The culture of Latin-American countries is very rich. Our Latin music, food, and social customs make us unique as an ethnic group in general and unique as countries in particular.
Music plays a huge part of our Hispanic culture. The music we listen, share, and dance to makes the centerpiece of many of our social gatherings.
Latin Music: A Living Culture for Hispanics
When I invite friends home, music plays a main role on creating an adequate atmosphere for the occasion. At the beginning of the gathering, we may play Latin music that incites enjoyment and socialization. This is a great way to enjoy the music over wine, beer, or margaritas. At that point, I may play some Salsa, Ranchera, Latin pop, and/or Vallenato.
Then, when we are ready to eat, I may switch to the more mellow Latin Jazz, Bachata, or Boleros with Trios music. And after we’ve eaten and had the “sobre-mesa” (table conversation after eating), we may feel like dancing or singing along. For that, I can play a danceable Merengue, Cumbia, or even Latin Rock.
Music is one of our main ways to express our culture. Here is the definition of “culture” by the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
Culture – a): the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations. b): the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life} shared by people in a place or time
Per Merriam- Webster’s definition of culture, we should have the “capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations”. The question we must ask ourselves is, can we explain the story behind the music we are sharing?
Music Genres in Latin-America
The number of musical genres in Latin America is in the hundreds. Our musical heritage comes from three sources: a) the indigenous music from our natives, b) the European music brought by the settlers, and c) the African music brought by the slaves.
Each Latin American country has several genres of music, and each may have several style variants. For example, the Puerto Rican rhythm of Bomba has developed many styles. These include the leró, yubá, cunyá, babú, and belén. These variants originated from the kind of dance that was performed with the Bomba.
Music brings with it the instruments used to play it. Because of its musical richness, Latin America also has a great variety of musical instruments. Continuing to use Puerto Rico as an example, we got from the Taíno Indians the “Maracas”. The word comes from the Taíno language “Amaraca”. Additionally, from the Spaniards we inherited to use of the Spanish Guitar. In Puerto Rico it evolved into our native string instrument of the “Cuatro”. And from the African inheritance we got the “Barril de Bomba” drums, a shorter and wider variety of the Cuban conga, used for playing Bomba.
Note: to learn more about the origins of the “maracas”, check out this blog on my research of them and an instructional video of many different ways to use the “maracas”, HERE.
Because the Indigenous, European, and African influences are shared through Latin America, we also share many of the instruments. The Taínos lived from Venezuela all the way up to Cuba. Therefore, the maracas were used in several Latin American countries. Cuba developed their version of the Spanish Guitar in the “Tres”. The Venezuelans developed their own “Venezuelan Cuatro” and the “Bandola”, which they use to play the “Joropo”. The African drums took shape of “congas”, “bongo” and other percussion derivatives used through Latin America.
It would take me several hundred pages to cover all the various musical genres, styles, instruments, and associated customs for each of our Latin American countries. It would take twice as long to then explore the artists and people that shaped our music.
At Latino Music Café, I intend to follow this article with a series of articles about our music which highlight a particular country or music genre. I will mix these with other articles regarding Latin music. But you may ask: why would I want to write about this?
Three (3) Reasons to Learn More About Latin Music
As a teenager in Puerto Rico, I remember watching a TV show about Bomba and Plena. They were saying that this musical tradition was dying because not enough people knew or cared enough about this genre to consume it, nor to pass along the knowledge and enjoyment of it to subsequent generations.
The Cepeda Family, which was featured in the TV show, had the mission to try to keep the tradition alive by showcasing the Bomba. They got my attention, and as I watched the show, I realized that although I liked the rhythm which was familiar to me through the songs of Cortijo with Ismael Rivera and through Christmas “parrandas“, I really didn’t know much about Bomba. I quickly realized I couldn’t explain much about my country’s native musical rhythms to anyone who would ask.
In that TV show I learned that the Bomba drum-player and the dancer were actually connected through the music, that the dancer steps and movements were following the drum-beats, how the dancers took turns and threw challenges to each other. I learned how the female would indicate through her movements with her portable fan, if she was interested in a certain male in a Bomba party, very discretely of course.
When weeks later I needed to do a paper for college, I immediately chose to write about Bomba and Plena. I then discovered that what I had learned in that TV show was just the tip of the iceberg. And even though I still don’t know many things about Bomba and Plena, I enjoy those rhythms much more today than back when I didn’t know much about their history.
So…the 3 reasons which drive me to learn more about our Latin Music are to:
a) learn more about our culture
b) enjoy more our music, and
c) share by passing the knowledge
1. Learn: in order to pass along our musical culture and keep it alive, we need to learn more about it. Once I learned that the Plena was used to pass along news, in a time when printed news (or people that could actually read it) was scarce, you can understand what was behind those old songs, and its easy to pass on that knowledge. The Mexican Ranchera had a similar purpose during the old civil war times.
2. Enjoy: by knowing the story behind the music, you will enjoy the music in a different way. When you know that Ruben Blades’ “El Padre Antonio y el Monaguillo Andrés” is based on the story of the Salvadoran priest Oscar Arnulfo Romero, you listen to it differently. Or when you can recognize that a “salsa” song by Willie Colón could contain Puerto Rican Bomba, Brazilian Bossa Nova, and Cuban Son Montuno rhythms, you appreciate his work and creativity a bit more than when you just thought of it simply as “Salsa”.
You can also learn to appreciate and even love music genres from other countries which you may not have paid much attention to in the past. I learned to love Vallenato through my Colombian friends which have shared stories of how they danced and created the music, of how some songs describe Colombian regions or traditions. Same with the Mexican Huapango, which I learned from my ex-wife’s family as they shared with me similar stories. If not for them, I probably would have never found it appealing to listen to that music.
3. Share: once you know the story behind the music, others will appreciate the music and the story behind it as well. Once my mother heard me listening to a Mon Rivera “Plena”, she shared with me that some of Mon’s songs were based on true stories. She, as Mon Rivera, grew up in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, and told me who Maria Luisa Arcelay was, and the story of the Arcelay family and of the labor climate of that era. So I learned the stories behind some of Mon’s songs, as well as a bit of my country’s history, and those songs now have a lot more meaning to me.
I created Latino Music Café because I want to continue to learn about Latin music, increase the enjoyment I get from it by researching those stories behind our musical rhythms and behind the people that brought it to us, and share those stories with you, our readers, and with friends and family.
As a parent, I want to share the stories behind the music with my daughters, because, living in the United States, they are growing away from their roots. It’s up to us parents to pass on the cultural torch. And like me, there are many Latinos/Hispanics out there seeking more knowledge about the music that we hear and enjoy today, but that sometimes we don’t know much about.
Through Latino Music Café I will drive the discussion about Latin music, but I hope to have you as a reader also share your stories, so we can all benefit from the collective knowledge out there. This way, when my daughters or friends listen to a Juan Luis Guerra “Bachata”, a Carlos Vives “Vallenato”, a Maná “Rock in Spanish”, or even a Tito Puente Latin Jazz, I’ll be able to enjoy the music with them and share the stories that got the music to us, while allowing part of our culture to live through one more generation.
Final Note: to learn more about topics in Latin music, check out the hyperlinks in this article and other blogs in Latino Music Cafe.