A Brief History of Latin Music

By now you know that stylistic labels like “jazz” and “rock” are general terms used to describe a wide variety of genres. “Latin” music is no exception. Like the blues, Latin American styles are best understood through regionalism. Latin music comes from the inhabitants of Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean islands. The islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago are particularly important to Latin’s development. Latin also has a large following in the United States. Cities such as Miami, New York, and Los Angeles teem with Latin American culture and music.

Latin music is rooted in Africa, namely the musical cultures of Nigeria, Angola, and the Congo. Moreover, European folk music, especially Spanish music, influenced early Latin styles. More recently, jazz, rock, and Top 40 radio has had an enormous impact on Latin’s evolution.

The electric bass is commonly used in Latin hybrids. One of these hybrids is Latin jazz. Latin jazz dates back to the early 1900s. For example, the Argentinean tango was used in a section of W. C. Handy’s classic tune “St. Louis Blues.” During the 1930s, Duke Ellington, influenced by valve trombonist Juan Tizol, wrote the now famous “Caravan.” After World War II, the Latin jazz explosion occurred due in part to Dizzy Gillespie, a bebop trumpeter, who was enchanted by Afro-Cuban music. By the 1950s, Latin big bands led by Tito Puente, Perez Prado, Chico O’Farrill, and Machito sparked many of the trends in dance such as the cha-cha-cha and the mambo that we now consider commonplace. The enchanting Desi Arnaz also helped to expand Latin’s appeal through performances by his orchestra on the hit TV show I Love Lucy.

In the 1960s, the bossa nova emerged in Brazil. Its most important composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim, combined relaxed samba rhythms with cool jazz. He found the perfect blend in tunes such as “Desafinado” and “One Note Samba,” which became pop hits in the United States.

In 1963, Joao Gilberto collaborated with Jobim and jazz saxophonist Stan Getz to record an album entitled Getz/Gilberto. The last-minute addition of Gilberto’s wife, Astrud, on a tune called “The Girl from Ipanema” proved to be quite significant. Because of Astrud’s silky voice, “Ipanema” became a mega hit in the United States and eventually a worldwide classic.

Latin pop is another hybrid that uses the electric bass. This style enjoys a wide fan base thanks to guitarist Carlos Santana and pop singers Gloria Estefan, Marc Anthony, Jon Secada, Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Selena, Celia Cruz, and Julio and Enrique Iglesias. Meringue rhythms are commonly used in Latin pop. Like most Latin styles, the meringue goes all the way back to the slave trade. Its lively feel — marked by thumping quarter notes — has proven infectious in discotheques across the globe.

In Trinidad, the electric bass is used to accompany steel drum or steelpan groups. Some of these groups use singers; others are strictly instrumental. The colloquial music of Trinidad is written mostly in major keys, and it has a carefree, lilting feel to it. Trinidadian genres that use electric bass include calypso and soca. Interestingly, the most famous calypso artist, Harry Belafonte, is not Trinidadian. Rather, he’s a New York City native with Jamaican ancestry.

Jamaica is known largely for reggae music. In this style, the electric bass is almost always used. The etymology of the word “reggae” is in dispute. Some say it was first used formally by Toots and the Maytals on a 1968 single called “Do the Reggae,” but others trace its origins back much further. The music itself is very old. Early versions of reggae date all the way back to a tribe called the Regga who lived in West Africa. The most famous reggae artist is the late, great Bob Marley. Marley claimed that the word reggae meant “the king’s music” in Spanish. Most Jamaican roots reggae artists are also Rastafarians. This religious movement considers Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia to be a black messiah.

Reggae is a bouncy style of music that borrows from African rhythms, the blues, American pop, and, more recently, rap music. It stresses upbeats, or “ands,” and often uses a loose triplet feel.

American and British pop artists have long incorporated reggae elements in their music. For example, Paul Simon used a reggae feel for his 1972 hit “Mother and Child Reunion.” Also, Sting used a reggae groove on several songs, including “Walking on the Moon” and “Love is the Seventh Wave.” Further, Bobby McFerrin scored a big hit with his reggae-inspired tune “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” in 1988. Additionally, Bonnie Raitt used a reggae feel on her 1989 single “Have a Heart.” These are but a few examples of reggae’s huge crossover potential.

Ska music is reggae’s most important precursor. Like reggae, ska has undergone many changes throughout the decades. Contemporary ska is marked by very fast, energetic performances. Like reggae, the afterbeat, or “and,” is stressed in this music. British bands such as the English Beat, the Specials, and Madness epitomized ska’s so-called second wave. Ska’s third wave combines elements of hardcore rock. The American group the Mighty Mighty Bosstones is probably the best example of this. Their music is often referred to as “ska-core,” and their bassist, Joe Gittleman, contributed greatly to their sound.

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