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World Music by Region: Latin America

Latin America

The music of Latin America is danced, sung and loved the world over: few people have never heard of the tango, salsa or samba. The region's music is distinctly its own, with European, African and Indigenous influences all playing a part in forming the rhythms and beats typical of the region. Latin people are musical by nature; music blares out of cars, shops and houses everywhere you go, and dancefloors in nightclubs are constantly packed all across the continent. Brazil on its own is one of musical powerhouses of the world: samba, bossa nova, tropic´lia, forro and many many more genres of music have their origin here.

The historically diverse ethnic groups that populate Latin America each have their own distinct musical traditions. In Belize, the Creole (or Kriol as they are referred to locally) population dance to rhythms of brukdown and its king, Wilfred Peters.

The Garifuna people of Central America's Caribbean coast, essentially neighbours of Belize's Kriols, have their own music - punta. Punta is unlike any other Latin American music style, with a rhythm and dancing style that is more reminiscent of West African beats than other Latin music. Although customarily played at funerals and wakes using traditional Garifuna instruments (maracas, conch shells, drums and hardwood sticks), in the 1970s a new generation of Garifuna musicians reinvented punta using electrical instruments and brought this traditional genre of music back to life. Musicians such as Andy Palacios have led the Garifuna revival and reacquainted new generations of listeners to Garifuna melodies.


Brazil has a long, illustrious relationship with music, having given the world some of its most successful and renowned forms. Samba, with its syncopated rhythms and up-tempo beats, is perhaps the most well-known of the various Brazilian musical genres. It is the sound of a Brazilian street party, forever associated with Rio de Janeiro's carnival. Samba dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, although the funky, frenetic samba rhythms we are accustomed to today differ significantly from the slower, more romantic samba of the 1920s.

The samba of earlier years evolved in two opposing directions in the mid-20th century: one strand moulded traditional samba with rock, jazz and other genres (creating the samba familiar to many listeners today); while another strand of samba grew more minimalist, with accentuated melodies and slower rhythms. This second strand would grow into what is now known as bossa nova.

Bossa nova's slower pace was initially ridiculed by Brazilian music critics, but the innovative jazz tones of musicians such as Celso Machedo and João Gilberto (who had an international hit with ' Garota de Ipanema' in 1964) made critics sit up and take notice. Frank Sinatra's hit single The Girl With Ipanema was heavily influenced by the bossa nova movement, and turned the genre into an international sensation.

Just as bossa nova peaked, an avant-garde artistic movement took Brazil by storm. Tropicalismo was overtly political and rebellious, and despite being extremely short-lived, left a huge impact upon Brazilian politics and culture [You can watch a BBC documentary on tropicalismo here]. Tropicalismo was inspired by the philosophy of Oswaldo de Andrade, who argued that Brazil should adopt a 'cultural cannibalism', integrating pieces of European culture into a Brazilian setting. Musically, the result (known as tropicália) was a blend of avant-garde poetry with unusual time signatures, psychedelic rock and a rebellious, anti-dictatorial message. Tropicália introduced two of Brazil's preeminent musicians to the world in the forms of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Both quickly became underground icons, jailed by the authoritarian government and fled Brazil into exile.

Tropicalismo is unusual in that it experienced a huge revival at the beginning of the 21st century, as modern-day musicians and bands such as Devendra Banhart , Beck, Of Montreal and others rediscovered tropicália and encouraged their fans to do likewise. The circle was completed when Gilberto Gil, once a political prisoner, was made Brazilian Minister of Culture in 2003.

Latin American folk: Nueva Canción & Victor Jara

Nueva Canción (Spanish for 'New Song') was a folk revival movement that spread across Latin America in the 1960s. Closely associated with left-wing politics, nueva canción songs often touched upon social justice, poverty, human rights and other such topics. The movement grew out of the political turmoil and instability that many Latin American countries were experiencing at the time. Musicians took their cue from the folk protest revival that was occurring in the USA, where singers like Pete Seeger and a young Bob Dylan had picked up Woody Gutherie's mantle and continued the folk protest tradition.

The movement took root across Latin America: in Argentina, a group of folk musicians and poets headed by Mercedes Sosa and Armando Tejada Gómez officially launched the Nueva Cancionero movement in 1963 by issuing a manifesto. They sought to create a more egalitarian, 'Argentinian' music which all Argentineans could identify with. In Cuba, Nueva Trova Cubana (as it was known there) reflected the ideals and preoccupations of post-revolutionary Cuba. Similar nueva cancion movements sprung up in Peru, Venezuela and Uruguay.

It was in Chile, however, that nueva cancion reached its apex. What began with Violeta Parra - the mother of Latin American folk who spearheaded the nueva cancion movement - resulted in Victor Jara and his music. Victor Jara took the folk structure which Violeta Parra had perfected, and moulded it to suit the urban, industrialised age that Chile was easing into. He sang about the life of factory workers, of political scandals and human rights while campaigning for the socialist Salvador Allende to win the Chilean presidency. When Allende's government was overthrown by Augusto Pinochet's military coup in 1973, Victor Jara was one of the first dissidents to be arrested. According to various testimonies, over subsequent weeks Jara was imprisoned, tortured and eventually killed by Pinochet's henchmen [Ireland's own Christy Moore recorded a song in honour of Jara].


Cumbia is amongst Colombia's most recognisable musical genres. It is also one of Colombia's most successful musical exports, with adapted versions of cumbia thriving in Mexico, Panama, Peru and other Latin American countries.

Cumbia's history can be traced back to the period of Spanish colonisation. Spain 'imported' a number of slaves from Western Africa, and the music they brought with them influenced the local Colombian population. Amerindian (native American) flutes and percussion instruments were added to drums and claves (wooden sticks which are knocked together) to create cumbia.

Although historically derided by the upper classes of Colombian society, in modern-day Colombia cumbia is treasured and celebrated. Cumbia festivals are held across the country, and modern cumbia (which mixes cumbia sounds with salsa, vallenato or rock) is regularly played in bars and nightclubs.

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