin American countries has had strong international influence. From the colonial era onward, Latin American music has engaged in ongoing dialogue and cultural exchange that has profoundly affected music making in Europe and the United States and, more recently, in Africa and Asia as well. The U.S. relationship with Latin American music is particularly rich and long-lived, and continuing immigration from Latin American countries only promises further development.

1. The conquest and the colonial period.

The decades following Columbus’s arrival on the island of Hispaniola in 1492 saw the rapid exploration and conquest of Central and South American territories and material riches and the organized subjugation of indigenous peoples. Music was a key part of this process, as the urban civilizations of Mesoamerica and the Andes already placed a high value on ritual spectacle. Christian missionaries therefore made music an important tool of religious conversion. To aid in evangelization, composers frequently employed indigenous languages, rather than Latin, in their religious compositions. The anonymous Incan Quechua hymn “Hanacpachap cussicuinin” (early 1600s), considered to be the first published polyphonic work in the New World, is an example of this trend, as is Hernando Franco’s (1532–85) chanzoneta “Dios itlazonantzine,” which peppers the Nahuatl (Aztec) text with Spanish references to God, Mary, and Christ. Not all religious music was liturgical in nature, however, and the aural evangelization of the New World spilled out of the cathedrals and into the streets in processions and outdoor celebrations. At Christmastime, for example, light religious songs called villancicos celebrated the Nativity and were often sung in processions reenacting Mary and Joseph’s journey to the stable in Bethlehem. The sesquiáltera-inflected villancico seemed particularly well suited to indigenous texts, and there are many fine examples, including “Tleycantino choquiliya” and the Christmas lullaby “Xicochi, xicochi,” both by Gaspar Fernándes (c1570–1629).

The colonial leadership did not solicit music solely for the purpose of evangelizing the locals. Unlike the British colonies, which were viewed as uncivilized outposts by those at home, Spain, and to a lesser extent Portugal, viewed their American holdings as extensions of their respective kingdoms, and as in Europe, there quickly developed competition between urban centers to see which could outshine the rest. While European operas were heard in the major cities, the first Latin American opera was Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco’s (d 1728) La púrpura de la rosa, which premiered in Lima in 1701. Based on Calderón de la Barca’s libretto, the work was modeled after the Spanishtonadilla, rather than Italian opera, and is thus structured around chains of strophic tonadas rather than aria and recitative. The opera features well-known characters from the Greek pantheon along with several allegorical figures in a morality drama that stresses prudence and reason over emotional excess. Not to be outdone, the native-born chapel master of Mexico City cathedral, Manuel Zumaya (or Sumaya, d 1755), responded with his opera Parténope (1711).

2. Indigenous music before and after the conquest.

The Spanish presence did not overwrite indigenous musical culture. We can never know how pre-Colombian music sounded to those who created and consumed it, or even to the Spanish who frequently chronicled their encounters with their new soundscape. From extensive archaeological evidence and detailed descriptions by Spanish explorers and missionaries, however, we know that various types of percussion instruments, aerophones, and vocal music were the primary forms of musical expression prior to contact. Spanish chroniclers extensively described the use of aerophones, both in Mesoamerica and the Andean region. Variations on the vertical-duct flute were commonly found in Mesoamerica, and in the Andean region the use of aerophones was especially rich. There, the Spanish encountered Inca musicians blowing on conch-shell qqepatrumpets, antara panpipes, and the end-blown kena and pingullo flutes. Many of these instruments are still in use today.

In the Andes, some indigenous musical forms survive from the era of Inca rule. One of the oldest forms is known as the harawi. Consisting of a single, repeated melodic statement, harawi are sung in a heterophonic unison by older women in a high vocal range, and are performed exclusively in Quechua. European musical practices could also be indigenized, as is the case with the Andean charango. A small, guitarlike instrument that descended from the Spanish vihuela, the charango’s small size produces a high-pitched sound that conforms to Andean aesthetic preferences. Indigenous groups constructed charangos out of regionally available materials; in some highland areas where wood is scarce, the instrument’s body is made from the shell of a small armadillo. Other European instruments, such as the harp and violin, were also taken up by indigenous groups in Latin America and the U.S. Southwest and have become markers of indigenous culture. This repurposing of European instruments, where the instrument and the sound that it produces are wholly absorbed into the aesthetics and symbolism of native culture, differentiates such practices from the many hybrid, or mestizo, musics of Latin America.

3. Mestizo musics.

Mestizo musics represent a blending of the material cultures, aesthetics, performance practices, and belief systems of European and indigenous culture. There are many mestizo musics found across Latin America, but they share some common traits. One is a central reliance on stringed instruments, which are found in nearly all mestizo music ensembles. The most important instruments are the guitar, harp, violin, mandolin and their variants. The sound palette was broadened in the early 20th century by the introduction of brass bands and the growing popularity of the button and piano accordion. Mestizo groups also appropriated African-derived musical instruments, such as the marimba (played by mestizo groups in southern Mexico and Central America) and various types of drums and percussion instruments. Colombia’s popular dance genre cumbia began with just such a mixture, blending indigenous wind instruments with African-derived drums and hand percussion. In the early 20th century, the diatonic accordion replaced the indigenous flutes, creating the characteristic sound that is now enjoyed internationally. Perhaps the best-known form of mestizo music in the United States is the mariachi band.

4. African-derived music.

A third major influence on the development of Latin American music was the music culture of the tens of thousands of African slaves brought forcibly to the continent. While coming from different ethnic and cultural groups with their own distinct musics, African slaves shared some core material, aesthetic, and performance practices that spread throughout the Americas. The most prominent of these is the drum, which is found in numerous manifestations across Latin America, as is the marimba. Another African instrument, the lamellaphone (commonly referred to as the “thumb piano”), produces its characteristic sound with metal tongues, or keys, attached to a resonator. Hand-held lamellaphones continue to be played in Suriname, while their larger cousin, the marímbula, is an important bass instrument in the Caribbean. Other African instruments that were brought to Latin America include the musical bow, variations on the gourd shaker, rattles, and scrapers. The use of call-and-response is widespread in African diasporic communities throughout the Americas, as is the use of polyrhythm, the interlocking of vocal and instrumental patterns, and the cyclic repetition of rhythms, melodies or a harmonic progression, or a combination of these elements. Such cyclic repetition is a defining feature of dance genres such as son and salsa, where rhythmic and harmonic repetition forms the montuno, or underlying groove.

African-derived genres can be found in both sacred and secular music. Practices associated with the worship of the West African Yoruba religious pantheon, practiced as Santeria or Regla de Ocha in Cuba and candomblé in Brazil, have produced a rich musical, spiritual, and material culture. Santeria ritual is accompanied by a gradated trio of double-headed drums called batá. The interlocking patterns created by the batá are melodic as well as rhythmic, as the six drumheads produce multiple tones. Drummers recognize each deity, or orisha, with a particular pattern that is accompanied by singing and call-and-response. Practitioners may respond to the individual rhythms by dancing the movements appropriate to that particular orisha. Brazilian candomblé is accompanied by a trio of conical drums and double bell. Call-and-response singing and dancing are also a significant part of candomblé ritual, and as in Cuba, spirit possession is an important part of ritual practice. Not all African-derived traditions in the Americas had their roots in West Africa. Distinct musical and ritual cultures developed among the descendents of Africans from the Congo Basin, resulting in Palo Monte in Cuba, vodun in Haiti, and voodoo in the southeastern United States.

Afro-Latin music cultures also developed in the Andean region. Ecuador, for example, has two distinct black population centers, the first in the Chota Valley of the Imbabura province and the second in the coastal Esmeraldas province. Both populations are highly heterogeneous in ethnicity and culture, and there is much musical mixture with surrounding mestizo and indigenous communities. Esmeraldas province is home to a rich culture of marimba music, while the Chota Valley is known for its dance music called bomba (not to be confused with the Puerto Rican genre of the same name).

In Peru, African-derived music was revived and largely reconstructed in the 1950s by the Afro-Peruvian Nicomedes Santa Cruz (1925–92), who with his sister Victoria selected and promoted black-associated genres that had never mixed with the white creole repertoire. In the United States, Afro-Peruvian music gained popularity through David Byrne’s production of the album Peru Negro on the Luaka Bop label and the subsequent promotion of singer Susana Baca (b 1944).

Just as the African diaspora profoundly impacted the popular musics of the United States, such as jazz, blues, rock and roll, and gospel, African-derived musical features are prevalent in many of Latin America’s most popular musical genres, including Cuban son and rumba, Dominican merengue, Colombian cumbia, Puerto Rican bomba, Argentine tango, Brazilian samba, Trinidadian calypso and steel band, and Pan-Latin salsa.

5. Iberian influences.

Spanish and Portuguese explorers brought with them vernacular musical idioms that spread across Latin America, and the influence of Iberian musical culture pervades the region via Iberian-derived musical instruments, movement and dance styles, and musical genres. The Spanish brought with them a number of string instruments, including the lute, guitar, vihuela, harp, violin, mandolin, and bandurria. Their descendants can now be found in nearly every Latin American culture, where they are often associated with folk or indigenous musics. Examples include the Peruvian charango, Cuban tres, Mexican guitarrón, Puerto Rican cuatro, and various manifestations of the harp. The guitar, as well, is found across the continent, although its stringing and tuning vary from region to region to meet local tastes and facilitate the needs of musicians.

Another Iberian element widely incorporated into Latin American musics is the use of zapateo, or rhythmic foot tapping, which originated in Andalusia and came to the New World with the earliest explorers. Zapateo was “creolized,” or hybridized, energetically with other local musical styles, particularly in regions with large African populations, where the movements and hard-soled shoes of Andalusian dance merged with African rhythmic sensibilities. Today its influence can be found in Cuban música guajira as well as in some of the virtuosic dancing associated with Afro-Cuban rumba and regional Mexican folk dances.

One of the most far-reaching Iberian influences was the introduction of narrative songs descended from the medieval romance tradition. These epic poems could be sung to a number of verse forms, but particularly popular in Latin America was the ten-line décima. Sung décimas with both precomposed and improvised poetry were found throughout Latin America, with especially strong traditions developing in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Central America, Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, and the Mexican state of Veracruz. All of these traditions place considerable emphasis on poetry, with the music playing a supporting role. Singers often follow existing melodies, focusing their artistic faculties on improvising lyrics to the difficult rhyme scheme. In many countries, improvised décimas form the basis for competitive performance, as singers vie to create the most clever rhymes over a fixed harmonic and melodic construct. Such duels, known as controversías, contrapuntos, or desafios, are hallmarks of the Cubanpunto and Puerto Rican seis traditions, and are also found in Argentine música criolla, Peruvian marinera, and Brazilian cantoria. Several of these sung décima traditions also feature prominent use of sesquiáltera rhythm.

6. The 19th and 20th centuries.

The 19th century brought a wave of romanticism to Latin America. Audiences and composers across the continent embraced the aesthetics of Italian opera, French salon music, and virtuoso performance practices and adapted them to fit local tastes and circumstances as well as growing nationalist sentiments. In Mexico, Italian tastes held sway for much of the century, partly due to composer and pedagogue José Antonio Gómez’s (1805–78) establishment of the Academica de Música (1839) and its later incarnation, the Sociedad Filarmónica Mexicana (1866), the curriculum of the latter closely following that of Italian conservatories for four decades. In Argentina, which attracted Italians throughout the second half of the 19th century, the impact of Italian opera was perhaps even greater.

The influence of European trends was as much pragmatic as aesthetic. With few national conservatories in the 19th century, composers frequently went abroad for musical study. Material resources played a part as well. Thriving domestic piano industries in Mexico and Argentina gradually made the instrument accessible to the middle class, creating a corresponding demand for sheet music. Even Cuba had its own piano factory by the second half of the 19th century. Increased access paved the way for an explosion of piano composition, much of it heavily influenced by French salon music, especially that of Chopin and Liszt. Composers also wrote arrangements of opera and zarzuela numbers, Spanish-Caribbean danzas, as well as compositions exploring local folk genres. In Cuba, Nicolás Ruiz Espadero (1832–90) wrote virtuoso piano music in the style of Liszt. In a New World nod to Chopin, Manuel Saumell (1817–70) and Ignacio Cervantes (1847–1905) took the pianistic small-form exploration of dance genres and developed the contradanza that would become Cuba’s first national genre. Puerto Rican composer Juan Morel Campos (1857–96) followed a similar vein in establishing a salon form of the Puerto Rican danza. The Caribbean was also influential in the latter half of the 19th century for its role in internationalizing the habanera, a European-derived dance form that thrived in Cuba. The habanera rhythm was a prominent feature in dance music, salon pieces, and in theatrical entertainment. When compositions featuring the rhythm were marketed abroad, especially contradanzas or texted songs, they were often simply labeled “habaneras.”

The independence movements that swept the continent throughout the 19th century found their reflection in musical nationalism. In Argentina, Alberto Williams (1862–1952) and Julián Aguirre (1868–1924) both cultivated the figure of the gaucho, albeit in stylistically different ways, with Williams trying to capture the essence of rural folk music and Aguirre exploring Argentina’s more urban música criolla. In Brazil an era of musical nationalism followed the establishment of the Brazilian Republic in 1889. Chief among its proponents and a figure widely recognized as the father of Brazilian composition was Alberto Nepomuceno (1864–1920), who blended influences from German and French romanticism with traditional Brazilian themes and advocated the use of Portuguese, rather than Italian or French, texts.

The Andean region saw a similar merger of nationalist sentiment with romantic sensibility. Peruvian composer José María Valle Riestra (1859–1925) composed works that were stylistically European but that drew on Peruvian, and especially indigenous, themes as found in his opera Ollanta (1900, rev. 1920). His compatriot Daniel Alomía Robes (1871–1942) carefully studied and collected indigenous and mestizo folk melodies, categorizing them in the manner of Kodály and Bartók in Hungary. Alomía Robes’s own compositions attempt to recreate the quality of such folk melodies rather than being mere settings. His most famous composition is the tune “El condor pasa,” which he wrote as part of a zarzuela of the same name. The tune later became famous in the United States after the duo Simon and Garfunkel recorded it on their Bridge over Troubled Water album (1970).

In the 20th century nationalism merged with other international movements, particularly modernism. The 1920s and 30s saw a flowering of activity in Mexico. In 1928 Carlos Chávez (1899–1978) founded the Orquesta Sinfónica de México, which did much to promote his music and that of his contemporaries as well as to introduce other works from the Americas. Mexican nationalist composers of this period gravitated toward orchestral and instrumental works that explored Mexican themes and imagery, and often paraphrased folk and popular melodies, distinctive rhythms, or characteristic performance practices. Manuel Ponce’s (1882–1948) work, for example, shows a wide and eclectic range of styles. Chávez became a tremendously powerful artistic figure due to his administrative activities as well as his compositional output. Silvestre Revueltas (1899–1940) was similarly eclectic in his musical output, prodigiously producing in his short life highly original symphonic works, film scores, and chamber music.

One of the first Cuban composers to aspire to a national art music was Eduardo Sánchez de Fuentes (1874–1944). He was a leading proponent of the indigenista movement, which sought to deny African musical influence by imbuing compositions with exotic reimaginings of lost pre-Columbian Arawak melodies. In contrast, his younger contemporaries Amadeo Roldán (1900–39) and Alejandro García Caturla (1906–40) were leading figures in the afrocubanista movement, which attempted to reconcile modernist symphonic sensibilities of composers like Stravinsky with influences drawn from Afro-Cuban folklore. Roldán and Caturla’s music was promoted in the United States by Henry Cowell and the Pan American Association of Composers. During the same period, composers such as Ernesto Lecuona (1896–1963), Gonzalo Roig (1890–1970), Eliseo Grenet (1893–1950), and Rodrigo Prats (1909–80) composed lighter music for the stage, popular song, and dance, all of which was disseminated via radio, film, and sheet music. Some songs, like Grenet’s “El manisero” (The peanut vendor) and Lecuona’s “Siboney,” became international hits and are widely recognized as standards around the world. Many Cuban composers, including Tania León (b 1943) and Aurelio de la Vega (b 1925), left the country following the revolution of 1959. Perhaps Cuba’s most prominent composer in the early 21st century, Leo Brouwer (b 1939), whose guitar compositions have stretched the sonic and technical possibilities of the instrument, studied in the United States at Juilliard and the University of Hartford in the early 1960s.

In Brazil, Heitor Villa Lobos (1887–1959) became the most prolific nationalist composer by studying regional folklore and using it in his compositions. Musical nationalism was a leading force in Brazilian music until the 1960s, when composers began to experiment with new compositional techniques such as serialism, atonality, electronic music, and aleatoric practices.

In the 1930s the Grupo Renovación hoped to modernize Argentine music and to move away from the descriptive music that had characterized earlier Argentine nationalist music by embracing international modernist trends. Their approaches were diverse, with some embracing atonality or serialism, others neoclassicism, but in all cases they assimilated local musical materials within a contemporary musical language. This aesthetic was the point of departure for Alberto Ginastera (1916–83), who would become the leading composer for the next generation and one of the most prominent voices of Latin American composition.

7. Urban genres.

Nationalist sentiments bolstered the popularity of a number of popular music genres in the 20th century, such as Cuban son, Puerto Rican plena, Argentine tango, Dominican merengue, Colombian cumbia, and Brazilian samba. Not only did these popular genres become national musical symbols for their countries of origin, they also became international musics, spreading across the globe.

In the second half of the 20th century, musicians in the New York scene introduced a new Pan-Latin dance style that blended elements from Cuban son with a variety of Latin American dance genres, as well as North American jazz, funk, and soul. Marketed by Fania Records as “salsa” (to suggest a mix of spicy ingredients), the trend quickly spread across Latin America, and musicians across the region developed their own local versions, forming distinct national styles. Cuba, somewhat isolated from the multinational Latin music industry, developed its own brand of son-derived dance music in the late 1980s and 1990s. Known as timba, the music borrows heavily from both Afro-Cuban folklore and African American music, especially funk and hip-hop.

In the 1950s and 1960s rock music from North America and Britain swept Latin America. Associated with a modern and cosmopolitan sensibility, early experiments with rock music reflected its Anglophone origins, with musicians performing English-language covers or even writing original material in English. Gradually rock became tied to movements of political resistance, allying it politically, if not always aesthetically, with the Nueva Canción and Nueva Trova movements. The rock en español movement sought to reframe rock’s political potential within a progressive Latin American identity that rejected Anglo interference in the construction of local identities. In Brazil there were two quite different reactions to rock music. The romantic and accessible music of the Jovem Guarda (Young Guard), represented by artists such as Roberto Carlos (b1941) enjoyed widespread appeal, especially with white and middle-class Brazilians, while a separate movement headed by Caetano Veloso (b 1942), Gilberto Gil (b 1942), and Chico Buarque (b 1944) aimed to incorporate some of rock’s modern aesthetics and technological possibilities with traditional Brazilian sounds and jazz experimentalism in a movement that came to be known as Música Popular Brasileira (MPB). The politically progressive MPB was part of the larger Tropicália (or Tropicalismo) movement, which aimed to assert Brazil’s unique artistic identity, especially against that of the United States, in all areas of the arts.

Today Latin America is a site for continuing musical growth. Creative musical pedagogies, such as Venezuela’s celebrated El Sistema (which produced the internationally celebrated young conductor Gustavo Dudamel [b 1981]), train young musicians on a massive scale. Latin American genres and musical aesthetics have been at the heart of worldwide innovations in jazz, dance music, and hip hop, producing hybrid sounds and new political economies as artists and their audiences inhabit and participate in an increasingly transnational and globalized world.


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Susan Thomas

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