Skip to main content

A Musical Journey Through Latin America in 10 Songs

New World history is a rich field that is constantly being analyzed for new material. The complexity of these tales never fails to amaze me.

The gliding ability of the Andean Condor has inspired many South American songwriters and a few North American ones, as well.

The gliding ability of the Andean Condor has inspired many South American songwriters and a few North American ones, as well.

Music From the Western Hemisphere

The people of Latin America are a diverse lot. Speaking two major languages, Spanish and Portuguese, and many minor ones, both Native and immigrant, Latinos in the Western Hemisphere outnumber Anglos by a wide margin (550 to 350 million).

Not surprisingly, musical forms and expressions come in many forms and can be quite colorful. Without the salsa, samba, tango, rumba and mambo, music traditions in the Americas would be very different. With just this brief sample of 10 songs, armchair travelers can still learn much about the rich music traditions that exist South of the Rio Bravo and in a few cases North of the Great River.

Let the journey begin.

1. Tito Puente: "Oye Como Va" (Spanish Harlem)

Ernesto Antonio, or "Tito", Puente was born in Spanish Harlem in New York in 1923. After a distinguished, service in the military during WWII, the young man enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music This musical training gave Tito the background to launch a jazz career that lasted five decades until his death in 2000.

During his lifetime, Señor Pente recorded and performed on 100 albums. The tune featured here was written by Puente in 1963 and made famous a few years later by Carlos Santana. By the way, "Oye Como Va" loosely translates out as "Hey, How's It Going?"

2. Pete Escovedo: "Sonerito" (Mexico)

If you are a pop music fan and if you have ever wondered what the E in Sheila E. stands for, the answer is revealed by her father Pete Escovedo, who has been playing riveting salsa music for years. And the family's music success doesn't stop there, for Pete's brother Alejandro, has also recorded many popular albums.

Although Caribbean in their musical style, Pete Escovedo and his first family of Hispanic musicians, are descendants of Mexico.

3. Vicente Fernandez: "Aca Entre Nos" (Mexico)

South of the border, cowboys and cowpunchers have different names. Most frequently, they are called gauchos or vaqueros, depending on location. Along similar lines, there is a very popular style of music that celebrates the lifestyle of the ranchers. "Charro" not only to refers to the horsemen and cowboys that run the ranches, but it also includes the ranching lifestyle and the numerous songs and ballads associated with the cowboy's life.

Possibly, nobody embodies this style of music, better than Vicente Fernandez.

4. Exelente: "Phuru Runas" (Bolivia)

During the latter part of the 20th century, Andean panflute bands became quite the popular entertainment act. Not only could you find these musicians performing on the street in almost every major North American and European city, but also, these bands sometimes ventured inside to perform to a seated audience.

Featured here is the Bolivian band Exelente doing a street performance in France of the ever-popular classic, "Phuru Runas." The phrase "phuru runas" comes from the widely understood Quechuan language and simply means "man with a feathered hat on his head."

Note: The woman playing the panflute and pipe is French.

5. Buena Vista Social Club: "Chan Chan" (Cuba)

Currently, it seems like Americans have one of two very different attitudes towards Cuba. They either love it or hate it. In many ways the island nation has remained frozen in time ever since Castro and his fellow revolutionaries took control back in the late 1950s. If you like the big band jazz sound of post-war America, you might enjoy listening to Havana's Buena Vista Social Club and feasting on all the old American Classic cars of that era, as they cruise around the streets of Cuba's capital city.

Named after the Buenavista section of Havana, the social club was created in 1996 by recruiting Cuban musicians, who had performed, pre-Castro in the colorful capital city. In this song, "Chan Chan" is the name of the male character, who goes to the beach to build a house with his female partner.

Samba songs and dance performances are not limited to Carnival season

Samba songs and dance performances are not limited to Carnival season

6. Carmen Miranda: "Cuanto Le Gusta" (Brazil)

The samba is song/dance combination played to 2/4 time with three dance steps for each measure. At Carnival time, samba dancers perform solo, but there are ballroom variations of the samba that require partners.

Early in the 20th century, samba emerged from Afro-Brazilian culture to become a popular dancing style in Rio de Janeiro, especially at Carnival. Throughout the 20th century, the samba dance and song grew in popularity to a point, where variations of this singing style can be found all around the world.

In the post-WWII era, one of the great ambassadors of the samba and Brazilian culture in general was Carmen Miranda, who first found success in her native Brazil. Soon thereafter Carmen hit Hollywood, where she appeared in many movies. "Cuanto Le Gusta" is a popular Samba tune of the 1950s, complete with English lyrics.

7. Perez Prado: "Que Rico el Mambo" (Cuba)

The mambo began in Cuba during the 1930s as a lively paired dancing style that involved much side-stepping and hip-shaking. The music is often played in 4/4 time, but faster variations are common as well. In the '50s, Cuban bandleader really brought mambo into spotlight when he introduced the dance to Mexico and then the United States. During the 1950s. The music became so popular that its spread in popularity is commonly called the "Mambo Craze". Thanks to singers like Ricky Martin, the mambo is still around and often a mainstay of dance competitions.

Violetta Parra performing on guitar

Violetta Parra performing on guitar

8. Violetta Parra: "Gracias a La Vida" (Chile)

Violeta Parra was a folksinger and songwriter, who came to fulfill the role of national bard for the nation of Chile. Today, her colorful Spanish compositions are performed by a wide variety of artists throughout Latin America. Born in 1917, Violeta found the opportunity to travel the length of the country in the early 1950s, collecting folk songs as she went. From this experience, she went on to create the Nueva Cancion, new styled folk song that made her a national figure. Featured here is perhaps her most popular creation, Gracias de la Vida.

For many years Carlos Meija Godoy was the lyrical voice of the Nicaragua revolution. Today, he is an exile living in Costa Rica.

For many years Carlos Meija Godoy was the lyrical voice of the Nicaragua revolution. Today, he is an exile living in Costa Rica.

9. Carlos Mejía Godoy: "Nicaragua Nicaraguita" (Nicaragua)

Central America has always been kind of a stormy place. Carlos Mejía Godoy knows this all too well, as he has gone from revolutionary bard to Nicaraguan exile and ex-patriot. In the day, nobody expressed the intensity and passion of being a Sandanista revolutionary, better than Carlos Godoy.

Unfortunately, in recent times (2018) Godoy has experienced a falling out with the central government and taken up residence in nearby Costa Rica.

10. Carlos Gardel: "Por una Cabeza" (Argentina)

About the same that North Americans were discovering the Jazz Age, a novel dance and music style exploded out of Argentina. Actually, the tango, as a dance step had been around the port cities of Buenos Aires and Montevideo (Uruguay) for decades. The brisque dance style had been popular among the immigrant masses for years, but it was in the early years of the 20th century, when the elegant dance steps were fused with evolving Latin music styles to create the modern-day tango that has become so popular around the world.

And at the root of the tango, there was Charles Gardes, the young Frenchman, who came to Buenos Aires with his mother at the tender age of two. Now called, Carlos Gardel, the new immigrant acquired a taste and knack for music and as a young man began performing and singing songs and ballads around Buenos Aires.

The Yaghans are the southernmost of all Native groups in the Western Hemisphere. For a while, the tribal members were re-located to the Faulkland Islands, but today most have returned to southern Chile.

The Yaghans are the southernmost of all Native groups in the Western Hemisphere. For a while, the tribal members were re-located to the Faulkland Islands, but today most have returned to southern Chile.

© 2018 Harry Nielsen