Music plays a huge part in Hispanic culture – and, from salsa and tango to reggaeton, it’s now enjoying global success, with music in Spanish now the second most consumed in the world, after music in English. ‘Latin music’ as a term has become a catch-all for the music that comes from Spanish and Portuguese-speaking areas of the world. But it covers a mass of different genres – so what’s the story behind them?
The journey of Latin music history begins with indigenous styles and instruments, and wends its way through languages, cultures, peoples and distinct landscapes to create a world of different genres to explore. We’ll take you through its evolution and rich musical heritage, from the Mayans to Carmen Miranda, all the way to Bad Bunny being the world’s most-streamed artist for three years in a row.
When Did Latin Music Start?
A great proportion of Latin music comes from the melding of cultures which happened during the Spanish and Portuguese colonisation of the Americas, from Mexico to Central America and portions of South America and the Caribbean. There were instruments that had never been heard before, such as the European guitar, African conga and tambora drums, maracas and gaita flutes. Bringing them all together created a wide range of styles and forms.
When Christopher Columbus first encountered the ‘New World’ in 1492, there were numerous indigenous cultures spreading from the northern Mexican mountains to the southern tip of South America and on the Caribbean islands; the three most well-known were the Mayan, Aztec and Inca civilisations.
We don’t know much about these precolonial civilisations’ music, but there are glimpses of the role of music and musical instruments which shaped Latin American music history’s foundations; ancient Mesoamerican music – particularly Aztec and Mayan - was often combined with dance, with instruments coming together with singing and dancing. A procession with trumpets, drums and rattles is depicted on an 8th century mural at the Bonampak temple, an ancient Mayan site in the Mexican state of Chiapas, for example.
Instruments such as drums and flutes are described in texts from the time and found in artifacts; the drums used in Aztec rituals were considered sacred instruments. Flutes known as tlapizalli survive from Mesoamerican cultures; one type found near the Gulf of Mexico consists of two, three or four tubes sounded from a single mouthpiece, which meant that, in theory, they could have been creating harmonies, with up to four notes being played simultaneously.
The Incas used music for religious rituals; the Andeans used flutes and panpipes; the panpipes (antaras) adopted by the Inca had between three and 15 pipes. There were songs for particular occasions, such as taki, a song to memorialise the life of an emperor or local chief. Early Spanish observers reported that the areito music-dance ceremony in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico involved chants in a call-and-response style, accompanied by rattles, scrapers (guiro) and a hollow slit drum.
The Fusion of Cultures
The colonial period, from 1492-1821 influenced music in three main areas: Spanish and Portuguese languages; European and Arabic musical styles and European musical instruments. Roman Catholic religious music was introduced to the mix by the Spanish and Portuguese. Gregorian chants and Spanish sacred polyphony had a strong influence on native folk music; patron saints and their commemorative days became important and the community fiesta emerged throughout Latin America. All are vital elements when it comes to understanding Latin music origins.
The colonial period’s new music cultures were also secular; Christian missionaries introduced European music and dance in the area as a way to persuade indigenous people to convert; they frequently adapted native songs and dance for Christian use.
When we’re trying to answer the question of where did Latin music come from, the other transformative influence was definitely African rhythms. By the mid-17th century, trade agreements between the Old World and the New World had developed; the amount of human labour required to facilitate this marked the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade. Many Latin American instruments, like drums, bells, rattles and flutes, are traceable to religions and ceremonies in Africa, brought over by enslaved peoples.
The influence of African music can be most clearly seen in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti and Brazil, in the Latin American music genres of Afro-Cuban rumba, Brazilian samba, Jamaican reggae and Colombian cumbia, together with merengue, bachata, timba, salsa and more.
Afro-Cuban rumba originated in the northern regions of Cuba, mainly in urban Havana and Matanzas, during the late 19th century.
The rumba was traditionally performed by poor workers of African descent in streets and ‘solares’ (courtyards). It’s characterised by vocal improvisation, elaborate dancing and polyrhythmic drumming. Recordings began in the 1940s, and successful rumba bands include Los Papines, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas and Yoruba Andabo.
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 and became a global sensation. He was a French-born Argentine singer, songwriter, composer and actor, known for the dramatic phrasing of his lyrics. He toured through Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Puerto Rico and Colombia, as well as making appearances in New York, Barcelona and Madrid, selling 70,000 records during a 1928 visit to Paris. He made a number of films in France and the US but died in a plane crash at the height of his career in 1935.
Other celebrated tango artists include Astor Piazzolla, and Argentine stars on the ‘neo tango’ scene, such as Tanghetto.
The Golden Age of Latin Music
As we’ve seen, migration is one of the key elements in terms of music styles evolving, and the wave of globalisation in the 20th century forged cultural exchanges that generated everything from cuisines to art and, of course, new music genres.
Salsa grew out of a musical form developed by Afro-Cuban musicians, the Son cubano in Cuba, Puerto Rico and New York. Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians such as Frank ‘Machito’ Grillo, Tito Puente and Celia Cruz in the 1940s and 50s developed the dance genre. It was inspired by Cuban son, but also incorporated styles such as mambo, rumba and cha cha.
Machito’s orchestra added jazz and a big band sound; Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez, however, brought elements of their folk music, like bomba and plena. Salsa as a term was coined in the 1960s.
The Art of Escapism
In the 1940s and 50s, Latin America was one of the only regions not involved in World War II, so Americans saw Latin music and media as a means of escapism. Carmen Miranda’s success is the most obvious example – from singing to acting in Brazil, she caught the attention of a Broadway theatre owner and she and her band went to New York City as goodwill ambassadors to the US in 1939.
At the peak of her Hollywood career, Carmen Miranda was the highest paid female performer in the United States, and perhaps her greatest legacy is the popularisation of the samba.
Samba, although being synonymous with Brazil, actually originated in Africa as the music of former slaves and African religions. Much like the blues in America, samba was originally a product of the sorrow of slaves who came to Bahia, a region in northeastern Brazil in the 17th century – ‘samba is the father of pleasure and the son of pain’ according to composer Caetano Veloso.
But its combination of music and passion when it fused with Latin American folk music, transformed sorrow into joy. It developed in Brazil in the early 1900s, in Rio’s favelas, with the first recorded version in 1917 (‘Pelo Telefone’ – ‘By Telephone’).
The original form of samba is samba de morro (morro meaning hill – it alludes to the slums located on Rio’s hillsides.) Here, the earliest samba style incorporated other music genres in the city, such as the polka, the maxixe, the lundu and the xote, creating a completely unique character.
A samba band consists mainly of percussion instruments playing syncopated rhythms and the music features call-and-response and imitation. The 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).
Música popular brasileira, habitually shortened to MPB, is the catch-all term Brazilians use for Brazilian music in general. You can trace its history to the 1930s, when the national radio network made it possible for musicians to capture a national audience.
However, Brazil is home to many regional musical centres, including the city of Salvador de Baha, with its unique blend of African and Brazilian influences; Recife (home to música nordestina, or northeastern music) and eastern Amazonia – home to lambada, while Sao Paulo has a thriving rock and punk scene.
Brazilian singer and composer Caetano Veloso said in an interview with the Guardian that, ‘Bossa nova is a sacred music for many Brazilians. It’s political and nationalistic and poetic. It’s a form of high modernist art that somehow became one of the most popular musics on earth’.
Veloso also revealed that it’s a rare example of music becoming popular by being more sophisticated (rather than, like rock ‘n’ roll, stripping out the complexity), as ‘it took the samba and added harmonic sophistication – extended chords and so on – and added a degree of lyrical complexity.’
Antônio Carlos Jobim, for example, was a classically-trained pianist who helped to fuse elements of jazz with samba to create the bossa nova sound.
The music emerged at a very specific point in Brazilian cultural history – in a brief period of democracy between the early 1950s and the mid-60s, between two spells of military dictatorship, as the society left behind its colonial past and looked out at the world.
The phrase bossa nova literally means ‘new trend’ or ‘new wave’, and it became the music of choice for the emerging smart, young, urban Brazilian middle class.
Bossa nova songs differ from samba songs in that their focus is more on the individual and the personal – love, longing and nature – whereas samba usually refers to the public sphere, with themes around carnival and politics.
One of the most famous bossa nova tracks is ‘Garota de Ipanema’ – aka ‘Girl from Ipanema’. The song, which reached No. 5 in the US pop singles chart in the summer of 1964, sung by João Gilberto’s wife, Astrud, became a global hit, and bossa nova fever gripped the US, helped by its popularity amongst jazz musicians such as Charlie Byrd, Dizzy Gillespie, and Stan Getz and their fans. Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald devoted whole albums to covers of bossa nova classics.
In 1964, just as bossa nova was hitting big globally, Brazil’s left-wing government was deposed – replaced by a military regime which resulted in open repression by 1968. Bossa nova’s serenity and sun suddenly seemed out of touch in these darker times and a sound influenced by rock and electric guitars – tropicália – emerged instead, as part of a wider cultural movement.
Led by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, the anarchistic, anti-authoritarian music and oblique lyrics of the Tropicalistas made them a target of censorship and repression by the military junta. The pair were eventually arrested and imprisoned and subsequently sought exile in London, where they resumed their musical careers.
The 1999 compilation, Tropicália Essentials, is a good introduction to the style, featuring songs by Gil, Veloso, Gal Costa and Os Mutantes.
Originating in Salvador in the 1980s, Axé fuses Afro-Caribbean genres including marcha, reggae and calypso with Brazilian influences from frevo, forro and carixada. The name comes from a Yoruba term, meaning ‘soul, light, spirit or good vibrations’.
Axé entered the mainstream in 1992, when Daniela Mercury released ‘O Canto Da Cidade’ – it remained at No. 1 for months and became an anthem for the Brazilian people. Axé’s current biggest star is Ivete Sangalo – check out ‘À Vontade’ for a flavour of Axé rhythms and style.
Brazilian Pop Music
The biggest genre in modern Brazilian music is sertanejo. With its roots in the Brazilian countryside, it’s played across the country. Although there are some solo singers, many sertanejo artists are duos, often siblings, or duos of two men, such as Henrique and Juliano.
Originating in Colombia, cumbia travelled around Latin America and has been adopted by nearly every Spanish-speaking country in the region. As such, nearly every Latin American country has developed its own cumbia style – particularly in Argentina, Uruguay, Peru and Mexico.
Camilo’s ‘Vida de Rico’ is a modern cumbia pop song which became a global hit in 2020.
Cumbia traditionally uses three drums and three flutes, and also brings in brass instruments and piano. Its evolution in Mexico can be traced to the film industry there between the 1940s and 50s – known as the Golden Era. During this period, music stars from all genres were also stars of musical movies, performing their music as part of the film’s narrative.
These ‘Tropical Music’ stars opened the doors for artists from all over Latin America to tour in Mexico, whilst the inclusion of trumpets, trombones and other brass instruments onto film soundtracks created Mexican cumbia.
First generation Mexican Americans started to fuse the music they listened to at home with their family with the new Anglo music they were growing up with. The result? A blend of trap and Mexican corridos known as trap-corrido or corridos tumbados, where corrido’s accordion meets trap’s electronic beats and vocal flow.
In the 1990s, labels noticed Latin music’s growing popularity, and Shakira, Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias and Jennifer Lopez achieved global fame, ushering in a new era for Latin music.
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.
Streaming helped to introduce Latin music as a whole to a larger, more global audience. Reggaeton captured a global audience in 2004, with the release of Daddy Yankee’s album Barrio Fino and breakout single ‘Gasolina’. The genre 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, not to mention spending 16 consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
Pop juggernaut J Balvin is on a mission to take reggaeton worldwide. He’s the first reggaeton artist to have played Coachella’s main stage, the first Latino headliner at Lollapalooza and was the first ‘reggaetonero’ to reach 1 billion views on YouTube.
As he told Nylon, ‘I know that they can play [the album] at Tomorrowland, and that they can play it at any festival on the planet.’ Reggaeton looks like it’s taking over as the most commercial Latin music genre for the 2020s – Latin music’s streaming growth increased by 33% in 2022 (based on Luminate’s 2022 US midyear report). And the week after Bad Bunny’s ‘Un Verano Sin Ti’ in May 2022, Latin music surpassed country for the first time to become the fourth most popular genre in the United States.
The Latin Series Collection by Audio Network
‘Latin music is now firmly entrenched in the musical landscape and it will only grow’ – so says Leila Cobo, VP of Latin at Billboard. Audio Network’s extensive Latin Series Collection was curated to honour the diversity of Latin music heritage. The tracks range from traditional rhythms to contemporary fusions, creating a valuable resource for anyone looking for authentic Latin music for their projects.
Want to dive into Latin music culture? You’ll be surrounded by a wealth of rhythms and passion as you enjoy a huge variety of musical styles from Brazil, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and more.
Get away from it all with the tropical rhythms of son, rhumba, merengue and salsa, dance to crossover styles such as reggaeton and Latin pop, then fall in love with classic romantic boleros and sensual Argentine tango.
We’ve worked with local composers, musicians and artists to harness the passion and authenticity of Latin music, making our tracks perfect for everything from TV to film soundtracks, advertising to digital and games.
Latin music has made an enduring impact on modern music and culture, so explore the Latin Series to infuse your project with its vibrant spirit.
Need Music for Your Project?
At Audio Network we create original music, of the highest quality, for broadcasters, brands, creators, agencies and music fans everywhere. Through clear and simple licensing, we can offer you a huge variety of the best quality music across every conceivable mood and genre. Find out how we can connect you with the perfect collaborator today by clicking the button below!