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Latin Music

Latin American music

The countries of South America, Central America and some of the Caribbean are often known, collectively, as Latin America, reflecting the fact that the Romance languages of Spanish, Portuguese and French are spoken there. These countries have produced a rich and diverse range of music, which particularly in the last century or so have become widely known and very influential around the world, particularly in the realms of jazz and popular music. Latin American music is best known for its importance in the world of dance, particularly ballroom dancing, and most of the best-known forms of Latin American music are associated directly with dances.

To help with wider context before we study the set work, and also to inspire some wider listening, here is a brief overview of some of the best-known styles of Latin American music. Many of these styles are fusions and share common characteristics such as syncopation and polyrhythm. It follows that singers and percussionists feature heavily in Latin American music.


The tango is a passionate style of dance and song originating from the poorer areas of Buenos Aires, Argentina, which became very popular in other South American countries and particularly in France and Spain during the 20th century. Its key features are a duple time rhythm featuring dotted or syncopated quavers, and the use of instruments such as the bandoneon (a type of accordion), violin and guitar. In Europe, the Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) made his name by combining tango with jazz and classical music. This performance of Pizzolla’s signature work, Libertango, is a great example to listen to.


Musical Styles


Salsa developed mainly in Cuba, but also in Puerto Rico and, as it spread in popularity, parts of America such as New York City. Meaning ‘sauce’ in Spanish, Salsa is a fusion of Cuban son music with jazz and rock, and features a famous rhythm called son clave which is a combination of 2 and 3 beats across a 4/4 metre, underpinning a rich and exciting polyrhythmic texture. Other parts in salsa also have names such as tumbao (a regular rhythm usually heard on congas) and montuno (an offbeat, octave ostinato played on piano and very characteristic of salsa). Often there are vocalists and jazz instruments such as trumpets, and the style has influenced many jazz and pop musicians, such as the Mexican guitarist Carlos Santana in his 1999 hit Smooth, which you can see here:


Samba comes from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and is the national dance and key feature of the Brazilian carnival which is held annually. Its rhythm is heavily syncopated and features many different types of drum as well as bells, shakers and the characteristic samba whistle (or apito). Sambas often have call and response singing.

Bossa Nova

The bossa nova (literally ‘new style’) developed out of the samba in the 1960s, partly thanks to the legendary composer and musician Antonio Carlos Jobim, who is famous for the songs Desafinado and The Girl from Ipanema, which are both in bossa nova style. Unlike the samba, which is all about melody and rhythm, the bossa nova focuses equally on all parts and has a laid back ‘feel’ to it with no one part standing out. Influenced partly by Spanish flamenco music, the guitar is usually used to play jazzy added chords and rhythms are similar to the samba, with tonality moving fluidly from major to minor. Samba Em Prelúdio is a bossa nova song.

It is also worth listening to examples of other Latin American styles, such as:

Rumba – a fast song and dance style from Cuba featuring congas, claves and maracas and the ‘123-123-12’ tresilo rhythm

Mambo – another Cuban dance, similar to rumba and famously appearing in the ‘dance in the gym’ scene in Bernstein’s musical West Side Story, which you can see here:

Merengue – a folk style mainly from the Dominican Republic which is fast and rhythmic

Cha Cha Cha – a Cuban dance similar to the mambo. This also features in the same scene in West Side Story when Tony and Maria first meet (from 3:06 in the video above).

Bolero – actually a Spanish dance (Ravel’s Bolero being the most famous example) which was popular in Latin America.

The fusion of Latin American and jazz styles

It would be a good idea to read the overview of fusion in the course on Afro Celt Sound System’s Release at this point. Right at the start of the 20th century in the Southern United States, leading composers such as Jelly Roll Morton and bluesman W.C. Handy incorporated Cuban rhythms into their music, making them syncopated and exciting. In the age of ‘big band’ jazz music in 1930s and 1940s America, Latin influences – particularly Cuban and other Caribbean ones – began to infiltrate the arrangements of bandleaders such as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, who would often include Caribbean musicians in their bands. This resulted in the setting up of the ‘Afro-Cubans’ orchestra in New York in the 1940s by Cuban musicians Machito and Mario Bauzá.

The growth of Afro-Cuban jazz, as it was commonly known, influenced a number of American musicians in the 1950s, particularly Dizzy Gillespie whose hit Manteca  is a good example.

Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich, Miles Davis and others hopped on the Latin jazz bandwagon, and other Caribbean and South American musicians such as Tito Puente and Jobim came to prominence in the 1960s. Now, jazz and Latin music are almost inseparable.

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