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Music of Latin America


Jack Logan, Ph. D.

The absence of seasons weakens the stimulus towards progress. The great altitude makes respiration difficult, especially in the early hours of the afternoon when the rays of the sun beat down perpendicularly, engendering the sense of lassitude. As the dweller of the Sierra contemplates the vastness of the scene, a feeling of infinite solitude pervades him, and fills him with profound melancholy. That is why the aborigines of the Andes have adopted, no doubt by instinct, the minor mode, the wistful, monotonous, plaintive chant. This minor key is the natural product of the geographic conditions.

--Luis Segundo Moreno



Latin American music, deriving from a region of the World that is complicated ethnographically, is itself complicated by the mixture of influences from the enforced mixture of races, religions and patterns of cultural development from pre-Columbian times to the present.

The evolution of Latin American music has been sketched for us by Nicolas Slonimsky in his book, Music of Latin America:

"Pre-Columbian Cultures (before 1492). Primitive musical instincts expressed in singing and rhythmic stamping. Manufacture of drums made of hollow tree trunks and covered with animal skins; scratchers made of notched fruit shells; and shakers, or gourds with dry seed inside. Production of vertical flutes and panpipes made of baked clay, and sometimes of animal and even human bones. Formation of the pentatonic scale, possibly of chironomic origin, symbolizing the five digits of the hand.

Early Centuries of the Conquest (1492-1750). The first native festival heard by Europeans, given by Queen Anacaona in Santo Domingo in 1520. Church music carried by the Jesuits to the natives of South America. Determined efforts of colonial authorities to suppress indigenous music, with forcible destruction of drums and other Indian instruments. Gradual amalgamation of native and European rhythms and melodies into new distinctive Latin American forms. Extension of the pentatonic scale to the heptatonic, symmetrization of musical phrases, and introduction of traditional European harmony into popular music of Latin America. Infusion of African rhythms consequent upon the importation of (Black African) slaves.

Formation of National Cultures (1750-1900). Foundation of conservatories and music schools. Immigration of Italian and other foreign musicians to South America. Composition of national anthems, after the War of Independence.

Modern Era of Latin American Music (1900-present). Establishment of opera houses in the principal centers. Organization of symphonic ensembles under the direction of native and foreign musicians. Foundation of music publishing firms. Government subsidies for musical education. Music festivals and prize contests for composers. Emergence of native creative composers who combine in their music a deep racial and national consciousness with modern technique. Inclusion of Latin America into the commonwealth of universal musical culture on equal terms with the great schools of composition of Europe and North America."

There are more than twenty republics that constitute this vast area (map of South America) including Argentina, Bahamas, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Martinique and Guadeloupe, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, El Salvador, Uruguay and Venezuela. As will be observed in the following, each of these republics enjoys distinctive music as a result of the individualistic development within the greater whole of this area of the world.

Primitive music of Latin America, like primitive music in other parts of the World, was performed on instruments made from objects readily available in the environment of the musician. Jaguar claws, animal and human bones and specially treated inflated eyes of tigers are examples of objects which have served as percussion instruments from the South American Jungle.

"Jesus Castillo of Guatemala contends that the Indians of Central America have been influenced in their folk songs by the amazingly vocal and musically articulate native bird, the Cenzontle, of the thrush family, which sings melodies based on the major arpeggio. He cites examples of these bird melodies which he had noted down from a Cenzontle in captivity, and compares them to the tunes of popular Indian songs and dances, proving, to his satisfaction, that the Indians use the musical "technique of the birds."2

The Song of the Cenzontle, a Guatemalan Bird

It seems clear from "primitive" instruments as well as evidence of modern singing in groups that the music of pre-Columbian Indians was not always monodic (monophonic.) The suggestion of harmonized melodies is present in some regions of South America. For example, "The Memby flutes of the Guarany Indians were built in different sizes calculated to produce perfect fifths and octaves when played together. Playing in fifths and octaves is also common among the Indians of Colombia."


Cuba is the largest of the islands of the West Indies and lies to the South of the United States off the southern most tip of the coast of Florida.

Cuban music combines two primary racial strains to produce Cuban popular music, Spanish and African. Aboriginal Indians are practically extinct from the island of Cuba and the pentatonic melodies of their music have disappeared with them. "The Spanish element is strong in the rustic airs of the interior, while the (Black African) influence is felt in the city songs. The Spanish rhythms are characterized by the combined six-eight and three-four time, while the Afro-Cuban type is marked by syncopation in two-four time."4 There is a great divergence in rhythmic interpretations between the "folk" musicians of the interior of Cuba and the professional musicians that play in the cafÈs in Havana. Emilio Grenet has transcribed two versions of the popular song, Mama IÒez as it is performed in the country (straight) and as it is performed in the city version (syncopated):

Mama Inez, Version One

Mama Inez, Version Two

Cuban rhythms require a variety of interesting percussion instruments to articulate the distinctive Afro-Cuban sound. In Fernando Ortiz's essay La Clave XilofÛnica de la Música Cubana the percussion instrument known as Claves is described as "the most profound emotional expression of Cuba's soul."

Two other percussion instruments known as Maracas, a matched pair of gourds with seeds inside, and G¸iro, a gourd of calabasha which is serrated and scraped with a wooden stick, are the rhythmic instruments of most bands in Cuba and are used in many other countries of Latin America.

The Conga drum, a drum deriving its sound from the distant memory of Black African native musicians, is a primitive drum (made from a tree trunk, burned out inside with fire and covered with the cured skin of an animal), having been used by Cuban jungle natives as a means of telegraphy. Because of subversive political messages sent through the use of the Conga drum along the aural "pathways" of the jungle, the Cuban government, in the past, has felt the need to forbid the manufacture and use of the Conga drum to avoid the possible outbreak of native unrest.

Native Cuban dances such as the Habanera, Guajira, Guaracha and Punto have been influenced notably by the Spanish culture while the Rumba, Conga and Son Afro-Cubano dances are primarily influenced by the African culture. The mixture of the African and Spanish cultures is found in the Bolero-Son dance which is in two-four meter. The original Spanish Bolero dance is in three-quarter meter.

"The Guaracha is an old Spanish-Cuban dance in the characteristic six-eight time, alternating with three-four time. In Cuba, it is rarely heard among the people, but is popular in dance bands.

The choreography of the Cuban dances of Spanish origin is interesting in that the partners are separated, and wave handkerchiefs at each other, without coming into physical contact. A special phase of these dances is El Zapateo, from Zapato, shoe. It is a tap dance, in which the dancers stamp on the ground in rapid tempo.

The DanzÛn was introduced into Cuba in 1879 by a (Black African) composer, Miguel Failde. It is related to the old Spanish Contradanza, but is greatly influenced by African elements. It is danced by couples holding hands. The DanzÛn was very popular for a time, but was displaced by the Son, a dance-song which appeared in 1916 in the eastern provinces of Cuba. The Son is more highly syncopated than the DanzÛn and usually has an introduction for a solo singer. Its rhythmic structure is usually a cinquillo, in which the last eighth-note is split into two sixteenth-notes. The Son Afro-Cubano is the extension of the Son, with (Black African) melodies and ritualistic African Words.

The Rumba and the Conga are the characteristic creations of the Cubans (Black Africans). In the slums of Havana, the Rumba is often accompanied by an ensemble made up of domestic utensils such as bottles, pans and spoons.

The Conga is a Carnival dance, performed during the so-called Comparsas or parades, and its rhythm is essentially that of a march, the only peculiarity being that in every other bar the second beat is anticipated by a sixteenth-note. The American boogie-woogie players often use the Conga rhythm; as the basic accompaniment pattern.

The Rumba and the Conga are often used as political campaign songs (this was published in 1945 during a time when political campaigns still took place). In the presidential campaign of 1924, a Conga was used as a "smear" song against Menocal. Here is the first stanza: "The King of Spain sent a word to Menocal, saying, return to me the steed you have no skill to mount." Menocal lost the election.

The history of music in Cuba can be but sketchily traced. The nineteenth century in Cuba was the century of Italian music. Italian operatic music dominated the salons of Havana, and the Cuban salon dances of the time reflect this influence. The first Italian opera company visited Cuba in 1839. There is also a record of the arrival of several musicians from Bohemia in the year 1853, who presented a symphonic concert of classical music on March 10 of that year. The first Cuban composer who cultivated native themes was Ignacio Cervantes (1847-1905), who has been called "the Glinka of Cuban music."


A chronology of Mexican history from 200 A.D. to 1952 is presented in Robert Stevenson's Music in Mexico. For the purpose of placing musical events in a context, I include herein the distinctive events of this chronology:


Rise of Southern Maya culture in Guatemala and Honduras


Southern Maya culture reaches its zenith in such cities as Copan, Tikal, and Palenque


Northern Maya culture flourishes in Yucatan, a principal center being ChichenItza


Tenochtitlan, principal city of the Aztecs, founded;
See The Alonso Map of Tenochtitlan


Montezuma I ruler in Tenochtitl·n


Work begins on the construction of a great new temple at Tenochtitlan


At consecration ceremonies for new great temple 20,000 captives are sacrificed


Cortes arrives at San Juan de Uloa


Don Antonio de Mendoza, first viceroy, arrives (from Spain)

1821, July 30

Juan ODonoju, 62nd and last viceroy, arrives

1824, October 4

Constitution of the Republic of Mexico proclaimed

1846, May 13

United States Congress declares war on Mexico

1848, February 2

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ceding territory to the United States

1863, June 7

French army enters Mexico City

1866, December 18

French troops begin to leave Mexico

1867, July 21

Benito Juarez reestablishes his government at Mexico City

1942, May 28

War declared against Germany, Italy, and Japan

1952, December 1

Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, President

2000 Vicente Fox, President

The word Mexico is derived from the Aztec god of war, Mexitli. Three consecutive cultures existed in Mexico prior to the conquest by the Spanish in the sixteenth century: Mayas, Toltecs, and Aztecs.

Since these three great civilizations left many monuments and artifacts in the wakes of their dying civilizations, much is known of the music performed by the musicians of these aboriginal civilizations. The musical media of these civilizations were melody., rhythm and timbre, although there is much to suggest that harmony played some role in the makeup of ancient Mexican music.

From the structure of ancient instruments which have been preserved: "(1) Flutes, Chililihtli; and ocarinas and panpipes, Tlapitzalli; (2) Marine snail shell, Atecocoli; (3) Vertical drum, Huehuetl; (4) Horizontal drum, Teponaxtle; (5) Calabash rasps, Tzicahuaztli; and bone rasps, Omichitzicahuaztli; (6) Gourd filled with pebbles, Ayacaztli,"7 the observation is made that the music of the ancient Mexican civilizations was predominantly pentatonic in nature with the minor third at the base of the scale as follows: la, do, re, me, sol. The following "Song of Mayan Warriors" Los Xtoles has been notated in Mexican folklore collections and is evidence for the pentatonic nature of this music.

Los Xtoles "The Chililihtli was a vertical flute made of baked clay. Several tubes joined together formed a panpipe called Tlapitzalli. The tones produced by the Chililihtli and by the Tlapitzalli never exceed five. Some native melodies of ancient type are built on three different tones only. The Indians do not find their chants monotonous, for they color each tone with greatly varied dynamics; the manner of singing and the duration of each tone provide additional means of expression."

Many great artists were born in countries of Latin America. Two of the greatest examples are Rafael Mendez, born on March 26, 1906 in Jiquilpan, Mexico, and Yma Sumac, born Zoila Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo sometime between 1921 and 1928 in Inchocan, Peru. Mendez's trumpet performance was among the best in the world during his time, and Sumac's vocal skills rivaled the greatest of her generation. For examples, sample Mendez's interpretation of Rimsky Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee, and his own edition of the Mexican Hat Dance. Yma Sumac's vocal agility, which demonstrated a vocal range of four octaves, in her version of two mambos, Indian Carnival and Chicken Talk are thrilling to hear.

Additional Reading

Music of Peru

Music of Colombia

Music of Cuba

Music of Mexico

Music of Puerto Rico

Music of the Andes

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