The culture of Latin-American countries is very rich. Our 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. 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 have happy music that will incite enjoyment and socialization over some wine or margaritas; for that I put some Salsa, Mariachi, Latin pop, and Vallenato. When we are ready to eat, I may switch to the more mellow Latin Jazz, Bachata, and Trios music. And after we’ve eaten and had the “sobre-mesa” (table conversation after eating), we may feel like dancing or singing along to danceable Merengue, Cumbia, and Rock in Spanish. In our culture, the music sets the stage for the gathering, or you use the music to set the ambiance you want for the occasion. Either case, music tends to serve as a catalytic to bring us together.
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
Music has the additional advantage of being easily transportable. We can bring our music with us relatively easy, particularly in this digital age, where I can fit my music collection in my iPod. That means we can easily share it with our friends and family. Per Merriam- Webster’s definition of culture, we should have the “capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations”. The question is, can we explain the story behind the music we are sharing?
The music genres in Latin-America:
The number of musical genres in Latin America is probably in the hundreds. Our musical heritage comes from 3 sources: the indigenous music from our natives, the European music brought by the settlers, and 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, which include the leró, yubá, cunyá, babú, and belén. These variant arose from the kind of dance to be performed with the Bomba.
The music brings with it the musical 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 (from the Taíno language “Amaraca”), from the Spainards we inherited to use of the Spanish Guitar, which we evolved into our native string instrument of the “Cuatro”, and from the African inheritance we got the Bombas native drums, a shorter and wider variety of the Cuban conga, used for playing Bomba. Because the indigenous, European, and African influences are shared through Latin America, we also share many of the instruments. The Taínos lived from the region of Venezuela all the way up to Cuba; and therefore the maracas were used in several countries. Cuba developed their version of the Spanish Guitar in the Tres and the Venezuelans developed their own “Venezuelan Cuatro” and the “Bandola”, which they use to play the “Joropo”. The African drums took shape of Congas, bongos and other percussion derivatives, used throughout Latin America.
Three (3) reasons to increase our knowledge of Latin Music:
As a teenager in Puerto Rico, I remember watching a TV show about Bomba & 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 the following generations. This group (the Cepeda Family) was trying 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 I had heard in some Cortijo with Ismael Rivera songs, I really didn’t know much about it. I realized I could not 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 one hour 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.
But isn’t that true with anything?
So…the 3 reasons which drive me to know 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 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 as a simple “salsa”. You can also learn to appreciate and even love music genres from other countries which you may not have paid much attention in the past. I have learned to love Vallenato through my Colombian friends which have shared stories of how they dance and create the music, of how some songs describe Colombian regions or traditions. Same with the Mexican Huapango, which my family-in-law likes and have 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” and shared with me that some of Mon’s songs were based on true stories. She, as Mon, grew up in Mayaguez, 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 more meaning to me.
The purpose of Latino Music Café:
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. I live in the United States with my wife and two daughters. Now as a parent, I want to share the stories behind the music with my daughters, because they are growing away from their roots, and it’s up to us, their 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. I will drive the discussion, but I hope to have our readers also share their 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”, or a Maná “Rock in Spanish” song, 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.