From the trad to the rad: Latin music in the 21st Century

From the trad to the rad: Latin music in the 21st Century

Catalina Maria Johnson · July 30, 2018

Over 500 years ago in the Americas, the music we identify as “Latin”, “Latino”, “Latinx”, “Hispanic” or “Iberoamerican” (the choice of terminology varies according to political inclinations and generational viewpoints) emerged as the peoples from Indigenous, African and European cultures collided in the Spanish colonies that spread from today’s southwestern United States and throughout the entire continent to the very furthermost tip of South America.

Depending on historical forces from economic to political, today’s Latin music is the result of differently weighted portions of those three cultural elements. Musics from the Dominican merengue to the Argentine and Uruguayan tango to the Colombian cumbia to Mexican mariachis are like different dishes that followed recipes with these three types of cultural ingredients as a base, playing out in different ways over time in unique ways - was the European influence the German accordion or the Spanish lute? Was the indigenous element an Andean flute or the Mayan conch? Was Africa’s essential and undeserved gift Senegalese percussion or the Guinean dance form cumbé or a marked 'call and response'? And unfortunately, so many of Latin music’s earliest origins are lost to history; this was music often being created by marginalized or enslaved peoples as an instrument that allowed them to persist and also resist the unjust and dominant colonial regimes in which they unwillingly found themselves.

And unfortunately, so many of Latin music’s earliest origins are lost to history; this was music often being created by marginalized or enslaved peoples as an instrument that allowed them to persist and also resist the unjust and dominant colonial regimes in which they unwillingly found themselves.

Over the first centuries of the colonies, happenstance, serendipity, immigrants and sailors all play roles in creating unexpected and idiosyncratic elements in Latin music. For example, the Peruvian cajita  (literally, “little box”) is an instrument known only in that country —a small wooden box with a lid that is open and closed rapidly to make a characteristic percussive sound. The cajita was born in religious processions during colonial times and basically was used to as a container for donations. It appears to have transitioned into a percussion instrument when savvy processioners noticed that banging the box’s lid to the singing increased donations! In contrast, other instruments brought to the Americas by immigrants such as the accordion, endowed with a piano-like range but high portability, became widely popular across many countries, and the squeeze box became the essential instrument of the Dominican merengue, the Colombian cumbia, Tejano music in the southwestern United States, and norteño music in northern regions of Mexico as well as the cajun and zydeco music of the Southern USA. Sailors and immigrants also brought the bandoneón, an accordion-like instrument (actually closer to the concertina), to the Rio de la Plata area somewhere between Argentina and Uruguay and a mixture of African dance rhythms as well as Middle Eastern cadences and other beats gave birth to the tango, a word whose linguistic origins in the Bantu language refer to the sun, time, and space. In the Caribbean, trade routes such as those between Havana and New Orleans allowed the interchange of jazzy riffs as well as commerce and a bit later, added the “Latin tinge” to Dizzy Gillespie’s horn.  The melisma-laden songs of Iberian Jews, expulsed from their beloved Sepharad in 1492, may have made their way into the soaring falsettos in mariachi music. Chilean sailors arrived in Mexico and left their mark on Mexican folk music from the coast of Guerrero in a genre of songs called most appropriately, “chilenas”. The work chants in the sugar-cane fields create an entire genre in the Dominican Republic, called “cantos de hacha”  whose primary purpose was to coordinate the rhythmic strike of the machetes to avoid accidents as the workers cut the cane in the fields. As part of the syncretic African and Christian spirituality that evolves in tandem with music in certain parts of the Americas, Afro Cuban Yoruba vocals and percussion from Nigeria with chants to the saints form the foundation for the Cuban rumba. In Puerto Rico, enslaved persons are able to use empty barrels to make drums that drive the beats in bomba music but in the area of Veracruz, Mexico in the Gulf, drums are forbidden and ever-resourceful, people develop highly percussive footwork that is danced on wooden platforms. Along the way the Afro Mexican son jarocho, a genre that develops in precisely the area of Veracruz where Africans escape their oppressors and establish free settlements—“La Bamba” is the most popular exemplar of this style—is denounced to the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1700s for being the favoured music of mixed-colour peoples and for inviting lewd dancing. And speaking of dancing, European rhythms such as polkas and waltzes also make their way into all sorts of musics from mariachi to tango.

And that’s just the smallest taste of different Latin music variants! So, fast forward several centuries from those first cultural collisions, add hefty doses of immigrants and sailors in widely different geographies, and it’s impossible to categorize the nearly infinite variations on the original recipe. All of the previous possibilities and many more, in varying degrees, become the fertile grounds for today’s Latin music. Thanks to the African influences, almost all Latin musics have an accompanying dance component, and most often, the Spanish language is the musical lingua franca (there are even poetic forms that hail back to the 16th century that are the basis for the rhymes of folk musics from Panamá to Mexico). Yet this factor too, is changing, as Native languages are incorporated into contemporary music and additionally, bilingual and Spanglish mixtures become the norm in the Latino United States and Canada. 

Current times add another layer of complexity to attempting to define Latin music: contemporary Latin musicians have exposure to music from the USA and Europe, including globalized pop and rock from Madonna to the Beatles and beyond; new cities and new geographies as well add their own je ne sais quois

Carmelo Torres Y Su Cumbia Sabanera. Photo by Joe Miles. CFMF 2018.

In their own unique ways, Latin musicians at our 2018 festival continue the trajectories of time, history and the movement of peoples that continually shaped what we know as “Latin” music. Roberto López takes the boogaloo—a potent mix of soul, dance grooves and Latin beats born in New York in the late ‘60s which is still highly popular in his native Colombia—and mixes in other traditional Afro Colombian styles to create an electrified creole mix. And like other Latin musicians who moved to distant cities in the distant past, he creates a soundtrack for his new city—Montreal—accompanied by musicians from Brazil and Africa.  Guatemala’s Juan Martinez, aka Dr. Nativo, explores his Mayan heritage as he blends Mayan traditional music in a heady hip hop mix. Carmelo Torres, a master accordion player of the Colombian dance music known as cumbia, preserves a dance and music tradition that scholars believe evolved from the Guinean cumbé, and in Colombia emerged with supremely danceable African beats, Native Colombian instruments and Spanish lyrics. Mexico’s Carolina Slim’s adds Mexican touches to jazzy pop ballads infused with new age-blends grooves.

Carmelo Torres Y Su Cumbia Sabanera, Doctor Nativo, Harrison Kennedy, and Roberto López at a collaborative session at the 2018 Calgary Folk Music Festival. Photo by Lucia Juliao.

Throughout centuries and over many changes in borders and politics, Latin music has defined a people in movement whether by force or by choice. Most importantly, however, the music has served an essential role in looking to the past to preserve the culture of origin while facing the future to explore and express a new identity in the land of destiny. 

And as the melodies and rhythms have flowed in the endless rivers of time and history, they have also functioned as a musical archaeological record: “This is who we are, this is who we’ve been,” proclaim the diverse Latin musics, “And these are our stories.”


Catalina Maria Johnson, Ph.D. is a Chicago-based bilingual music journalist (NPR Music, Remezcla, Gozamos, Bandcamp) who hosts and produces Beat Latino, a radio show that airs in in cities throughout the United States, Berlin and Mexico City.