En español | If there's one element that defines Latin American music, it is its richness. From Brazil and Argentina to Cuba and Puerto Rico, the soundscapes are endless—evoking a kaleidoscope of feelings, moods, and textures. And although Latin America has produced its own giants in the genre of classical music, it is the rhythms and melodies of its people that have captured the hearts and souls of fans in other parts of the world. Specifically, the recordings made between the 1950s and 1970s reflect a golden era, a time when such enduring icons as Tito Puente, Los Panchos, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Celia Cruz, and José José created their best works.
In the United States, official recognition of the diversity of Latin music is evident in the increased number of Latin categories in The Recording Academy's Grammy Awards and the creation of the Latin Grammy Awards in 2000.
Let's take a brisk tour through the major genres and styles of Latin music, focusing on a few essential albums that are guaranteed to take your breath away.
Don't Cry for Me, South America
Argentina is the home of the tango, the music of European immigrants who brought the sweet-sounding, accordion-like bandoneón from Germany. Tango is bitter by nature—a reflection of endless nostalgia for the homeland. Carlos Gardel is an inevitable reference. The Best of Carlos Gardel (Blue Note, 1998) includes such tango anthems as "Mi Buenos Aires querido" and "El día que me quieras." Of equal importance is Astor Piazzolla, the temperamental genius who updated tango through the influence of jazz and classical music. A nocturnal masterpiece of moods, his Tango: Zero Hour (Nonesuch, 1986) is the place to start. Although tango is known as a macho genre, many female vocalists blossomed in it: both the sassy Tita Merello and raspy-voiced Adriana Varela are indispensable.
Even by Latin American standards, Brazilian music delivers an embarrassment of riches. It all begins with the lilting samba, a song format that through the juxtaposition of bouncy beats and bittersweet melodies manages to sound wistful and uplifting at the same time. Crooner Lúcio Alves recorded a number of stunning LPs during the fifties—the compilation Pure Bossa Nova (Verve, 2006) is a dreamy delight. During the sixties, the bossa nova (a jazzier, highly sophisticated version of the samba) took over the world through the breezy "Garota de Ipanema," the Antonio Carlos Jobim composition performed by João and Astrud Gilberto with American jazz tenor saxophone giant Stan Getz. It is the opening track of the classic Getz/Gilberto (Polygram, 1964) LP—a bestseller to this day.
Later, through the seventies, a constellation of stars including Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and Ivan Lins would introduce tropicalia (psychedelia meets rock, samba, and reggae) and the more accessible MPB (Música Popular Brasilera). Nascimento's Beatlesque Clube da esquina (Blue Note, 1972) is a great place to start.
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.
The comforting voices of Pedro Infante, Celia Cruz, and Beny Moré may not be with us anymore, but Latin music continues to thrive in the new millennium.
Granted, much of nuestra música has succumbed to the commercial parameters of record labels. At the same time, new artists emerge in all corners of Latin America. Many of them find inspiration in the glorious recordings of the past for the creation of a new aesthetic.
The development of digital recording technology and the genre known as electronica—artificial beats, lots of synthesizers—have resulted in fresh new sounds. In Brazil, for example, artists like Bossacucanova, Cibelle, Céu, and Rosalia de Souza reinvented the bossa nova with electronica beats. The daughter of bossa pioneer João Gilberto, Bebel Gilberto shines on the moody Tanto Tempo (Six Degrees, 2000). Leave all electronics aside, and the album feels like a recording from the sixties. The same treatment was bestowed on tango by such sound collectives as Gotan Project, Tanghetto, and Bajofondo Tango Club. Chock-full of melancholy melodies, Gotan's Lunático (XL Recordings, 2006), is every bit as authentic as an Astor Piazzolla original.