An Introduction to Latin American
The Bus, Dance Floor and Block
You can’t escape music in Latin
Walk the city streets by day in Merida,
the capital of Mexico’s tropical Yucatan state, and
pounding bass assaults you from big speakers set up in front
of paint, hardware, and shoe stores. The beat mixes with
the sidewalk heat, making you feel like the party is just
In Central America, souped-up former
U.S. school buses pump music that an elementary school teacher
in the English-speaking half of America would find deeply
inappropriate for the field trip — especially if she
knew Spanish and understood what they were saying.
|A "chicken bus" in Quetzaltenango,
Click-click-click; click-click-click —
a Colombian once told me that the rhythm of super popular
cumbia music sounds like a walking horse. Once I could recognize
the beat, I always recognized cumbia—and even learned
to dance it passably.
Of course, no trip
to Latin America is complete without a night of live
music at the salsa club. Missing this adventure is like
going to Ireland and refusing a night at the pub. Even
if you don’t drink (or dance), you’ll have
a great time.
And if you can’t dance, there’s
no better way to learn than in the club, with friendly potential
partners, floor-rattling bass, and enough drums to get even
the stiffest legs moving.
But “salsa clubs” rarely
only play salsa, just as most salsa bands include a few
cumbia or pop songs. And late at night, once the band is
done, you’re bound to hear some electro music or reggaeton
played over the house speakers.
And everywhere in Latin America, you’ll
hear regional music—especially if you pass through town
during their fiesta days, usually the birthday of the town’s
For example, on Saint Peter’s
birthday, the place to be is San Pedro, Anywhere (every
country has a San Pedro). There will be abundant food and
drink, lots of fireworks, and an outdoor stage with a band
playing whatever the locals get down to.
|Los Angeles Azules in the center
square of Toluca, Mexico.
Cumbia, salsa, reggaeton, bachata,
punta, merengue, son, trova, ranchera,
banda, norteño, marimba, saya, huayño, tango… the list goes
on and on, practically doubling when you add Brazilian styles:
samba, bossa nova, pagode, forro, axe.
These genres make up a wide world of
music that can take years
to dissect. And other than a common language (with Portuguese
the exception), they don’t seem to have much in common,
besides lots of rhythm.
Fortunately, rhythm—drums and bass
—is usually the best way to identify the genre of Latin
American music you are listening to. (Of course, asking
someone never hurts.)
Either the drumbeat alone or the interplay
between drums and bass defines much Latin music. Salsa,
along with many other genres, uses a clave, a repeating
pattern of clicks, often one-two-three, one-two; one-two-three,
one-two. (That's how to count it—listen to the music
to get the timing.)
|Blind street performers playing
some afternoon salsa.
The clave might be buried in
the mix, more felt by the musicians than noticeable in the
song. However, in
this example, a Cuban salsa cover of a cumbia song written
by a Mexican
rock band, you can hear the woody clicks of the clave if
you listen closely.
a Caribbean style that has more in common with rap than
reggae, is an easy one—it always uses the
same drumbeat. The sound might be different—a high-hat
instead of a snare—but the pattern is the same. Once you
know the pattern, you will always recognize reggaeton.
So here are five common types of Latin
American music: cumbia, banda, trova, huayño, and samba.
Though each genre originated in a specific country, they
have all since gone international.
This isn’t even close to a comprehensive
list. The countries where this music originated, such as
Cuba, Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil, have many other types
of regional music, which will be described in future articles.
Often confused with salsa, the cumbia
beat is distinctive, both for its horse-trot drumming and
its distinctive, repetitive basslines.
Also, the instruments are often the
same as in salsa and the dance steps are similar. For a
salsa song with elements of cumbia, listen to “La
Vida Es Un Carnaval” by legendary Celia Cruz
Originally from Colombia, cumbia music
is played everywhere from Tierra del Fuego to New York City
(and surely farther north in some Canadian house parties
Besides huge superstars like La
Sonora Santanera or the group’s former singer Margrarita “La
Diosa de Cumbia” (the queen of cumbia), some
of the biggest cumbia bands are from outside of Colombia,
Angeles Azules (The Blue Angels) from Mexico.
In Argentina, there is a style called cumbia
Cumbia is easy to mix with reggae, rock,
rap, or practically any kind of music, producing crossover
bands like Celso
Piña (Mexico) and Chico
You’re not alone if you ever sat
in a Mexican restaurant with Mexican music on the radio
and the bouncy, um-pa-pa music reminded you of
In fact, several kinds of music from
the north of Mexico, like tejano, banda, conjunto and norteño,
can be traced to Europe. In the 1850s, Germans and Poles
migrated to northern Mexico and Texas, bringing accordions
and the ¾ polka rhythm. (Most popular music counts 1-2-3-4;
polka—and many Mexican songs—count 1-2-3.)
The way to tell banda from other
Mexican music is to check out the instruments. Banda
is, well, a band: a horn section (trumpets, trombones,
clarinets, sometimes sax, and always tuba for bass) and
a drummer or two, usually without piano, guitar, or bass
guitar. Look for big, loud bands of guys in matching
suits and an enthusiastic, cowboy-hat wearing audience.
|One of Banda El Recodo's several
trucks for near-constant touring.
Banda is arguably the most popular music
in Mexico. If the party goes past 4 a.m., you’re probably
listening to banda. If you are drinking beer at 10 a.m.,
you’re probably listening to banda. And if the local
government is throwing
a big party in the center square of town, they’ve
probably hired a banda group or four.
In Mexico, banda even has its own cable
TV channel, and big names like La Arroladora, El
Recodo and singer-songwriter Espinoza
Paz draw huge crowds at music and cultural festivals.
U.S. citizen Lupillo Rivera is an all
around badass and activist for immigrant rights, with lots
of famous songs like “Sin
The tiny island of Cuba pulses with
music. Take drums from Africa, rhythms from Latin America,
fun-loving people, plenty of heat, and just enough cultural
melancholy, and countless genres emerge.
Trova has spread throughout Latin America,
even returning to Spain, its ancestral home. Trova is an
exception to listening to the drums and bass to identify
a genre. No, trova is usually just a singer with his or
Trova comes from trovador, which
—you guessed it—means troubadour: musician/poets
with stories of love, life, adventure and loss. It’s
the best kind of folk music, like Woody Guthrie at his most
political, Tom Waits at his most symbolic, or Bob Dylan
at his most abstract.
In 2011, after a concert in Guatemala,
Facundo Cabral from Argentina was gunned down in his limousine,
caught in the crossfire between gangsters and the shady
promoter he was sharing the ride with, a terrible irony
for someone who sang about peace.
Along with Mercedes
Sosa, Silvio Rodriguez, and Fernando Delgaldillo,
he is one of the giants of modern trova.
Check out his deeply introspective “No
Soy de Aquí, Ni Soy de Allá” (I’m not
from here, and neither from there”).
Huayño / Andean music
At art fairs and street festivals around
the world, pan flute groups with two to twenty players transport
coin-tossing crowds to the towering Andes Mountains with
their evocative music.
If you ever wondered why these groups
and Garfunkel so much, perhaps it’s because the
duo once recorded a version of a huayño classic, “El
The Andes, especially in Peru and Bolivia,
genres and subgenres of indigenous-influenced music
that often features pan flutes of many sizes: little ones
that fit in the palm of your hand, or big ones that reach
down to your knees.
Though popular bands like Proyeccion have
modernized it, like many kinds of folk music, huayaño is
originally dance music with poetic lyrics. The classic song “Ojos
Azules” is known throughout Latin America.
An interesting pop culture back-story
is the origin of Jennifer Lopez’s 2011 club hit “On
the Floor.” She (or her manager) wasn’t the
first to hear a casino-like cascade of coins in the catchiness
of that tune, which was originally ”Lllorando
Se Fue” (“She Left Crying”) by Bolivia’s
Los Kjarkas, who in turn had adapted it from an old Andes
In 1989, it was made hugely famous and
renamed “Lambada” by
Kaoma, a French group with a Brazilian singer, who had
covered note-for-note a previous Brazilian version of an
even older Peruvian cover. Sounds complicated? It’s
South America’s big-money answer to “the ABC
song” / “Twinkle Twinkle” / “Ba
Ba Black Sheep”.
Also, more recently “Llorando
Se Fue” was the used as the chorus in “Taboo” by
reggaetonist Don Omar.
Cross the border from Bolivia into Brazil,
and everything changes. First, the language—on paper,
Portuguese looks a lot like Spanish, but just wait until
you have to speak it.
Also, the food—sure, there’s
rice and beans and lots of fruit, but where’s the
And, of course, the music. Yes, there’s
lots of drums, loud bass, and lots of dancing, but listen
a little closer (or try to learn the basic dance steps),
and you’ll quickly find that you are listening to
something quite different, and often much more complicated.
Brazil is its own world, and it has
its own world of music.
Bossa nova, a mix of samba and jazz,
is probably best known in the English-speaking world due
Girl From Ipanema.” Like trova, bossa nova is
often just a singer and guitar, while samba has lots of
drums and other instruments.
Samba rhythms mixed with jazz structures
gave rise to bossa nova, which has since injected samba
with a smoother, jazzier feel.
Chico Buarque is luminary if Brazilian
music—and how do you make a great musician even better?
Pair him with someone like Mart'nália.
Variations on samba rhythms have been
used in countless hits, such as “Sympathy
to the Devil” by The Rolling Stones, “The
Obvious Child” by Paul Simon, “Matador” by
Los Fabulosos Cadillacs (ska/fusion legends from Argentina),
and of course by many Brazilian
rock bands, which gave rise to a kind of music called
MPB, or musica popular brasileira.
|Los Fabulosos Cadillacs at the
Vive Latino music festival, Mexico City.
Samba is only one of many distinctly
Brazilian styles of music, which include pagode, similar
to samba; accordion-led dance and party music forro;
carnaval party-music axe; and funk (roughly pronounced “funky”),
Brazil’s answer to reggaeton.
Please check back for more articles
that will further explore the many types of Latin American
||Ted Campbell is a freelance writer, Spanish-English translator, and university teacher living in Mexico.
He has written two guidebooks (ebooks) about Mexico, one for Cancun and the Mayan Riviera and another for San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque in Chiapas, both also available at Amazon.com or on his website.
For stories of adventure, culture, music, food, and mountain biking, check out his blog No Hay Bronca.
To read his many articles written for TransitionsAbroad.com, see Ted Campbell's bio page.