South America's other musical giant is Colombia, birthplace of the bouncy cumbia and the hot vallenato. Cumbia is the perfect distillation of the three contrasting cultures that collide within Latin American music: European melodies, African rhythms, and an indigenous sensibility. There are dozens of excellent cumbia ensembles, from the authentic folklore of Totó La Momposina to the unabashedly commercial hits of La Sonora Dinamita. One of the best primers is Greatest Cumbia Classics Of Colombia, Vol. 1 (Discos Fuentes, 1997), a record that dares you not to dance.
The vallenato, on the other hand, originated from the region of Valledupar. It fuses addictive accordion melodies with soulful lyrics. In the nineties, singer/songwriter Carlos Vives resurrected the vallenato aesthetic with touches of rock and pop. The seamless El amor de mi tierra (EMI Latin, 1999) may inspire you to explore the works of genre godfathers like Diomedes Díaz and Lisandro Meza.
Colombia has also developed its own brand of tropical dance music. Here, the presence of Joe Arroyo is of particular importance. A brilliant singer and composer, his Grandes éxitos (Discos Fuentes, 1999) includes 12 classic tracks, with the historically flavored "Rebelión" a dance-floor scorcher.
A Night in the Caribbean
Many people think of Cuba as the jewel in the crown of Latin music. Not only has the island produced thousands of unforgettable records, but it is also responsible for creating genres that would blossom and develop in other countries: son, cha-cha, mambo, bolero, rumba, and danzón, to name a few. Infinitely warm, the protean son is the basis for everything else that followed it. Troubadours like María Teresa Vera and Sexteto Habanero were its pioneers. But in the late nineties, American guitarist Ry Cooder assembled a choice group of veteran musicians for one of the most unexpected success stories in pop history: Buena Vista Social Club (Nonesuch, 1997). For once, here's an album that deserves the hype associated with it: sweet, joyous, timeless, and boosted by the luminous piano work of the late Rubén González.
In the fifties, during the golden era of Cuban music, Orquesta Aragón perfected the charanga aesthetic—not a song format per se, but rather a type of band, anchoring its sound on lush swashes of violin and acrobatic flute melodies. Cuban Originals (Sony International, 1998) delivers nuggets like the wide-eyed "El bodeguero." During that time, La Sonora Matancera developed an endearing combination of tropical formats with pop, the rustic rhythm section sharing the spotlight with no-frills trumpets. Boasting such singers as Celia Cruz, Carlos Argentino, and Bienvenido Granda, the orchestra recorded a battery of hits, some of which can be found on Serie nostalgia: Éxitos originales, Vol. 1 (Fonovisa, 2009). Beny Moré, Pérez Prado, Arsenio Rodríguez, and the underrated pianist Peruchín also occupy a place of honor in the pantheon of Cuban music.
Perhaps the one Latin rhythm that is easiest to dance to is the sticky merengue. Born in the Dominican Republic, the modern merengue is made instantly recognizable by its 2/4 beat—performed on the guiro and tambora drum—and staccato brass riffs. The other popular Dominican export is bachata, also known as la música del amargue (music of bitteness). Here, bitter lyrics of tragic love affairs are embellished by spiraling guitar lines and soft bongo beats. On the commercial side of Dominican pop, Antony Santos includes both merengue and bachata on the memorable Sin ti (Plátano Records, 2003). A more cosmopolitan approach is favored by singer/songwriter Juan Luis Guerra on Bachata rosa (Karen, 1990)—a revisionist effort to enhance bachata's appeal with jazz harmonies and poetic lyrics.