In December of last year, Billboard reported that Latin music was the fourth most-streamed genre in the US on DSPs such as Spotify – and third for video streaming on YouTube. But if your Latin music go-to is ‘Despacito’ on repeat, then there’s a huge number of different Latin music genres and styles to discover.
From vibrant salsa to romantic bachata, reggaeton to Regional Mexican, Brazilian samba and chilled out bossa nova to Argentina’s passionate tango, it’s time to explore the history of Latin music – and who are today’s most influential stars.
For an introduction to the music, dive in with the Latin America playlist.
Latin Music Genres List
- Latin pop
- Modern Latin Music: Raggaeton
- Brazilian Music:
- Bossa Nova
- Latin Rock & Alternative Music:
- Rock en Español
- Regional Mexican Music:
Latin Music Styles
The Miami Super Bowl halftime concert this year featured Colombian superstar Shakira and Jennifer Lopez sporting a Puerto Rican flag, performing a set full of English and Spanish hits and deftly illustrating how thoroughly Latin music has taken centre stage around the world.
Latin pop is constantly evolving, and takes in everything from salsa to rock en Español. And as Rolling Stone notes, ‘some of the most famous Latin pop songs have survived military dictatorships, war, famine and natural disasters – and they still hold up in spite of passing trends.’
Salsa is one of the best known and most popular Latin music genres worldwide.
The first salsa bands were predominantly from Cuba and Puerto Rico – the music then spread through Colombia and the rest of the Americas until it became a global phenomenon.
New York had been a centre of Cuban-style dance music since the 1940s, when Cuban artists brought Afro-Cuban son music into the USA.
Son combined with traditions from African American jazz to create a Caribbean jazz sound, which was embraced by Salsa artists across the Caribbean and the United States, especially among Puerto Ricans in New York.
When Cuban musicians could no longer go to New York after Fidel Castro had claimed control in 1959, the city’s Puerto Rican musicians quickly filled the vacuum – taking the Cuban-inspired Latin jazz sound and bringing in their own sounds, together with mambo and Latin boogaloo, to create a new style: salsa.
When a song started, apparently the bandleader would shout ‘Salsa!’ to get the crowd going, hence the name.
Salsa artists like Willie Colón, Héctor Lavoe, Ruben Blades, Fania All Stars, Marc Antony and Celia Cruz – known as ‘The Queen of Salsa’ - helped to popularise the genre internationally.
The contemporary salsa sound coming out of Cuba is known as timba. It’s a fast-tempo salsa, with a strong Afro-Cuban influence whose songs often follow a more traditional rumba structure, with a slow start, then a core salsa rhythm with a call-and-response vocal.
Bachata originated in the Dominican Republic in the 1960s, with songs produced by José Manuel Calderón – the first was ‘Borracho de Amor’ in 1962.
Bachata mixed elements from son with the pan-Latin American style bolero and its troubadour singing tradition.
It wasn’t really until the 1990s, however, that this latin music genre became truly popular, as it changed from using nylon stringed Spanish guitars and maracas to electric steel string and guira used by bands such as Monchy y Alexandra and Aventura.
A typical bachata group has seven instruments – the requinto (lead guitar), segunda (rhythm guitar), electric guitar, guitar, bass guitar, bongos and guira.
Some of today’s most popular bachata artists include Romeo Santos (who was previously in Aventura), who has collaborated with Drake, Usher and Marc Anthony, Prince Royce and Luis Vargas.
Another genre to have emerged from the Dominican Republic is merengue, whose origins can be traced back to the 19th century.
With African and Spanish influences, it’s based on a repeating five-beat rhythmic pattern called a quintillo. It’s usually performed on a diatonic accordion, a tambura (a two-sided drum) and a güira, a metal scraper – merengue music often includes brass, such as horns and saxophone as well.
The merengue is also the Dominican Republic’s national dance, performed in ballroom dance competitions alongside the salsa. It became popular outside of the Dominican Republic following mass migration of Dominicans to New York City in the 1960s, and has inspired musicians such as Carlos Santana.
Other famous merengue artists include Sergio Vargas, Mala Fe, Elvis Crespo, Milly Quezada and Los Hermanos Rosario.
Listen to more bachata and merengue on the tropical Latin playlist.
Tango has become one of the most celebrated Latin music genres in dance, having evolved during the 19th century in Buenos Aires’ immigrant communities.
Tango brings together a myriad of other styles, including flamenco, polka, hanabera, and milonga.
It typically features guitar, bandoneon, piano, violin, flute and double bass and is marked out with its sudden changes of dynamics and staccato phrases - together, of course, with its usually intense and often melancholic mood.
Carlos Gardel, known as ‘the King of Tango’ propelled the genre into the mainstream at the beginning of the last century; other celebrated tango artists include Astor Piazzolla, and Argentine stars on the ‘neo tango’ scene, such as Tanghetto.
Modern Latin Music: Reggaeton
Reggaeton has exploded into the mainstream, with artists such as Bad Bunny and J. Balvin killing it on streaming platforms and ‘Despacito’ becoming the most viewed YouTube video of all time – and the first to hit five billion views.
Originating with Panamanian El General (Edgardo A. Franco) in the late 1970s, and catching the imagination of youth in Puerto Rico in the 1990s, reggaeton fuses reggae and Jamaican dancehall with hip hop and Latin music such as salsa and bomba, together with dembow rhythms, rapping and singing, typically in Spanish.
Reggaeton captured a global audience in 2004, with the release of Daddy Yankee’s album Barrio Fino and breakout single ‘Gasolina’.
Daddy Yankee also featured on Luis Fonsi’s ‘Despacito’, which signalled another reggaeton revolution, and it now looks commercially unstoppable (you can even hear its influence in Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’).
Colombia’s Karol G’s collaboration with Nicki Minaj, ‘Tusa’, became the first song by two women to top Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart, breaking the somewhat all-male stranglehold on reggaeton.
Samba originated in Africa as the music of former slaves and African religions, but has become an icon of Brazilian national identity. It developed in Brazil in the early 1900s, in Rio’s favelas.
A samba band consists mainly of percussion instruments playing syncopated rhythms, together with call-and-response.
The samba band leader uses an Apito (a whistle) to signal breaks and calls, with metal drums - Repinique (or the Reps) – leading introductions, played with a wooden stick and one hand; Surdo – the large bass drums which hold the beat, snare drums, shakers and agogô (double metal cow bells).
Bossa Nova literally means ‘new trend’ or ‘new wave’, and it became the music of choice for an emerging Brazilian middle class. It emerged in a period of Brazilian democracy between the early 1950s and the mid-60s, as the society left behind its colonial past and looked towards the rest of the world.
Bossa nova songs, in contrast with samba songs, focus on personal emotions, such as love, longing and nature. Samba’s themes concentrate more on politics and carnival.
Latin Rock & Alternative Music
Latin alternative music, or ‘alterlatino’ refers to Latin rock music that combines genres including alt rock, lo-fi, chillout, metal, electronica, hip hop, new wave, punk, reggae and ska with traditional Ibero-American sounds.
It’s a genre that as Billboard.com says, is ‘pushing boundaries in multiple, unexpected directions, with exciting results’.
Established alt-female collective LADAMA, whose members hail from Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and the US are at the forefornt of the genre.
Strong Latin female voices are under-represented in rap, but Mexican Niña Dioz is a name to watch out for.
Dioz started rapping on stage at 18 and quickly gained attention for her experimental beats and combination of electronic, Caribbean and Latin elements in her music.
Types of Spanish Music: Rock en Español
One of the pioneers of Rock en Español was Ritchie Valens, whose ‘La Bamba’ adapted a Mexican folk song, fusing it with rock melodies, in 1958.
In the 1970s, the ‘Latin Rock’ genre was coined, while Argentine artists Charly Garcia and Luis Alberto Spinetta became two of the key members of the Rock en Español movement.
The genre was booming in the 1980s as Heroes del Silencio from Spain, Los Prisioneros from Chile and Mexico’s Caifanes emerged on the scene.
Today’s stars of Rock en Español include Shakira, Y La Bamba and Natalia Lafourcade.
Regional Mexican Music
Regional Mexican music is an umbrella term covering folk genres from mariachi to cumbia, norteño, banda and ranchera.
Explore the Regional Mexican playlist for an introduction to the music.
Mexican Music Genres
Joyful, passionate mariachi music is often a feature of important events and celebrations such as birthdays, baptisms and weddings.
Its stringed instruments and oldest rhythms date back to Mexico’s colonial history (1519-1810), with mariachi emerging from the small towns of western Mexico in the 1850s.
Radio stations and movie studios took mariachi to new audiences from the 1930s onwards, and now major annual mariachi festivals, such as the International Mariachi Festival of Guadalajara, staged every September, feature local and internationally renowned groups.
A mariachi band can consist of as many as eight violins, two trumpets and at least one guitar – the traditional guitar is the vihuela, a high-pitched, round-backed guitar that provides the rhythm and the guitarrón, a bass guitar. All of the band’s players take turns singing lead and doing backup vocals and wear highly embroidered charro outfits.
Norteño is named for its birthplace in northern Mexico, and has a rural and traditional sensibility. It’s usually played by an ensemble featuring an accordion, bajo sexto (a baritone-range twelve-string guitar), bass, drums and vocalists.
Its roots date back to the late 1800s when the Mexican population was introduced to a variety of European folk dances such as polkas, waltzes, mazurkas and redovas by German and Czech immigrants.
The genre exploded in popularity in the 1950s and by the 1970s, it was the most popular style of music amongst the working classes in Texas and northern Mexico.
Los Tucanes de Tijuana became the first norteño act at Coachella and think that, ‘with trap and reggaeton, the doors are opening for more styles within the genre of Latin music’. Listen to Los Bravos del Norte and Los Tigres del Norte for a deeper dive into norteño.
Los Tigres also perform the corrido – a narrative, poetic ballad illustrating socio-political tensions or historic events that relate to the immigrant or working class experience.
Cumbia is another hugely popular style of regional Mexican music which originated in Colombia, whose popularity has spread throughout Latin America, from Argentina to Chile, Peru and Venezuela.
Similar to salsa, it also features guitars, accordions, bass guitar and percussion.
Colombian singer Luis Carlos Meyer Castandet emigrated to Mexico in the 1940s – his album La Cumbia Cienaguera is considered to be the first cumbia record outside Colombia.
One of today’s biggest cumbia bands is Los Ángeles Azules, whose collaboration with Ximena Sarinana, ‘Mis Sentimientos’ became regional Mexican music’s most-watched video of all time and secured them a place in YouTube’s elite Billion View Club.
Streaming has also made superstars of regional Mexican music artists such as Banda MS, while the global reach of a Netflix series like Narcos has given Mexican music another boost through its soundtrack.
The importance of incorporating traditional elements into contemporary tracks is explained by Chilean singer Mon Laferte, who is now based in Mexico City.
She told Rolling Stone that, ‘I’m not a purist, and I don’t make traditional Mexican music, nor traditional salsa, But I try to take cues from it and bring it into the present, ’ as she wants to reflect the richness of the music.
Latin artists show no signs of slowing down, so whether you’re into reggaeton or Latin trap, boyband CNCO, acts such as Fuerza Regida bringing their experiences to traditional genres, or Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny collaborating with Cardi B and Balvin, you’re spoiled for choice.
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