Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A rough guide to Latin American music

I shall attempt to hack a path through the dense jungle of Latin American music. Previously I'd dumped all Latin music into one collective pile, but the genres and sub-genres are endless. To be honest, I still find it hard to distinguish the subtle differences between Chicha and Cumbia or Salsa and Son Montuno. However, I fully support the necessity of endless sub-categorising. As a fan of metal I can tell you the differences between death, thrash, black, power, Viking, or hair metal.

So here goes and in alphabetical order (this list is by no means complete and is very much a work in progress)

Bachata – Latin music from the Dominican Republic, it became very fashionable again in the late 1980s thanks to a singer called Juan Luis Guerra. Bachata is a mix of European and African traditions and features rhythm guitar, bass, bongos and a guira - a metal board or drum played with a stiff wire brush. Here is a nice example of a Bachata song I like by Juan Luis Guerra called Ojala que lleuva Cafe (I hope it rains Coffee). 

Banda, Musica de – the most popular party music of Ecuador, you can't have a fiesta without Musica de Banda in the Andes. It is brass bands, cymbals, bass drums and loud thumping rhythms that compel your feet into stamping. Every police force, neighbourhood, army regiment, and school has its own banda de musica and competition between the rival bands is fierce. Nothing gets the party started like the banda. At my own wedding we booked a local banda from Cayambe - provided they were fed and watered (with rum) they kept playing for hours. My dad took this video of my wife Lucia and I dancing to the banda - we're both carrying raposas (stuffed skunks) which are a fertility symbol in the Andes... and I'm dancing very badly.

The Banda at my own wedding, playing before the bonfire
Bomba – an Ecuadorian music from the black immigrants of El Chota, an Andean valley in the highlands. Most of Ecuador's black population is based along the coast (particularly Esmeraldas) so El Chota is unusual. The African roots have been fused with indigenous Indian folk traditions so it has a very distinctive sound and appearance.

Cha cha cha – a Cuban dance music, a derivative of Son Montuno (see below). Cha cha cha is onomatopoeic, it is what you do between the steps: “One, two, three – cha, cha, cha... etc”. The dance is now a staple member of the competitive ballroom scene.

Chicha – this is Peru's take on Cumbia, but it's extremely popular across the Andean countries. Chicha arrived in the 1960s when Lima received massive immigration from the Andes, mixing tropical music with highland folk sounds. Chicha relies on an electric guitar, instead of an acoustic guitar. In the last ten years it has become trendy with young Peruvians, shaking off its working class roots and arriving in the discos and studenty bars of Barranco. Chicha is classic dance and drinking music.
My favourite chicha song is without a doubt Grupo 5's Te Vas Te Vas. Chilean singer Americo's version is the most famous but it's not a patch on Grupo 5.

Cumbia – Arguably the most popular genre of music across Latin America, Cumbia is everywhere. On every bus the radio will be playing cumbia... or its evil twin techno-cumbia. Originally cumbia was folk music from Colombia, mixing European, Indian and African traditions and was danced in courtship with large skirts made with 10 metres of cloth, so the girls shake, lift and play with their flowing dress.
La Sonora Dinamata are a fun introduction to Cumbia and this energetic live performance gives a good sense of the fun of cumbia.
Los Hispanos have this song about Gabriel Garcia Marquez' novel 100 Years of Solitude
I was lucky enough to watch a Cumbia video being made - it wasn't quite Beyonce.
Man shooting a music video in Ecuador
I was fortunate to see a cumbia video being made before my eyes - this is Geovana Jara
Festejo – an Afro-Peruvian rhythm. There is debate over the authenticity of Festejo, some critics claim it is a relatively modern reinvention to give the black population of Peru an identity. Festejo uses donkey jaws as a rattling, percussion instrument. 
The best festejo song I've found is this by Eva Ayllon called Saca La Mano (Put out the hand). It's easy to dance to, you stick out your hands, stick out your feet and then shake your head like you don't want to lose (as the song says). We danced this at the wedding.

Mambo – an older Latin music, also from Cuba (like so many other styles) and also part of the ballroom dance circus.

Marimba – an Ecuadorian afro music, but also heard across Central America. It is named after the wooden percussion instrument, similar to a xylophone. In Ecuador it is closely associated with the largely black province of Esmeraldas.

Pasillo – mournful, drinking music from Ecuador. The songs are melancholy and the lyrics are over the top. There is a European undertone to the music, particularly the Viennese Waltz. There's a pasillo song by DĂșo Benitez called Diseccion where the singer imagines his own death and being sliced up on the autopsy table, pretty tame if you grew up with Cannibal Corpse's 'Hammer Smashed Face' but pretty gruesome stuff for non-death metal audiences. Until the 1950s amorous young men would hire a pasillo to serenade their sweethearts under the window. If the girl accepted her lover's overtures she would appear at the window, if the gesture was rebuffed she would remain in bed.
Maybe Julio Jaramillo is the most popular pasillo singer, here's Nuestro Juramento.

Reggaeton – born in Puerto Rico, it mixes Jamaican reggae with hip-hop. It is one of the most popular types of music with young Latins today. It's fair to say the lyrics are aggressive, sexist and homophobic. I once found myself in a reggaeton club in Montanita and it was a pretty shocking sight of hyper-sexualised gender violence on the dance floor. The women were simulating oral and anal sex - all in time to the music - while their Guayaquilian boyfriends bobbed along - less in time to the music - swigging from bottles of Pilsner and Club Verde. Reggaeton isn't for me but achieved worldwide fame at the hands of Daddy Yankee's Gasolina.

Salsa – born in New York in the 1970s from Caribbean immigrants who combined Son Montuno from Cuba with Jazz music. It became popular as a symbol of Latin identity and is so intertwined with the dance scene the two are almost inseparable. Unfortunately, no party in Latin America can exist without Salsa music. It is less sexual than bachata but more sensual, the dance is a game of flirtation. Latin girls might even choose a man, based on his ability to dance Salsa. In the last decade Salsa has faced a slight decline with the popularity of bachata and the advent of 'romantic salsa' – a sexist, and lyrically crude form of the genre. The most famous Salsa figure from history was Hector Lavoe (the man who could breathe underwater), he was chaotic, always late for his shows, and died of drug abuse.
I can't dance salsa and perhaps because of this fact the music has always left me slightly cold. However, there are a few diamonds in the rough - like Quitate Tu by Fania All Stars.

San Juanito – an Andean folk music from Ecuador. It gets its name from the fiesta de San Juan, with which it is closely associated. It is upbeat and danced with handkerchiefs (like our Morris dancing). The festival of San Juan derives from the Incan festival of Inti Raymi, celebrating the sun God on June 24. The men tend to sing with deep baritone voices and the women sing with a high-pitched, slightly alien style (a little bit Bollywood), it sounds incredible. I love San Juanito and it's always played at the fiestas. This song by Jatari is called Chimbalito 

Son Montuno – another genre from Cuba, the roots of Salsa music. Percussion plays an important role with its African origins, but also blends Spanish guitar and brass styles. It is purer than salsa, which is blended with jazz, and slightly slower.

Traditional folk - every South American country has its own traditional folk songs but the best I found is Luzmila Carpio from Bolivia. Her high-pitched voice is incredible and almost alien to the ears. She can hit notes you won't believe the human voice could reach. Her song Arawi - performed here live - is haunting and very beautiful. Ecuador has Enrique Males who recreates a pre-Colombian sounds with the wind instruments borrowed from museums. His voice is deep and powerful. He sang this song Ariningacaman at my own wedding - it's a love song, sung in Quechua, to his child.

Vallenato – an upbeat Colombian coastal music played with an accordion inexplicably popular with Ecuadorian bus drivers. Carlos Vives made the genre fashionable in the 90s, he won three Grammy Latinos (if you're counting). His best song, by a country mile, is La Gota Fria (The Cold Sweat) but the videos for some of his latest songs are worth a watch, for his sheer hammy performances alone. There's something very likeable about Vives, even when he's acting like a total prat, as in this toe-curlingly cringey video for Vovi a Nacer.

Metal – Heavy Metal in Ecuador is most closely identified with the urban working classes, so has more to do with heavy metals rougher roots than the slightly sensitive, art-school emo scene we see in Europe today. The south of Quito is heavy metal heaven. It's strange to see Latin boys (just like in Europe its male-dominated) dressed in black leather with long, greasy hair under the scorching Ecuadorian sun.
Unfortunately, Latin metal has yet to find its own distinctive sound, particularly in Spanish-speaking South America. Trailblazers like Sepultura and Sarcofargo from Brazil seem to have had more influence in Europe than Ecuador. Instead, the most popular Latin metal groups attempt to replicate the European/US sounds, with the most popular genre by far being Power/Prog Metal. The lyrics (when they're in English) are disastrous and unintentionally comedic – but that's true of a lot of German metal too.
I'll keep on digging, but so far I haven't found anything particularly original. It's a shame because South America has such a deep well of Pagan history to draw from and an oppressive Catholic religion to rebel against. What could be darker or more metal than human sacrifices, snake Gods and living volcanoes?

Rata Blanca are perhaps the most popular... just don't expect Guns n' Roses.


  1. Salsa is still the king in most of latin america

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