The Musical Tradition in Latin America

Kristin Mann

in Latin American Studies

Published online August 2015 | | DOI:

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  • Regional and Area Studies
  • History of the Americas


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Music is an important part of understanding the history and people of Latin America. The musical diversity and complexity of Latin America is extraordinary, having developed over centuries as the product of cultural exchange. Prior to European contact, native groups incorporated music and dance as integral parts of daily life, in education, work, and leisure activities. Song and dance, accompanied by percussion instruments and aerophones made from bones and shells, comprised a large part of religious rituals, ceremonies for rites of passage and harvest, and leisure and work activities throughout the Americas. It functioned as a medium of communication within and between groups and with the spiritual world. Music was part of European expeditions to claim territory in the Americas, and it was quickly incorporated into missionary evangelization efforts. Dance and musical practice provided opportunities for indigenous cultural maintenance and reinvention within the context of colonialism. Europeans brought musical instruments that were adapted to use in new contexts: these included stringed instruments, such as the guitar, violin, and harp; wind instruments such as flutes and chirimías; and the organ. The music and liturgy of the mass, devotional songs, liturgical theater, and secular song and dance all gained important places in colonial culture throughout American colonies. Africans, enslaved and free, brought new rhythms, dances, songs, and musical practices with them to the Americas as well, creating unique syncretic blends of song, dance, and performance. In the 19th century, art music was composed and performed in the urban centers of Latin America, and music was incorporated into newly independent states as part of efforts to define national identity. Modern music in Latin America continues to reflect the diversity of the history and population of the region. Ethnic groups define themselves through music and dance. Religious music remains an important part of ritual celebrations, particularly processions and festivals of the Catholic Church. Secular song and dance genres, from son, to salsa, merengue, rumba, and samba gained popularity not only in Latin America but also in the United States and worldwide in the second half of the 20th century. Music became linked with mass media—first radio, then movies and television, audio recordings, and performances for tourists—reshaping its meaning. This article will consider work by scholars in the fields of music, anthropology, sociology, history, and cultural studies, which looks not only at the musical genres and performers but also at the cultural, political, and economic contexts and meanings.

Article.  10026 words. 

Subjects: Regional and Area Studies ; History of the Americas

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