African and Black music has both created and influenced a huge array of music genres worldwide.
African music originally spread around the globe largely because of the transportation of enslaved peoples, who took their music and instruments – mostly from Western Africa – to the ‘New World’.
In the Americas, the earliest forms of music were probably within ceremonial contexts, such as religious worship. As with many cultures, percussion instruments such as drums and rattles were the first inventions.
African & Latin American Music
Many Latin American instruments, like drums, bells, rattles and flutes, are traceable to religions and ceremonies in Africa.
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.
Afro-Cuban rumba originated in the northern regions of Cuba, mainly in urban Havana and Matanzas, during the late 19th century.
There are three traditional forms of rumba - yambú, guaguancó and Columbia – based on African music and dance traditions. Its main African roots are Abakuá and yuka.
Abakuá is an Afro-Cuban men’s fraternity akin to Freemasonry, the first of which was established by Africans in Havana in the 1830s. Its rhythmic dance music, combined with the Congo’s Bantu traditions, contributed to the rumba’s musical tradition.
Yuka is another Afro-Cuban musical tradition based on drumming, singing and dancing, developed in Western Cuba by enslaved Kongolese people during colonial times. The Bantu word ‘yuka’ means ‘to beat’ and also refers to the drums used in the performances. These are traditionally made from hollowed-out avocado tree trunks; leather is nailed to one of the open ends and the player hits the skin with both hands. Alternatively, the drummer can use a small mallet to play rhythms on the drum body. The songs have a simple structure, with singing based on call and response.
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.
The core instruments of a rumba ensemble are the claves – two wooden sticks struck against each other – and the conga drums.
Other common instruments include shakers such as maracas, scraper percussion instruments (e.g. the guiro), bells and the guagua, a wooden cylinder.
Samba’s roots can be found in 17th century Bahia, where descendants of enslaved Africans combined their percussion techniques with Latin American folk music.
It then developed in Rio de Janeiro, where the earliest recordings were made in the 1910s, starting with ‘Pelo Telephone’ in 1917. In the late 1960s, samba had a renaissance, led by Brazilian artists such as Nelson Cavaquinho, Guilherme de Brita and Cartola.
Samba groups (baterias) use steady, hypnotic rhythms and repetitive chord progressions, with simple harmonies and call and response vocals.
A large percussion ensemble is joined by guitar, bass and the cavaquinho – a four-string Portuguese instrument. Modern baterias also feature brass instruments such as trumpet and trombone and woodwinds, e.g. clarinet and flute.
Cumbia is a blend of musical traditions, including indigenous, African and European, all of which mixed together to create something new. In the early 1500s, the Spanish came to Colombia, as part of their Latin American conquest. They brought more than 100,00 captive Africans with them, some of whom eventually managed to escape and to build their own communities.
Cumbia’s main ingredient is the drum beat that the enslaved peoples brought over from Africa, but the music evolved to include the instruments from the indigenous people of Colombia, such as the gaita, a flute, together with a European influence in the form of Spanish vocals.
Cumbia is ever-evolving, with DJs now using the underlying beats and fusing them with electronic beats.
Latin American Music Genres
Latin American music influenced by African music doesn’t stop there, though – if you look at bachata, batucada, cha-cha-cha, conga, funk carioca, mambo, tango, reggaetón, rumba, son and tropicália, you’ll find the rhythm of Latin American music across the board is underpinned by African music.
Son is a musical style that emerged in Eastern Cuba, gaining popularity in the early 20th Century. Son conjuntos – ensembles – are usually trios (three guitars, or two guitars with maracas or clave); sexteto (guitar, tres, bass, bongo, maracas and clave) or septeto, which is the same as the sextet, with an added trumpet. The percussion instruments can be primarily traced to central Africa’s Bantu region.
Son Cubano (‘the Cuban sound’) also forms the bedrock for most forms of salsa music and Latin jazz. Top Cuban bandleaders like Arsenio Rodriguez and Beny Moré and bands like Sexteto Habanero and Septeto Nacional helped build the genre’s popularity in Havana.
Present-day Son Cubano ensembles are known as son conjunto and incorporate a wide variety of instruments, as well as vocals.
These include piano, tres – a Cuban variation on guitar – trumpet, double bass, claves, guiro and timbales.
‘First and foremost, music is political. It’s societal. It’s resistance. It’s survival. Black people and Afro-descendents from all countries in Latin America have held on to music and dance as a means for joy and liberation,’ music journalist Jennifer Mota told Refinery29 Somos. Here’s our pick of the artists and bands you should know.
Cuban legend Celia Cruz, aka the Queen of Salsa, proudly embraced her Afro-Latina heritage through her music.
Beginning her career in Cuba in the 1950s, she took salsa music to the US and around the world, receiving the National Medal of Arts from Bill Clinton in 1994. One of her most famous songs is ‘La Negra Tiene Tumbao’ (‘The Black Woman has Rhythm’.)
Chocquibtown is a Colombian hip hop group that draws influences from hip hop, electronica, salsa, reggaetón, ska and Afro-Latin rhythms.
Their track, ‘De Donde Vengo Yo’ won a Latin Grammy in 2011. Lyrically, they discuss Afro-Latino identity, with a common theme of attaining more inclusion for Afro-Colombians in the rest of Colombian society.
Combo Chimbita refer to their sound as ‘tropical futurism’. They explore Afro-Caribbean rhythms and traditions such as sacred drumming.
Peruvian band Novalima blend Afro-Peruvian music with electronica and Latin American beats and chants (many from times of slavery).
They’ve released six studio albums and have played prestigious festivals such as Womad, and the Montreal Jazz Fest.
Songwriter, musician and philanthropist Aloe Blacc’s parents hail from Panama.
Global hits such as ‘The Man’ and ‘I Need a Dollar’ have their roots in meringue and salsa.
La Tribu de Abrante
The New York Times described La Tribu de Abrante as, ‘a high-energy, 12-piece fusion orchestra [that] has blended the sounds of bomba with reggaetón, reggae and hip-hop.’
They’ve also been credited as being part of the resurgence of the traditional Afro-Puerto Rican music and dance known as bomba.
More Latin Music
Latin music has a huge variety of genres – read our deep-dive blog to find out their roots and rhythms and most importantly, check out our incredible Latin Series collection. These are the diverse musical stories of Latin America. From reggaeton to rumba, son to tango, discover authentic Afro-Latin music shaped by its African, European and Indigenous origins and its evolution in the Caribbean, North, South and Central American continental regions.
Want more? Listen to our hand-picked Latin playlist on Spotify:
And for more on Black music and its place in history, check out our Black History Month playlist.
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