Popular Music and Dance

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Popular Music and Dance

Popular music is generally distinguished from folk music, although it often has roots in folk traditions. Its commercial dimension and its unavoidable connection with radio, TV, the cinema, and above all sound recording make it essentially a phenomenon born of the twentieth century. This essay focuses primarily on distinctly Latin American popular music (and, where appropriate, associated dance forms), with a final note on the music and dance related to the international, Anglo-American mainstream, that is, the various musical trends deriving from the rock-and-roll revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. This music, of essentially North American provenance (with some notable British inputs), has proved just as popular in Latin America as elsewhere (as a visit to any large Latin American music store will reveal). From the 1960s onward, the international mainstream stimulated a host of local imitations and creative musical fusions of variable quality. Some trends of this sort (Argentina's rock nacional of the 1980s, for instance, or Brazil's more recent techno-samba) have won growing international attention. Such trends have made an obvious and important contribution to the overall pattern of Latin American popular music, and apparently satisfied many Latin American tastes since the 1980s, especially among youth; but their regional characteristics are less pronounced than other popular musics, drawing as they do (often eclectically) on foreign influences.

Alongside the international mainstream and its local reformulations, a great variety of regional and national musical and dance forms and styles have displayed great vitality and staying power. Indeed, some Latin American trends have had great influence on popular music and jazz in North America and Europe. The tango, the samba, and the bossa nova, for example, made their marks internationally, whereas the longer and more continuous influence of Cuban dance music has had a pervasive effect on the taste of Latin American communities in the United States. No Latin American country has had quite the same overseas impact in these matters as has Cuba, especially the Cuba of the period from the 1920s to the 1950s.

The two primary influences on Latin American popular music and dance have been European and African. European influence has for obvious reasons been strongly Hispanic, but by no means exclusively so, for nineteenth-century dance forms such as the waltz, the polka, and the mazurka have all played an important part. The impact of indigenous folk traditions has been much less marked, and the extent to which such traditions can be said to be "pure" is still a matter for debate. Plenty of highly attractive Native American folk music can still be heard, especially in the Andean countries, but it is hard to argue that these folkloric traditions have influenced major modern trends, except locally, as in the urban popular music of Peru, where Andean-style huaynos and carnivalitos, for instance, are present in both the performed and recorded repertoires. Indigenous influence achieved a wider international effect in the use made of traditional Andean instruments, such as the quena and the charango, in certain "neofolk" traditions, notably in the Southern Cone. The international impact of such music, especially after the 1960s, helped folk ensembles from Peru and in particular Bolivia (Los Jairas, Rumillajta, Inti-Raymi, and others) to win applause far from South America.


Indigenous influence is not in the least discernible in the popular music of Mexico. This largest of the Spanish-speaking nations has a rich profusion of Hispanic-mestizo folk traditions, some of which (such as the corridor, the ballad form often associated with the Revolution) overlap the boundary between folk and popular music. Mexico's preponderant modern forms have been international (ballads and love songs, for example). The Cuban bolero, transformed into the lilting and sentimental ballad popular throughout Spanish America from the 1940s, was perhaps more cultivated in Mexico than elsewhere, not least at the hands of the legendary composer-performer Agustín Lara and later the Chilean-born singer Lucho Gatica. Nonetheless, certain distinctively Mexican kinds of music may be found, including some of which have achieved immense local popularity. The so-called canción ranchera (country song) enjoyed a great vogue in the middle decades of the century, when the flourishing Mexican movie industry gave a particular boost to this simple type of song, which typically focuses on patriotism (and sentiment for the patria chica) and masculinity. The favored vocal style is open and rather exaggerated; the vocalists are accompanied by mariachi ensembles (brass, violin, guitar) or by accordion-based groups. (Mariachi ensembles may take their name from the French mariage, assimilated at the time of the French occupation of the 1860s, though this etymology has been disputed.) Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante, and Pedro Vargas sang in this tradition, and others, to very good effect. Negrete, a noted film star as well as a singer, was one of the great heartthrobs of his generation.

A distinctive Mexican regional form is the so-called música norteña (northern music), with its accordion-led groups specializing in polkas, waltzes, and corridos. Its close musical relative across the border, Tex-Mex, is best considered a regional U.S. form. The popular music of Mexico's southern neighbor, Guatemala, and of other Central American republics has been strongly marked by Mexican influence; it is also noted for its prominent use of the marimba, probably an African-derived large form of xylophone, which has become the Guatemalan national instrument. It is not surprising that the main manifestations of Euro-African fusion have occurred where contact between Europeans and Africans was historically greatest: the Caribbean and Brazil.


In the Caribbean, it is important to highlight the vital role of Cuba—a great musical crossroads and a fertile source of trends, attributable to the assimilation of African elements (syncopation, heavy use of percussion) into a magnificent series of dance forms. The first of these was the early nineteenth-century habanera, partly derived from the French contredanse imported into Cuba by refugees after the Haitian revolution. In Cuba it soon acquired the repeated short phrases that are a clear sign of African influence. Its successor in popularity, the danzón, dominant from the 1880s to the 1920s, was played by ensembles known as charangas francesas, or simply charangas (piano, violin, flute, bass, percussion). The more purely Afro-Cuban rumba dance and song, with its strongly percussive accompaniment, developed at roughly the same time. In due course the danzón was displaced by the son, the most influential of all Cuban dance forms. It became entrenched in the 1920s and 1930s with some first-rate bands, such as Sexteto Habanero, Septeto Nacional, and Trío Matamoros. The instrumental lineup in such ensembles—the forebears of the great midcentury dance bands—included trumpets, bass, guitar (or the tres, the Cuban nine-stringed variant), and a strong percussion section. From this point on, Cuban dance music proved thoroughly exportable; it was popularized in Europe by bands such as the Lecuona Cuban Boys and (more briefly) Don Azpiazú's Havana Casino Orchestra, whose hit recording of "El manicero" ("The Peanut Vendor"), a son often misleadingly labeled as a rumba, took the United States by storm in 1931. Mention should be made of two great bandleaders, the Spaniard Xavier Cugat (who grew up in Cuba) and the Scottish-Venezuelan Edmundo Ros (born in Trinidad, brought up in Venezuela), who made Cuban music familiar (albeit in clearly attenuated form) to large audiences in both the United States and Britain, respectively. Since the 1940s, Cuban dance music has been prevalent in many parts of Africa, especially west and central Africa, where Cuban influence was fundamental, though less so after the 1960s.

Alongside the ubiquitous son, other noteworthy Cuban dance forms are the cha-cha, adopted by the charangas in the 1950s and especially popular (in somewhat modified form) in the United States; the lively guaracha, and the mambo, which incorporated U.S.-swing influence and was popularized in the 1950s by prominent bandleaders such as Pérez Prado. In the 1950s numerous distinguished Cuban dance bands flourished, in New York City as well as Cuba, and the son and the rumba fused to create the authentic midcentury "Cuban sound."

Salsa music (a generic label) stems in large part from the midcentury Cuban son-rumba fusion and became extraordinarily popular in Latin America and among Latin Americans in the United States from the 1960s on. Its best-known stars were the Cuban-born Celia Cruz (who left Cuba in 1960) and the Puerto Rican New Yorker Willie Colón. Musically, salsa has been both diverse and constantly changing. In Cuba itself, where the salsa label was intensely disliked, the years following the 1959 Revolution saw relatively little innovation in the traditional rhythms that had given the island so much international fame. Groups such as Irakere and Los Van Van later developed interestingly eclectic combinations of styles, while the Nueva Trova movement, whose internationally best known figure was the singer Silvio Rodríguez, derived much of its impetus from the Latin American nueva canción ("new song") tendency of the later 1960s.


The development of Puerto Rico's popular music is similar to that of Cuba's in important respects—the danza to some extent paralleling the danzón, the bomba and plena clearly related to the original Afro-Cuban rumba, and so on—though it has been argued that the African influence was even stronger in Puerto Rico. The island's political link with the United States, coupled with the diplomatic and commercial isolation of revolutionary Cuba, allowed Puerto Rican musicians, such as the instrumentalists Bobby Valentín, Luis "Perico" Ortiz, and Tommy Olivencia, and the singer Hector Lavoe, to play a leading part in the salsa explosion of the 1970s, in the United States as well as Puerto Rico itself and elsewhere in Latin America.


In the Dominican Republic, the national form has been the merengue, with its fast-moving 2/4 rhythm and simple choreography. In its original rural environment, the merengue was played on tambora drums, guiros (scrapers), and the guitar or tres. In the town, accordions and, later, saxophones were included in the instrumental lineups. This dance music was strongly encouraged for nationalistic reasons (though the lyrics added to it were strictly controlled) during the thirty-year dictatorship of General Rafael Trujillo. In the 1970s and 1980s the merengue had a considerable international impact with such talented musician-entrepreneurs as Johnny Ventura (singer) and Wilfrido Vargas (trumpeter).


In similar fashion, in Colombia during the 1940s and 1950s, popular taste was captured by the insistent 4/4 rhythm (with accent on the second beat) of the cumbia, a dance originally from the Caribbean coast and Panama. Like salsa and the merengue, the cumbia soon became well known all over Spanish America. (The Guatemalan marimba repertoire, for instance, quickly incorporated both cumbias and merengues.) Another important Colombian tradition, vallenato music, is a "country" style from the north of the republic, with Hispanic rather than Afro-Hispanic roots, and with the accordion prominent in its instrumental ensembles.


The other great area of Euro-African fusion is, of course, Brazil, where, as in Cuba, slavery survived longer than elsewhere in the Americas. Here the earliest domestic forms of popular music were the choro, an instrumental form (from chorar, "to weep," not coro "chorus"), and maxixe (a Brazilian polka adaptation) of the nineteenth century. A key figure at the turn of the century was the highly talented pianist-composer Ernesto Nazareth, who labeled some of his choros and maxixes "Brazilian tangos," which should not be confused with the Argentine tango, though in both cases the influence of the Cuban habanera was strong.


A new and soon hegemonic national song-dance form emerged in the early twentieth century in the samba. (A masculine noun in Portuguese, its etymology is uncertain.) It probably originated in the heavily Afro-Brazilian Northeast but soon became inseparably associated with Rio de Janeiro. There have been numerous samba variants and derivatives. The "street samba," accompanied by formidable polyrhythmic percussion (Brazil has easily the highest number of percussion instruments of any country in the Americas) was complemented from the 1920s by the somewhat slower samba-canção (samba-song). Prominent writers of sambas during the acknowledged golden age (1920s–1950s) include Pixinguinha (Alfredo da Rocha Viana) and Ary Barroso, whose "Aquarela do Brasil" (1939) several times became a hit (under the title "Brazil") in the United States. An early star of the tradition, with numerous hit recordings in the 1930s, was the legendary Carmen Miranda, who later transferred her talents to the screen in Hollywood. The role of the samba in Brazilian carnivals—the samba schools (from the later 1920s), lavish costumes, and ornate floats—has often attracted international notice, achieving worldwide exposure through the 1959 film Orfeu negro (Black Orpheus). Samba lyrics are often very topical, and even political, and the form has proved open to manipulation by governments, most notably during the Getúlio Vargas regime and the military dictatorship of 1964–1985, through subsidies to the samba clubs and the monitoring and censorship of songs.

Bossa Nova

The bossa nova, a samba derivative that emerged toward the end of the 1950s, incorporated "cool" jazz influence from the United States. Among those who gave it worldwide fame in the early 1960s was João Gilberto, who, along with the singer Antônio Carlos Jobim and the poet Vinícius de Morais, was a principal begetter of the new form; Astrud Gilberto had striking international success with the song "A garota de Ipanema" ("The Girl from Ipanema"), which would have to go on any list of the Latin American Top Twenty of the twentieth century.


Another outstanding Brazilian artist, Chico Buarque, usually considered the finest Brazilian songwriter since the 1960s and a central figure of the musica popular Brasileira (commonly referred to as MPB) movement of the late 1960s, both wrote and performed songs whose sheer poetic quality has often been remarked on, though they also frequently ran afoul of the military censors of the period. MPB built upon bossa nova and encompassed a diversity of styles, which shared in common their Brazilian musical roots and often politically inflected lyrics. Another important singer-songwriter to emerge from the MPB movement was Milton Nascimento, who by the 1990s had gained international renown by collaborating with musicians such as Paul Simon and Pat Metheny. Also of great importance in Brazil after the later 1960s was the short-lived Tropicália, or tropicalismo, movement. Its two leading figures were Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, both of whom were briefly imprisoned by the military regime, and who became superstars by the 1980s; Maria Bethania also built a major career stemming from this trend. Tropicalismo was identified with no single form or style. Indeed, its principal exponents consciously wished to create a "universal sound," drawing on whatever national or international trends took their fancy, and often successfully fusing rock with local rhythms.

Despite the predominance of the samba and its variants and derivatives, Brazilian popular music (easily the most successful of Latin American traditions in terms of sales in Europe and the United States in the 1980s and 1990s) continues to be marked by rich diversity, as befits the enormous size of the country. A prominent local form, actually a series of forms, largely unnoticed outside Brazil is música sertaneja, a "country" tradition comparable to its U.S. equivalent, accounting for more than one-third of record sales in the 1980s. In Salvador, Bahia, as part of the Afro-Brazilian cultural upsurge of the 1970s and 1980s, black carnival associations (blocos afros) elaborated new carnival-related musical forms, including the samba-reggae hybrid.

At another level, Brazilian music (including tropicalismo) has been more than somewhat influenced by the international mainstream, which has produced several more or less respectable local variants, especially strong in the São Paulo megalopolis. As with elsewhere in Latin America, punk rock of the 1970s exercised a particularly strong influence on Brazilian rock music, or iêiêiê, as it is often called locally (from the Beatles' "yeah, yeah, yeah"). This can be explained by the rapid development of Brazilian mass society and the growth of a flourishing mass media, including huge recording and TV industries.


Argentina was the first Latin American country to undergo the transition to mass society (1920s–1930s). The republic's spectacular economic boom, its urbanization, and the purchasing power of its people meant that a large market for records and radios existed earlier than elsewhere in Latin America. This occurred before the explosion of the electronic media that took place after World War II and before the appearance of the international mainstream. Certainly U.S. popular music was well known in Argentina, especially with the coming of "talkies" (a very solid local jazz tradition also developed early), but it was in no sense hegemonic. It was possible for a locally created form to become predominant among the mass public, as occurred with the tango, the first Latin American musical form to win universal renown. The tango as a dance triumphed spectacularly on European dance floors in 1913–1914. A combination of European and (in its choreography) Afro-Argentine elements, the tango originated in the poor outer districts of Buenos Aires in the 1880s, and a rich musical tradition developed at the turn of the century. Initially played in 2/4 time, the dance slowed down after the 1910s, and the music (usually in 4/8 from then on) became more sentimental and tinged with melancholy. From the 1910s to the 1950s this was the popular music of Argentina and Uruguay.

The tango's golden age (roughly 1920–1950) produced a great profusion of distinguished bands (Julio de Caro, Francisco Canaro, Osvaldo Fresedo, Aníbal Troilo, and many more), with the German-made bandoneon a key instrument in such ensembles. (A cousin of the accordion, the fully developed bandoneon has seventy-one buttons, each of which produces two tones, depending on whether the instrument is being inflated or deflated; it is very difficult to play well.) Like so many Latin American dance forms, the tango soon became a form of popular song. Vocalists who added to the tradition included Ignacio Corsini, Agustín Magaldi, Francisco Fiorentino, Azucena Maizani, Mercedes Simone, and Ada Falcón. This popular musical tradition can hold its own with any in the world this century for sheer quality, and can easily lay claim to being Latin America's greatest. The absolute superstar of the tango tradition, and indeed Latin America's first twentieth-century superstar, was the baritone Carlos Gardel. Rising to local fame in the 1910s as a folksinger, he specialized in tangos from the early 1920s. His richly expressive voice and endearing personality won him huge popularity; sixty years after his death, he remained for millions of Latin Americans quite simply the best popular singer ever.

The tango's hegemony in Argentina and Uruguay eventually waned. Although the avant-garde tango musician Astor Piazzolla was to win great international distinction in the 1970s and 1980s, his standing with the Argentine public up to that point was ambiguous, and his work really transcended the limits of popular music. The tango was challenged in the 1950s not only by international pop music but also by a new and very distinguished Argentine trend often labeled "neofolklore." Musicians in Argentina, as elsewhere, were able to tap into a rich tradition of rural music, and not only recaptured songs and rhythms on the point of disappearing, but made them the basis for songs in folk idiom yet with sophisticated arrangements and instrumental lineups. This process occurred independently in several countries, but was perhaps most prominent in Argentina, with groups such as Los Chalchaleros and Los Fronterizos, singers such as Atahualpa Yupanqui (noted for his left-wing commitment), and writers like Ariel Ramírez. The neofolk approach continues to inspire musicians all over Latin America, and it has been applied to a great variety of purposes. In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, there was a rash of folk masses, the most celebrated being Ramírez's Misa criolla, the album of which sold all over the world. The neofolk idiom has also had a readily discernible influence on the music used in church services, Catholic and Protestant alike.


Argentine neofolklore had a special impact on Chile, always a country receptive to trans-Andean influence in music and in slang (though never in politics). By the early 1960s a Chilean version of neofolklore had emerged, rather smooth and prettified though technically admirable. Groups such as Los Huasos Quincheros held their own against the rising tide of imported foreign music, which at that period included a discernible Mexican component (including the wave of rocancol, Spanish-language derivative bands, such as Los Teen Tops and Los Locos del Ritmo). Meanwhile, a number of devoted Chilean folkloristas had been collecting and transcribing rural folk songs, Margot Loyola and Violeta Parra being the best known. Parra also composed and performed her own songs in folk idiom, usually with guitar or charango accompaniment. These songs represent a high point of Chilean (and Latin American) culture in the 1960s—some surely as beautiful as any written anywhere during the twentieth century.

Parra's two children, Angel and Isabel, continued the tradition, and by the time their mother died in 1967, a new trend was crystallizing in Chile. It was not until a year or two later that it acquired the label nueva canción chilena ("new Chilean song"). Its emphases and priorities were later extensively imitated all over Latin America. (The Cuban Nueva Trova group, for instance, was much influenced.) The new Chilean song had certain definite aims: to break from commercial popular music; to purify Chilean neofolklore from its prettification and innocuousness; to experiment with instruments, especially by incorporating such Andean instruments as the quena and the charango into ensembles; and to diversify the subject matter of popular songs, specifically to give them a strong social and political edge. The sympathies of the movement inclined it to support the Socialist and Communist parties in Chile and the ill-fated Allende government, elected in 1970. The trend produced some notable groups (Inti-Illimani, Quilapayún) and some good singers: the Parra children themselves, Rolando Alarcón, Patricio Manns, and above all Víctor Jara, a poet-singer of genius who was brutally murdered by the Chilean military at the time of its seizure of power in September 1973. After Allende's overthrow, the surviving musicians continued their work in exile, while the new dictatorship strove to expunge all memory of them.

Although the "new song" never came near to establishing itself as a dominant musical tendency in Latin America, and had less of an international impact than, say, midcentury Cuban dance music, its fresh and vital contribution is beyond question. Like the Argentine tango, this was popular music of high quality, standing out amid the pandemonium of the international mainstream. Indeed, many Latin American contributions to the world's popular music of the twentieth century were of a consistently high quality and a true measure of the region's astonishing creativity.


Rock underwent a renaissance in the 1980s and reflected a firmer grounding in Latin American cultural esthetics, as well as sonic and political sensibilities. Groups such as the Mexican band Café Tacuba creatively fused regional styles (such as son jarocho) with international trends (such as ska and metal), to produce a cosmopolitan rock sound with national, regional, and international appeal. Indeed, such fusion has carried itself across the border and is reflected in the convergence of U.S. and Latin American popular musical styles, through groups such as Ozomatli, Lila Downs, and others. Also in the 1980s the Dominican performer Juan Luis Guerra popularized a commercialized form of merengue that ushered in a resurgent interest across the region among all social classes for música tropical—salsa, merengue, cumbia, bachata. Since the late 1990s two new trends in popular music can be discerned. The first is hip-hop, whose emphasis on lyrics and sparse technical requirements allowed it to spread rapidly, especially among the lower classes. Cuba and Brazil, notably, have exceptionally strong rapero (rap) scenes and the Cuban government has even sponsored an annual hip-hop festival. The second trend is reggaetón, a dance style said to have originated in Puerto Rico (others suggest Panama) and which melds reggae-derived beats with rap lyrics and a cross-section of other Latin American dance rhythms, such as salsa and bomba. This inclusiveness has made reggaetón immensely popular not only across Latin America, but also in the United States.

See alsoBarroso, Ary; Bolero; Bossa Nova; Choro, Chorinho; Corrido; Cruz, Celia; Cugat, Xavier; Cumbia; Gardel, Carlos; Gil, Gilberto; Gilberto, João; Jara, Víctor; Jobim, Antônio Carlos "Tom"; Lara, Agustín; Mambo; Mariachi; Marimba; Maxixe; Merengue; MPB: Música Popular Brasileira; Parra, Violeta; Patria Chica; Pixinguinha; Samba; Samba Schools; Son; Tango; Tropicalismo; Veloso, Caetano.


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                                           Eric Zolov

                                        Simon Collier

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