The Growth of Latin American Pop Music in the United States

October 1, 1978

Wherever a sizable Latin American group settles, its music seems to exert a strong influence on the musical tastes of its new neighbors. Outside of Latin America, the largest Latin American communities are found in the United States—close to a third of the people of Miami are Cuban-American; one out of five New Yorkers is Puerto Rican; and millions of "Chicanos"—Mexican-Americans—live in California and the southwestern United States. Colleges and universities reflect the population in bi-lingual and bi-cultural studies.

So it should come as no surprise that Latin American music is a continuing phenomenon in the United States. It is heard on radio and television, in nightclubs, on records, and on piped-in music systems in office buildings, supermarkets, and elevators. It surfaces in Introduction to Music courses in the colleges. West Indian steel drummers have become familiar figures among the street musicians of New York City. (Victor Brady, their king, plays a "steel piano"—a specially fashioned chromatic instrument with a three-octave range. When an individual note is struck, the vibration of the drum touches off harmonically related notes as well.)

Leading U.S. magazines and newspapers regularly report on "La Onda Latina"—the new wave of Latin music, Latin performers, and Latin recording companies. The entertainment trade publications Record World and Billboard, have recently begun publishing charts of current Latin American hit records. Stereo Review comments extensively on new releases. Near the top, week in and week out, are such singer-songwriters as Roberto Carlos of Brazil, and Julio Iglesias and Camilo Sesto of Spain. Izzy Sanabria, publisher of the magazine Latin N.Y., says that the Latin music business in the United States earns in the neighborhood of $50 million a year.

Significantly, non-Latins are taking to Latin music with great zest. In 1974, the famed Newport Jazz Festival included a concert billed as a "Salute to Latin Roots," acknowledging the growing importance of Latin forms and rhythms on the evolution of popular music in the United States. Joan Baez, the internationally known folk singer, has recorded a new album entirely in Spanish. Perry Como, America's long-time favorite "crooner," has a new record entitled "Eres Tu."

A motion picture, "Salsa," depicting the new musical wave, is playing in several large cities. Much of the picture is based on a live performance of Latin music at Yankee Stadium in New York and other parts incorporate a concert in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The New York Times calls one of the stars of "Salsa," Celia Cruz, "a Caribbean Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey all in one." Says the Times, "She is an empress; she is magnificent." Strong praise from a newspaper which is not known for its hyperbole.

Salsa is, in fact, the leading edge of the "Onda Latina" in the United States. Critics are not sure whether salsa—meaning sauce—is a brand new sound in music, or a new name for Latin music that has been around for years. In origin, salsa is African music, filtered through centuries of evolution in the Spanish Caribbean islands—Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico—and mingled with distinctive North American musical traits.

Salsa has only recently emerged from the Spanish barrios of New York, Miami, and Chicago. Although it has been influenced by both black and white American musical traditions, there is no doubt that it is Latin music. It is based on the underlying rhythms of the "clave," a syncopated rhythmic pattern familiar to Latin audiences. Its language is Spanish and it uses the characteristic sound of Latin percussion instruments: drums, bells, woodblocks, timbales, and a dominant bass. Over the rhythmic line, horns and singer add repetitive chants that can be traced back to African work songs.

A few years ago, the devotees of salsa music had to look hard to find it, in the cafes and nightclubs of the Latin American barrios, and on a handful of all-Spanish radio stations. But now the music is spreading out to a much wider audience. In New York City, salsa is featured at such chic spots as the Ipanema, the Tower Suite, the Cork and Bottle, and the Casino La Mancha. In Washington, the nation's capital, salsa nights have been organized at such staid locations as the Shoreham and Mayflower hotels, bringing together college students, diplomatic personnel, and household employees of the Latin community.

Within the world of salsa, there is considerable diversity. Some composers and performers emphasize the pure Latin nature of the music; others welcome the infusion of black soul music, jazz, and other modern popular forms. The recording "Magic Bird of Fire" produced by the Salsoul Orchestra includes Stravinsky melodies from his ballet Firebird.1

Ray Barretto, New York drummer and songwriter, is a proponent of "típica" style salsa, with its roots in Afro-Cuban music. Barretto resists the intrusion of rock and jazz into his music. Some ensembles, such as the Santana combo, have blended salsa with rock and have come up with a variant version known as the "Latin Hustle."

Salsa is probably the most popular, but it is not the only musical form of the new "Latin wave." Argentine saxophonist and composer Leandro "Gato" Barbieri is experimenting with what he calls "Third-World Music," a blend of American jazz and indigenous music from Central and South America and the Caribbean.

Barbieri earned his nickname "the cat" when he shuttled between two jobs—playing in a tango orchestra and a jazz band—in Buenos Aires. Although he now lives in the United States, Barbieri is still a cat musically, leaping back and forth among the folk and popular songs of several countries.

His latest project is recording a four-part "Latin America" series. The first album was recorded in Buenos Aires with Argentine folk musicians. The second was made in Rio de Janeiro with a Brazilian samba school. The third, cut in New York, used Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Dominican salsa players. The fourth was recorded live in New York at a concert including a potpourri of musicians from all the Americas.

Dozens of other artists and distinctive musical forms are part of the new Latin wave. Brazilian influence is strong, through the works of such composers as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Milton Nascimento, and Luiz Bonfa, all of whom are well known in the United States. In the late 1960s, "bossa nova" swept the United States. The virtuoso U.S. guitarist Charlie Byrd brought the sound back from a trip to Brazil, and his record "Jazz Samba," performed with saxophonist Stan Getz, became an instant success. The record immediately influenced the work of other major U.S. jazz figures such as Dizzy Gillespie and Herbie Mann, and the offerings of Brazilian artists such as Astrud Gilberto hit the top of the popular music sales charts throughout the country.

The leading Brazilian performer now in the United States is Flora Purim, who emigrated here in 1968 with her husband, percussionist Airto Moreira. While Moreira was revolutionizing jazz rhythms with such Brazilian instruments as the queixada—"donkey's jaw"—Purim moved into the jazz-rock field, enriching it with native Brazilian idiom and resonant Portuguese lyrics. Purim has been voted the top female vocalist for two consecutive years by readers of the jazz magazine Down Beat, and has been called the "next big thing in jazz" by Rolling Stone magazine.2

Bossa nova itself remains popular, especially as performed by the noted Sergio Mendes and his combo, Brazil '77. Mendes' percussionist, Paulinho, adds a virtuoso performance at concerts by the group—dancing and juggling and otherwise diverting the audience. But while Paulinho's antics may seem bizarre to some, the "Onda Latina" has even more "far-out" aspects. For example, the world's first flamenco rock band, a Spanish group called Carmen, is making its first U.S. tour and has issued an album called "Fandangos in Space."

The list of Latin performers who are carving a niche in the North American musical pantheon is long and constantly growing. It includes such old favorites as Tito Puentes, a Puerto Rican veteran of thirty years on the bandstands, and José Feliciano, blind and also from Puerto Rico. Among others cited this year by Latin N.Y. magazine are Celia Cruz, Eddie Palmieri, Bobby Valentéin, Conjunto Típica '73, Orquesta Novel, Combo Santana, Pete (el Conde) Rodriguez, and el Gran Combo.

Along with composers from the region, Latin American recording companies are also prospering in the United States. Rapidly expanding companies such as Alhambra, Caytronics, Fania, and Tico cater to the Spanish-speaking populations of New York, Puerto Rico, Miami, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and, increasingly, to non-Latins who have developed a taste for Latin music. In the Southwest, Mexican-Americans have developed their own recording industry in such places as San Antonio and McAllen, Texas.3 The Chicanos have also evolved a distinctive style, blending such standards as "La Cucaracha" and "Canción Mixteca" with the newer jazz and rock idioms.

"La Onda Latina" may be a vibrant trend in popular music in the United States today, but it is really only the latest of a long series of romances between North Americans and the music of their neighbors to the south. In the late 1930s and early 1940s—the era of "big band" music in the United States—top band leaders such as the Dorsey brothers, Tommy and Jimmy, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, and others invariably played Latin American hits, ranging from "Green Eyes (Ojos Verdes)" to "Maria Elena" in their repertoires. Latin music was also represented by such movie idols as Carmen Miranda, Xavier Cugat, and Desi Arnaz.

In the late 1940s, Afro-Cuban music soared in popularity and captured the imagination of jazz masters such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and "cool jazz" performer Dave Brubeck.4 Some notable recordings were produced by collaboration between the jazz men and Latin musicians, like Machito and the Cuban drummer Chano Pozo.5 Significantly, Ray Barretto, a composer and performer of salsa, got his first big musical break by sitting in with Dizzy Gillespie at Birdland, a New York nightclub that was known as the "cradle of jazz."6

By the 1950s, a new variety of Latin music had arrived in the United States: merengue, mambo, cha-cha-cha, and guaracha. A decade later, the bossa nova took over. Today, the salsa is on top, competing with another Caribbean import, reggae music from the island of Jamaica.

The advent of reggae in Jamaica was preceded by the various forms known as Ska, Rock Steady, and Blue Beat, all an outgrowth of calypso. Reggae, the media of expression of the Rastafarians, has produced a proliferation of music, the rights having been bought by record companies indiscriminately as to how good or bad it actually is. Some song titles deliver a strong sociological message: "Go Seek Your Rights," "I Need A Roof," "Gnashing of Teeth," representing music coming directly out from conditions of extreme squalor and oppression. Subject matter also deals with black history and political figures like Garvey and former Prime Ministers Alexander Bustamante and Norman Washington Manly.7

The long-lived affection for Latin music in the United States is reflected in the continuing popularity of old "standards" from earlier days. The music of Puerto Rico's greatest popular composer, Rafael Hernandez, is still played and danced to all over the country—with such favorites as "Preciosa," "Lamento Borincano," "Silencio," and "Campanitas de Cristal."

A new album, "En Castellano," by the singer-composer Roberto Carlos, contains the haunting "El Día que Me Quieras," written by Argentina's immortal tango singer, Carlos Gardel, and Alfredo La Pera. "El Día" was the title song of a 1935 movie starring Gardel.

"A Mis Gentiles Amigos" is a two-record tribute to Pedro Vargas, the great Mexican tenor, marking his forty-fifth anniversary as a recording artist. Included in the album are Agustin Lara songs introduced by Vargas, and duets with Vargas' famous contemporaries, Jorge Negrete and Libertad Lamarque.

Still another recorded tribute now in circulation in the United States is "Así cantaba Tito Rodriguez," in memory of Puerto Rico's beloved singer-bandleader. At the same time, folk music is being revived by the Caytronics record company, with a historical series "La Música de Puerto Rico," derived from Columbia Records' archives. In the series are albums devoted to Canario and Pedro Flores, who enjoyed their greatest popularity in the mid-1930s. In Miami, three record companies, Kubaney, Penart, and Maype, are thriving by reissuing Cuban music of past decades, including the flute and violin charangas of Fajardo and Arcano, and the trumpet and drum conjunto sound of Arsenio Rodriguez.

The U.S. popular music field is notoriously volatile, and some original Latin musical forms tend to lose ground when they are diluted with new fads. But the Latin American "sound" has been around for many years, in varying and developing forms. Judging from its past successes and the devotion of its followers, it will continue to be heard in U.S. households, nightclubs, dance and concert halls for many years to come.8 Music educators will need to deal with it as part of the recent past as well as of the contemporary scene.

1"Magic Journey" album: Salsoul S255515.

2Suggested Purim recordings: Milestone M-9065; M-9058; M-9052.

3An interesting example is the Vol. 1 of Texas-Mexican Border Music, Folklyric 9003 (available from Folklyric Records, Box 9195, Berkeley, Calif. 94709).

4Stan Kenton has revised his recording of Johnny Richards—a student of Arnold Schoenberg—"Cuban Fire," a six-movement piece based on Cuban rhythms (Creative World ST 1008).

5The harmonies of the "Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods" with Gillespie and the Machito Orchestra (Pablo 2310-771) show early big band sections with occasional tone clusters and a bit of serialism.

6John Storm Roberts, "The African Sounds of Latin American Music," Topic, Issue 90, p. 30.

7Rastafarianism, a quasi-political religion, holds that the late Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, was God and Marcus Garvey—leader of the 1920s back-to-Africa movement—his prophet.

8Three import houses where recordings might be obtained when not available locally are: Peters International, 619 West 54 St., New York, N.Y. 10019; The Discophile, 26 West 8 St., New York, N.Y. 10011; and Jem Records, Import Record Service, Box 343, South Plainfield, N.J. 07080.

4629 Last modified on November 12, 2018