¡Arriba! Some famous genres of Latin American music

Posted by on November 20th, 2013

Anyone who has spent any time in Latin America will have been struck by the constant presence of music. It’s on buses and in waiting rooms; in hair salons and on ferries. It’s played as loudly first thing in the morning as it is late at night. Music isn’t so much listened to in Latin America as it is lived and every genre tells a different story. Latin America has Amerindian, European and African influences, and nowhere is this diversity more freely expressed than in its music.

There are more styles, genres and instruments in Latin American music than there are varieties of cheese in France, so what follows is a very brief overview of the sounds which define some of Vaya Adventures’ most popular destinations, with links to Youtube videos of some of the most famous songs.

Tango (Argentina)

There’s nothing more evocative and redolent of Buenos Aires’ glory days than the sound of tango suffusing the streets of San Telmo or La Boca. Although the term ‘tango’ more commonly refers to the dance than to the accompanying music, there’s no denying that Carlos Gardel’s baritone is the most Argentine sound of all.

Like many Latin American musical genres, the tango combines European and African influences, and was developed in Buenos Aires and Montevideo in the mid to late 1800s. It is traditionally performed by six musicians, known collectively as the orquesta típica, and consisting of two violins, two bandoneóns (a type of concertina), a piano and a double bass. Tango music doesn’t always have a vocalist, but in my opinion it’s far better when it does.

Samba (Brazil)

In Brazil the only thing that is anywhere near as important as soccer is carnival, and carnival would be nothing without samba. The samba has its roots in Cape Verde, an island nation off the African coast. But it was only once ex-slaves from Bahia (in the North of Brazil) descended on Rio de Janeiro in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and came into contact with popular European musical styles of the time that the samba as we know it was born. Samba is typically played with string and percussion instruments, although nowadays a variety of wind instruments is also used. Like tango, samba music is inexorably linked to the dance of the same name.

Samba originated in the poorer hillside areas of Rio, but by the mid 1920s it was given regular airtime on the radio and it soon spread to the affluent southern parts of the city, and beyond that to the rest of Brazil. Samba was first brought to the world’s attention by Sergio Mendes, whose rendition of Mas Que Nada is instantly recognisable and has even been covered by the Black Eyed Peas.

Pasillo (Ecuador)

Pasillo may not be nearly as well known as either the tango or the samba, but unlike its more famous cousins it is more of a musical genre in its own right than it is a dance. Pasillo melds features of the Viennese Waltz with the local Yaravi dance, and it played a central role in Ecuadorian Nationalism and the Ecuadorian War of Independence.

Its melancholy lyrics combine heartbroken lovers’ laments with soulful evocations of the beauty of Ecuadorian landscapes. Although production of Pasillo has waned in the 21st century, golden-oldies such as Julio Jaramillo’s Nuestro Juramento are still exceptionally popular among Ecuadorians of all generations, and you’ll hear them all the time.

Till next week…

Latin American music is the lifeblood of a continent, and I wasn’t able to fit everything I wanted to say into one blog. Next week I’ll continue the theme, by featuring two genres which have been irrevocable forces for political change in their respective countries of origin. Until then, I’ll leave you to embark on a Youtube journey which will hopefully culminate in you planning your own Latin American dream vacation and experiencing the infectious sounds for yourself.



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