Latin American Music

Latin American Music, music of Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. The region of Latin America contains a rich variety of cultural and musical heritages, including those of lowland Native Americans in the Amazon area and parts of Central America; those of highland Native Americans in Mexico, Guatemala, and the Andes; those of African Americans, especially in the Caribbean, Ecuador, Suriname, Guyana, French Guiana, coastal Venezuela, Colombia, and northeastern Brazil; and those of people of Spanish and Portuguese descent.

Certain types of Latin American music represent fairly direct lines of continuity with the original cultural sources. Throughout the region there have been composers and musicians working in the European classical tradition since the colonial period (beginning about the 16th century), and there are also ballad, dance, and dance-drama traditions that can be traced directly from Europe. Various lowland and highland peoples maintain distinctive indigenous musical traditions, and African American populations continue to perform both sacred and secular music that is directly linked to specific West African and Central African traditions. The most prevalent musical styles in much of Latin America, however, are the result of various types and degrees of fusion of these different cultural heritages and musical resources.

II. Native American Music

The limited knowledge of native Latin American music before the conquest by the Spanish in the 1500s comes from the study of archaeological remains showing graphic depictions of instruments and musical life, especially of the Aztec and Maya peoples of Mesoamerica and the Inca people of the Andes. Spanish writers as well as local writers described Native American musical practices in the 16th century, and the early dictionaries of indigenous languages, compiled primarily by missionaries, also provide insight into pre-Columbian music.

Various types of wind instruments, drums, and other percussion instruments, along with vocal music, were the predominant means of musical expression during the pre-Columbian period (before 1492). In Mexico, the vertical duct flute, which had a recorderlike mouthpiece and single, double, or multiple bores (played by the same musician), was a common wind instrument. Two important instruments for Aztec ceremonies were the huehuetl, a single-headed drum, and the teponaztli, a wooden slit drum. In the Andean area, single-row and double-row panpipes, vertical end-notched flutes, and trumpets made of clay, metal, or conch shell were significant wind instruments. Drums of various sizes were also used, as were rattles and other types of percussion instruments. Stringed instruments apparently were unknown in pre-Columbian Latin America. In Mesoamerica and the Andes, there seems to have been an aesthetic preference for high-pitched instruments and singing. Musicians used a variety of scales, and music and dance were closely associated with state and religious activities, as well as with agricultural ceremonies in the Andes.

Contemporary Quechua and Aymara musicians of the Andean area continue to play indigenous trumpets (without stops), single- and double-row panpipes (antaras and sikus) and vertical end-notched flutes (kenas). These instruments are often played in large communal ensembles accompanied by drums. In the central and southern Andes, these instruments are played for both indigenous and Catholic religious festivals and for communal agricultural, animal-fertility, and life-cycle ceremonies. There remains a preference for high-pitched instruments and female singing in upper and falsetto ranges.

Although the flute-drum combination is still used among highland Native Americans in Mexico, locally constructed stringed instruments, such as the violin, harp, and various types of guitar, have become more important. First introduced by colonial missionaries during the 16th century, these stringed instruments are now central to Latin American music generally, and, as in Mexico, they have been incorporated by highland Native Americans in the Andes.

Lowland Amazonian Native Americans use a variety of flutes, panpipes, trumpets, drums, and shakers. Songs are particularly important and are used for rituals of curing, for the maintenance and telling of the group's history and myths, for subsistence activities, and for dance accompaniment in a variety of communal festivals, including initiation ceremonies and events related to family and social relations.

Indigenous Andean music is characterized by a preference for dense, fuzzy timbres (tone colors) and, as with Native American music in Mexico and among lowland groups, for intense repetition of short musical ideas within a piece. Long repetition of the same piece is also favored, primarily because repetition adds aesthetic power by inviting collective participation in the music and dance. The pieces tend to comprise short, repeated sections (such as AABB, ABAB, ABCABC), and descending melodies are frequent among both highland and lowland societies. A variety of scales ranging from two pitches to more than seven pitches are found among lowland and highland groups. Simple binary meter, such as 2/4 time, generally is common in Native American music. The degree of rhythmic complexity and syncopation varies by region and by specific group. Indigenous music tends to be monophonic (consisting of a single, unharmonized melody) or heterophonic (consisting of two or more parts playing the same melody in varied ways), although in southern Peru and Bolivia the use of parallel fourths and fifths is common for panpipe and flute ensembles. Vocal styles among lowland groups range from a soft, relaxed timbre to a gruff, chantlike style. Indigenous Andeans favor high throat and head singing, often utilizing sliding pitches and other vocal ornaments, but without vibrato.

III. Rural Mestizo Music

The term mestizo describes Latin Americans whose lifestyles combine European and indigenous (and rural and urban) ideas, values, practices, and other cultural elements. Their music reflects both European and indigenous influences. Within the varied mosaic of musical cultures in Latin America, certain aspects of mestizo music are perhaps the most widely diffused throughout the region.

Stringed instruments—particularly the diatonic harp, violin, guitar and regional guitar variants, and mandolin and mandolin variants—are, in varied combinations, central to mestizo regional ensembles. By the beginning of the 20th century, brass bands became common to rural villages and popular in urban festivals, as did the diatonic button accordion and the piano accordion. In addition to these European-derived instruments, the African marimba (a type of xylophone) was adopted as a key mestizo instrument in southern Mexico, Guatemala, and other parts of Central America. Conical drums and other drums and percussion instruments from the African heritage were also adopted for mestizo music making.

Over time, these different classes of instruments were recombined to create new ensemble types. For example, the rural string band from Michoacán, Mexico, was composed of a guitar, vihuela (a small, convex-backed, five-string guitar), one or two violins, and a harp or guitarrón (a large bass guitar). This type of ensemble became popular in motion pictures and on the radio in Mexico City after the 1930s, at which time one or two trumpets were added as a standard feature. Since then, these ensembles, known as mariachi bands, have become a musical emblem of Mexico and are among the most internationally famous of the Latin American musical ensembles. In the Atlantic coastal region of Colombia, indigenous flutes were traditionally accompanied by African-style drums, as well as by shakers and scrapers, to perform cumbia, by now one of the most famous Latin American dances. During the 20th century, the diatonic button accordion replaced the flutes to play cumbia in what are known as vallenato ensembles. In contemporary Cusco, Peru, mestizo festival dance bands combine the pre-Columbian kena (an end-notched flute) with violins, a diatonic harp, a piano accordion, and a European marching-band bass drum. Mestizo dance orchestras in Junín, Peru, combine saxophones and clarinets with the violin and diatonic harp.

Mestizo music tends to be strophic—that is, the same music is repeated in each stanza of a song—with song texts in the Iberian-derived copla (four-line stanzas), decima (ten-line stanzas), and other forms. The European major and minor scales are used most frequently, as are basic European harmonies. Vocal and instrumental melodic lines are often performed in parallel thirds. A common feature of rural mestizo music throughout Latin America is hemiola, or the simultaneous or sequential juxtaposition of duple and triple rhythmic patterns, within a moderate or quick 6/8 meter. This type of rhythm is basic to the Mexican songs performed by mariachi ensembles; to the national dance of Chile, the cueca; to the popular Venezuelan dance the joropo; to Paraguayan harp music; and to many other Latin American musical forms.

Certain popular European dance genres, such as the contra dance, the waltz, and the polka, became widely adopted and remain popular in both rural and urban Latin American communities. Many local variants have sprung from these genres. March-based music in strict duple meter is also widely diffused, as are songs and processionals associated with Catholicism. Even 19th-century Italian opera became influential in generating genres of romantic music in various parts of Latin America. During the 20th century, North American jazz and rock music were adopted by or were an influence on local urban popular music styles.

Catholicism, Catholic festivals, and a type of dance-drama associated with these festivals provide other common features of mestizo musical life. Throughout Latin America, costumed dance troupes represent specific characters who are connected with local historical experience and are imbued with mythical and religious meanings. These dance-drama traditions were initially spread in the 16th century by missionaries who used music, dance, and religious dramas such as the Battle of the Christians and Moors to convert the indigenous population to Christianity. Sometimes European religious themes were adapted to local conditions. For example, the Battle of the Christians and Moors became the Battle of Pizarro and Atahualpa, depicting the battle between the Spanish conquistador and the murdered ruling Inca, a dance-drama still performed in Peru. Local indigenous costumed dances and those of European carnival were other sources of festival dance-drama traditions. While local stories are often told through these dances, certain characters appear throughout much of the mestizo musical tradition of Latin America, such as old men, Spaniards, soldiers, sailors, and Native American warriors. Often these dances are a means by which villagers depict and parody threatening outsiders. Accompanied by local ensemble types and genres, these masked-dance troupes add excitement, entertainment, and meaning to rural town festivals throughout Latin America.

IV. African American Music

Large numbers of African slaves were imported to regions of Latin America where the indigenous population was not sufficient or suited to supply labor for the mines, farms, and ranches of Europeans. This African heritage has had a significant impact on music in the Caribbean, northeastern Brazil, coastal Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana. There also are smaller enclaves of African Americans who maintain distinctive musical cultures and who have been musically influential in other Latin American countries.

Certain musical features, practices, instruments, and aesthetic values that are widespread in Africa are found among African Americans in Latin America. The use of African drums and the African marimba is prevalent. In addition, the lamellaphone (a thumb piano that consists of metal or reed keys fastened to a soundboard), which is unique to Africa, was also brought to the Caribbean area, Brazil, and Suriname. Large box lamellaphones used in the Caribbean, known as marimbula, serve as bass instruments while smaller, handheld lamellaphones are still played in African American communities in Suriname. Musical bows, important instruments in various parts of Africa, were brought to the Americas and continue to be played in the Caribbean and Brazil. Double bells, specific types of rattles, and a variety of African percussion instruments were also brought to the Americas from Africa. Other African musical features that have been influential in Latin America include call-and-response singing, the use of interlocking instrumental and vocal patterns, the preference for buzzy timbres, the use of repeated melodic and rhythmic cycles (ostinatos) as the formal basis of pieces, and the simultaneous performance of multiple rhythmic parts.

In addition to the mestizo adoption of the marimba, African American communities on the Pacific coast of Colombia and Ecuador use the marimba and various types of drums and shakers for the performance of the currulao dance. True to African performance technique, several players interlock their melodic parts on the marimba to create the basic ostinato and variations of the piece. The instruments accompany a male or female lead singer, who is answered by a female chorus in a call-and-response fashion. The female singers sometimes use a yodeling technique that closely resembles the singing in various parts of Africa.

In Brazil, as in Cuba, there are religious groups (known in northeastern Brazil as Candomblé) that worship a pantheon of West African deities and still utilize West African musical instruments and styles. A trio of conical drums and a double bell accompany singing in spirit-possession ceremonies, in which specific deities are called into the body of an initiate. In a style typical of the Yoruba of Nigeria, the two smaller drums play interlocking patterns against which a larger drum, known as the mother drum, performs improvised or varied patterns. A double bell plays a repeated ostinato. The drumming accompanies call-and-response singing, and sometimes the text includes African words.

The African heritage is often a primary basis of some of the most internationally influential music to come out of Latin America. This includes popular genres such as the Cuban son and rumba (rhumba), Jamaican reggae, Trinidadian calypso and steel band, Dominican merenge, Brazilian samba, Colombian cumbia, and the international salsa genre.

V. European Art Music

During the colonial period (from about the 16th century to the 18th century), the European art music, or classical music, tradition was based largely in the cathedrals of major Latin American cities. Orchestras and choirs were supported by the church, which was the center of both European musical education and production. Spanish-born and criolli (American-born Spaniard) composers were often employed as chapel masters. They created both sacred and secular polyphonic works in Spanish and Italian Renaissance and baroque styles. Music was composed for the various Catholic religious services, including both Latin music and villancicos, songs of praise in Spanish. As the leading musical figures in elite colonial society, chapel masters were also called upon to compose music for secular occasions. For example, the Spanish-born chapel master of the Lima cathedral, Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco, was commissioned by the viceroy of Peru in 1701 to compose an opera. He composed La Púrpura de la Rosa, the earliest opera known to have been produced in the Americas.

Latin American art music composers continued to follow European styles and trends. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, inspired both by the new independence at home and by the musical trend of romantic nationalism in Europe, Latin American composers produced nationalist works using local, often indigenous, themes and musical references. Mexican composers such as Carlos Chávez and Peruvian composers such as José María Valle-Riestra turned to an idealized Aztecan or Incan past as the basis of their work. Brazilian composers such as Heitor Villa-Lobos used local popular genres as sources for nationalist works. Nationalism remained a concern after the early decades of the 20th century, but composers increasingly moved to other styles, including neoclassical and other, more contemporary, European techniques.



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