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That hip shakin’ rhythm: roots of Latin music

Ole! to Latin America’s musical heritage

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Published: 24 Sep 2020


Time taken : >15mins

At some point in the middle of her concert,

Shakira lets out a joyful ululation, shaking those famous hips of hers as her percussionists improvise to an underlying, driving rhythm. She spins around as the percussionists build up to a climax, and then lets out a proclamatory shout: “Cumbia de Colombiaaaaaa!”

Arguably the most famous export of Colombia into mainstream pop, Shakira’s music is greatly influenced by the folk music of her native region, especially cumbia. Described as ‘the mother of Colombian Caribbean rhythms’, the cumbia rhythm can be found in music from Mexico to Argentina and throughout the Caribbean, with each country putting their own distinctive twist into it. 

Indigenous roots and Euro-African influences

The origins of the cumbia can be traced back to San Basilio de Palenque, a village near the Caribbean coast of Colombia along the Rio Magdalena. During the 1500s, the Spanish went to Colombia as part of their conquest, bringing with them over 100,000 captive Africans. Over time, some of these slaves rebelled, escaped and built their own communities, preserving a great deal of their African culture and history with music based on rhythms their ancestors had brought over from their homeland. 

These rhythms spread far and wide throughout Latin America and started blending with music by the original inhabitants, the indigenous people. Indigenous music, even with slight variants in each region, brought wind instruments such as panpipes and end-blown flutes and percussion instruments like maracas and rattles into the mix. 

The contribution that the European conquerors brought over was that of harmony in music – by introducing their stringed instruments, the guitars, mandolins and lutes. Intrigued with this concept, the indigenous people decided that they would construct their own version of the instrument, resulting in the creation of the charango, a small, high-pitched lute-guitar traditionally made with the shell from the back of an armadillo. 

Peru and new ways of making music

The Andes mountain range runs through South America, and the Andean states often refer to the regions sharing the culture and cuisine spread during the times of the Inca Empire, including Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. Their indigenous music is sometimes referred to as the Andean mountain music, and is rich in folklore. Huayño (pronounced wai-neo) music originated in colonial Peru, combining traditional rural folk music and urban dance music, played by a variety of instruments such as the quena (flute), siku (panpipes) and charango. The rhythms of the cumbia became a hit in Peru as well, and Peruvians adapted it for their own instrument, calling it the chicha. The chicha grew in popularity in the Andean region, especially among the working class population of the Quechua and Aymara peoples.   

Afro-Peruvian music, or Música Negra, has its roots within the communities of black slaves brought to Peru by the Spanish conquistadores to work in the mines along the Pacific coast in the 1500s. Slave owners prohibited musical instruments in attempts to crush the spirit of the slaves, but the slaves invented new ways of making music – anything could be an instrument, including a simple box or tea chest, which became known as the cajon, a collection box used in church (cajita), and even the jaws of deceased donkeys (quijada).  

This unique music was suppressed but never successfully erased from the culture. Over the centuries, it remained little known until the 1950s, where there was a revival, supported by a few record companies. The revival drew upon the old rhythm patterns, while also incorporating Spanish and Andean elements, to give new life to the form.  

Cuba: ritual and rumba

Perhaps the country with the most complex and varied rhythms is Cuba, whose music was so deeply entrenched in sacred practices that much of its popular music is informed by sacred rhythms. The Cuban religion Santería is a syncretic religion that blends together the traditional Yoruba religion of people who live in West Africa, and Roman Catholicism. Music plays a large part in their rituals, and double-headed Batá drums are the main ritual instruments. 

During these ritual ceremonies, the priests make an invocation to the Orishas, the deities of Santería, by using three Batá drums of different sizes, played as hymns to the orishas. Each Orisha has its own song, dance and drum pattern on the percussion instruments; these intricate and subtle rhythms interlock, providing the steady drumbeat on which the haunting and profound chant melodies are expressed over.

From the peasants and farmers of Cuba in the eastern region came the son, another major genre of Cuban music, defined by a bass pulse that comes before the main beat. Also originating from the eastern province among the black population was the rumba that encompassed vocal performance, drumming and improvisational dancing. Composers in the 1920s combined the son and rumba in their music written for dance gatherings, and music that was once from the peasants made its way into the nightclubs, cabarets and ballrooms of the cities. 

The cultural expressions of Latin America are a result of over 500 years of cross-cultural interactions. Music is an important part of the history and people of Latin America, with the different strands of enslaved and free Africans, indigenous peoples and Europeans bringing their religions, dance and musical practice together to form a syncretic blend of song, dance and performance. 

Modern music today in Latin America continues to evolve with technological advancements in music-making, yet it reflects the diversity of the history and population of the region. One thing for sure: when played, the irresistible weave of rhythms creates a magical allure that one cannot help but move to the music and be moved.

Contributed by:

Natalie Ng

Natalie Ng writes about music, plays three instruments and dances to music. She is a programmer at Esplanade.


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