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Traditional Latin American Music

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Photo courtesy Three Lions / Getty Images

Panpipe Player

Photo courtesy Three Lions / Getty Images

Traditional Latin American music is often overlooked because of the attention people give to main rhythms and styles such as Salsa, Merengue, Tango and Latin Pop.

However, there are hundreds of traditional styles that are worth to get familiar with if one wants to get a better understanding of Latin American music. Let's take a look at some of the most important rhythms and styles that define Traditional Latin music.

Zamba and Murga from The South

Besides Tango, the southern part of South America is home to very interesting traditional music. Zamba is, in fact, the national dance in Argentina and Chile.

The sounds of Zamba are produced by a combination of guitars playing along the beats of a prominent drum named bombo leguero. By contrast, Murga is more of a popular musical theater played in Uruguay and Argentina during the Carnival.

Andean Music

As its name says it, Andean music was born in the extensive region crossed by the Andes. Because of this, Andean music is very popular in countries like Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. This type of indigenous music is usually played with a set of different panpipes, charango (a small string instrument) and bombo (drums).

Choro and Sertaneja Music from Brazil

Choro and Sertaneja music are only two of the most popular forms of Traditional Latin American music coming from Brazil. Choro developed in Rio de Janeiro during the 19th century. It became popular in the 1930s but it lost its appeal during the Bossa Nova boom. Choro is usually played with guitars, flute and cavaquinho, a combination that makes this style quite pleasant to the ear.

Sertaneja music is a traditional style equivalent to Country music in the US. It is, indeed, quite popular in Brazil but not outside the country. Sertaneja has its origins in the sertao and caipira music, two traditional Brazilian music styles. In addition to Choro and Sertaneja, Brazil has many more traditional rhythms that include Maracatu, Afoxe, Frevo and Forro, among others.

Cumbia from Colombia

Cumbia is Colombia's most well known contribution to Traditional Latin American music. This rhythm was born in the Atlantic coast of the country during the 19th century. Cumbia offers a heavy percussion which is nicely combined with large gaita flutes. Despite being a Colombian rhythm, Cumbia has been extensively adopted as a musical expression in modern Mexican popular music.

Llanera Music from Colombia and Venezuela

Outside Colombia and Venezuela, very few are familiar with Musica Llanera, the music from the enormous area that includes the Colombian and Venezuelan plains above the Amazon. Llanera music takes inspiration from the country life in the plains and its rich sounds are produced by a standard combination of harp, string instruments (cuatro or bandola) and maracas.

Son and Danzon from Cuba

Cuba is by far one of the most influential countries in the making of Latin American music. It is also a land where we can find some of the most popular expressions of Traditional Latin music. Cuban Son, which was born in the Cuban country side, was originally played with guitars and percussion instruments such as clave and maracas. Cuban Son is, in fact, an essential ingredient of that musical mix we refer to as Salsa.

Danzon is one of those rhythms from which you can perceive a perfect combination of European sounds and African influences. It evolved from previous styles that included contradanza and habanera. This is definitely one of the most pleasant rhythms of Cuban music.

Plena and Bomba from Puerto Rico

Similarly to Cuban Son, the origins or Puerto Rican Bomba and Plena are also linked to country life. Both rhythms are heavily charged with African influences. Because of this, drums play a major role in the sounds of Bomba and Plena. While Bomba surged in northern Puerto Rico, Plena evolved in the southern, coastal part of the country.

Ranchera and Sones from Mexico

Overall, Ranchera is one of the most popular styles of Traditional Latin American music. It was originally played by a single guitar player but later became closely related to a full Mariachi band. During the troubling times of the Mexican Revolution, Ranchera music became a way to promote Mexican culture.

Nevertheless, two centuries before Ranchera, Mexico had developed its own Son, which was influenced by indigenous elements as well as African and Spanish traditions. Mexican Son was not a fixed rhythm but rather a flexible musical style whose sounds were heavily shaped by the different regions where it used to be played.

Besides Mexican Son and all the musical forms mentioned in this article, there is an amazing range of Traditional Latin music styles throughout Latin America. Each individual country in the region has nurtured Latin American music with its own contribution. This article is just an introduction for all of those who want to venture further in the rich universe of Traditional Latin music.

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