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date: 22 October 2019


  • Anthony Seeger


This article examines the musical traditions of North and South America. The two continents, joined by a land bridge and embracing the Caribbean islands, present a multitude of genres and styles performed in a complex network of contexts by communities of diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. The regions, and often the countries, are often described separately (e.g. Chase, 1967; Béhague, 1979; Manuel, 1995). In spite of their differences, certain continuities extend far beyond the boundaries of any nation state, or even continental land mass. These continuities stem from somewhat similar histories of settlement, cultural development and technological innovations and long histories of intense trade and cultural exchange.

In order to understand similarities in musical processes throughout the Americas, chronologies associated with specific centuries must be discarded. Social processes that influenced musical styles occurred at different times and in different places. Amerindian populations were converted to Christianity and their traditional music replaced or modified by Christian church music in the late 16th century and in isolated locations in the Amazon in the late 20th century. Slavery ended at different times, and free African populations varied widely in size in different countries according to the importance of plantation economies. Immigrants moved to different places in the Americas at different times, and musical maintenance and innovation within immigrant traditions were often affected by the number of generations that lived in a country, as well as relationships with neighbours. The influence of mass media was felt in the USA and Canada in the 19th century, and radio and television had a tremendous impact on regional culture in the USA and Canada by the mid-20th century. But in places without large-scale literacy in the 19th century or electricity in the 20th, the mass media may have had a more limited impact on local traditions; in small countries without television programming, the only broadcasts available in the late 20th century were from transnational providers. Thus, when speaking of the Americas, it is sometimes better to describe the processes at work than to focus on particular periods, because the dates vary more than the processes themselves....

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Latin American Music Review