Guide to Latin Music


Brazil is a country with musical variety as vast as its geography. Samba and Bossa Nova are known world-wide but there are many other musical styles that are also worth exploring as well. Samba can mean a lot of things in Brazil. There are the sambas de enredo, the theme songs of Rio's Carnival parades which feature the large percussion sections or batucadas marching with hundreds of singers and dancers in escolas de samba or samba schools. However, most recordings feature the samba-cancão or samba-song, best represented by prominent singers from the samba schools like Martinho Da Vila, Beth Carvalho, Paulinho da Viola, Clara Nunes and others, who record in the studio with the same percussion instruments (but fewer!) and add other instrumentation like a seven-string guitar, a ukelele-like cavaquinho and, in general, employ more sophisticated arrangements. Of course, the samba rhythm permeates many styles of Brazilian music and many popular singers include sambas in their repertoire, but the artists above sing Samba almost exclusively. We also recommend any of the samba collections in our catalog as a way to get familiar with the voices of Brazilian Samba, but Brazil Classics 2: O Samba has excellent liner notes to better acquaint you with the genre.

When Brazilian musicians like composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and guitarist Joao Gilberto heard the "cool jazz" of the U.S. in the late 1950s and adapted the it to a gentler samba rhythm syncopated on the guitar the result was the reflective, romantic music called Bossa Nova. Bossa Nova has had a continuing influence on jazz artists all over the world as well as most Brazilian popular music since then. The most prolific and well-known composer of Bossa Nova was, of course, Antonio Carlos Jobim. His songs are a part of the repertoire of nearly everyone listed under this style in our catalog. The collaboration between Joao Gilberto and Stan Getz along with Astrud Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim yielded the 1964 album Getz/Gilberto (with it's hit single "Girl From Ipanema") that spread Bossa Nova throughout the world. Sergio Mendes continued that spread through the sixties with Brasil '66 and has re-emerged again in the nineties with recordings that have gone beyond Bossa Nova. Evidence of the lasting appeal of Bossa Nova is the recent compilation called "Red Hot + Rio" featuring international pop stars like Sting, David Byrne, George Michael and others performing distinctly modern interpretations of those wonderful Sixties bossa novas. But if you still like the originals try the recently released Novabossa collection which includes many of the gems of the era. Bossa Nova continues in Brazil today and one of our favorite recent Bossa Nova singers is Rosa Passos.

In the late 1960s musical influences outside of Brazil like Rock were having their influence upon Brazilian music and musicians, who, while remaining faithful to Brazilian rhythms and styles, were happy to experiment with new styles and instrumentation. So Brazilian popular music began to evolve into a wonderful hybrid of Samba, Bossa Nova, Jazz, Rock and regional traditional musics. The term used to encapsulate all these styles became MPB, an acronym for Musica Popular Brasileira. The first stars of MPB emerged during a time of political repression by the government and sometimes suffered censorship and even exile. They include singer-songwriters like Chico Buarque , Caetano Veloso, and Gilberto Gil. Chico Buarque is a singer, songwriter, and whose music is very samba-influenced. Caetano Veloso's lyrics are very poetic and his music is always expanding musical boundaries in Brazil. He is adored by several generations of Brazilian listeners. Singer Milton Nascimento has yet another distinctive style influenced partly by the colonial region he is from, the state of Minas Geraes, and has a vocal range and depth of feeling in his music that transcends language barriers. Ivan Lins' and Djavan's music has a pop/jazz feel. Jorge Ben and particularly Gilberto Gil have a lot of African elements in their music. Female vocalists Maria Bethania, Gal Costa, and Simone are wonderful interpreters of the aforementioned songwriters and others. However, the late Elis Regina is often cited as Brazil's best female vocalist. There are many good MPB artists in Brazil, but start with one of these and go on from there. There is also a new generation of pop stars in Brazil worth checking out like singer Marisa Monte. We have included several compilations of Brazilian pop music in our catalog where you can get a feel for all of these artists. Excellent liner notes and lyric translations are included on Brazil Classics 1: Beleza Tropical and Canta Brazil:The Great Brazilian Songbook. Most of the songs on these compilations are from the late '70s and early '80s, a classic period, but if you want something a little more current try the compilation Melting Pop: Brazilian Groove with material mostly from the '90s.

Northeastern Brazil has a musical tradition based on the accordion accompanied by a zabumba (drum) and a triangle. The music has spread throughout Brazil as workers escaping the droughts and poverty of the North have migrated to jobs in the South. It was popularized in the 1940s by Luiz Gonzaga, whose hit "Asa Branca" became a regional anthem. Another hit "Baião" refers to one of the many rhythms of this dance music called forró. The songs previously mentioned are on a lovely tribute to Luiz Gonzaga by his son Gonzaguinha. However, the collection Brazil Classics 3: Forro, Etc. is probably the best place to get acquainted with this music. The music of the "nordeste" is also prominent in the music of MPB artists like Elba Ramalho, Alceu Valenca & Geraldo Azvedo.

Also in northeastern Brazil is the state of Bahia, cradle to many of the African traditions of Brazil including music. The most prominent styles in Bahia are styles that grew out of the Bahian carnival:bloco afro (drums and voices like the group Olodum) and afoxe; and a musical hybrid that grew out of those two styles called samba-reggae. Since a lot of artists from Bahia (Margareth Menezes, Timbalada, Daniela Mercury, Carlinhos Brown) mix these styles into their recordings we categorize all of this music under Bahia.

Brazil also has some wonderful instrumental music. The most common instrumental music is the choro that sounds kind of like ragtime with a samba rhythm. The instrumentation often includes a mandolin (listen to the wonderful re-mastered recordings of Jacob do Bandolim), flute or clarinet (Paulo Moura) , guitar and pandeiro (tambourine). There are also many musicians in Brazil who play predominately instrumental music which may have classical and jazz influences as well as any number of Brazilian styles. Probably the most well known of these are multi-instrumentalists/composers Egberto Gismonti & Hermeto Pascoal. Also, one cannot speak of instrumentalists without mentioning a few of Brazil's many fine guitarists like Baden Powell , Rafael Rabello, etc. who we list under guitar.


Argentina has many musical styles and traditions but none more famous than the tango, full of passion and musical elegance. The typical tango orchestra usually includes the bandoneon (a type of accordion), violin, piano and contrabass. Guitars are also sometimes used. Singer Carlos Gardel made the tango known world-wide in the 1930's. More recently a new style of tango was introduced (and not without some resistance from traditionalists) by the recently-deceased bandoneonista and composer Astor Piazzolla. Many of his nuevo tangos have jazz and modern classical influences. A good collection of tangos, both sung and played, modern and traditional, is called Todo Tango. We also highly recommend another collection Argentina Canta Asi for vocal and instrumental tangos as well as Argentine folk music. The collection includes Argentina's most renowned folk singer, Mercedes Sosa, who interprets not only all of the folk traditions of Argentina, but folk traditions found throughout Latin America. Argentina also has some great Rock music of late from groups like Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and singer-songwriter Fito Paez. The music of Uruguay has much in common with the music of its neighbor across the Rio de la Plata, Argentina. However, there is one type of music unique to Uruguay called candombe. You'll find it on a folk collection called Uruguay Y Su Musica and, in a more modern context, on the recordings of Ruben Rada.


Many South American countries are connected by the long chain of mountains known as the Andes Cordillera and throughout this area have lived the Inca, Aymara and other indigenous peoples. Their music, like the mountains, has an ancient, mystical quality, especially the flutes and panpipes known as quenas and zampoñas. The Spanish conquest brought the guitar and harp and the shell of the armadillo became the material for a small mandolin-like instrument called the charango. The arrival of the Nueva Cancion (New Song) movement in the late 1960's brought about a revival of the traditional music of the Andes and infused it with lyrics that dealt with the ideals and struggles of the times (In Chile & Argentina dictatorships were brutally repressing democracy and musicians were often forced into exile or, in the case of the great Victor Jara, even tortured and killed). The most renowned exponents of Andean music today are veterans of that era-the Chilean ensemble Inti-Illimani. They have recorded traditional music, New Song, and original compositions using traditional instruments from all over Latin America. The music of the Andes is also represented on several compilations including: Andean Legacy, a recent compilation of instrumental groups; and Music of the Andes, a good compilation of the nueva cancion groups of the '70s. Another musical style enjoying a resurgence in the Andean country of Peru actually comes from along the coast and belongs to the descendents of African slaves. It's a wonderfully rhythmic music called landó and can be found on the compilation Afro-Peruvian Classics: Soul of Black Peru. A revelation on that collection is singer Susana Baca , whose recordings we also recommend.


Colombia is also part of the Andes Cordillera and has many of the same music traditions of its mountain neighbors, but it is also a part of the Caribbean where African influences are predominant. The most well-known music of Colombia is the black music of the coast called cumbia. The Cumbia Cumbia collections document this music from the '50s through the '80s. More recently a singer by the name of Carlos Vives has popularized the wonderful accordion-based music of the valleys of eastern Colombia called vallenato. His "rock/vallenato" style is fantastic and is keeping the vallenato tradition alive with young Colombians. Colombia is, of course, also a hotbed for Salsa with artists like Joe Arroyo, Grupo Niche and others, who are popular throughout the Caribbean.


Venezuela, like Colombia, shares musical influences from the Caribbean and from the South American continent. Inland on the plains is the musica llanera featuring the cuatro venezolano, a small four-stringed guitar strummed to a 6/8 jaropo rhythm with maracas and either an arpa llanera (harp), flute, mandolin or all three. On the northeast coast is a rhythm called the merengue (not the same as the rhythm of the same name from the Dominican Republic) which keeps the 3/4 or 6/8 beat so predominant in Venezuelan music but with various tambores (drums). One of the best instrumental ensembles performing Venezuelan folk music is Gurrufio. Another favorite artist from Venezuela is Soledad Bravo, who sings everything from Venezuelan folk music to nueva cancion to Salsa. Salsa is also very popular in Venezuela and one of the long-standing stars of that genre is Oscar D'Leon.


For a mere island in the Caribbean, Cuba has had an amazing musical influence on the world. The roots of Salsa, Latin Jazz, and the romantic Bolero are found in Cuban music. Most of what we (in the U.S.) know of Cuban music came to us through Cuban musicians playing in New York in the '30s, '40s, and '50s in bands led by Machito, Mario Bauza and others. With the Cuban revolution of 1959 and the resultant U.S. trade embargo it was left to mostly Puerto Ricans and Cuban exiles in New York and Miami to keep the sound alive for U.S ears. The music, influenced by its new urban environment, became known as Salsa. In the mean time, back on the island, Cuban music has continued to evolve on its own with a new generation of musicians who also continued to absorb musical influences from the outside world. In the last few years, Cuban music (from the island) has been reaching U.S ears again through the efforts of various adventurous record labels. Incidentally, when we speak of Cuban music, we are mostly referring to music from the island, but we also include music made by Cuban expatriates in the U.S. as well.

Son is a word that encapsulates much of Cuban music. It refers to both a singing style and a dance style and is the basis for other styles of Cuban music. For our purposes of categorization we use the word to refer to the traditional groups that date from the '30s to the present whose instrumentation usually includes the tres ( a Cuban guitar with double strings that plays rhythmic apreggios) the bongos, and the claves (two sticks that beat the essential pulse of almost all Cuban music)as well as guitar, contrabass and, of course, vocals. A new recording made by Ry Cooder of old soneros called Buena Vista Social Club is an excellent example of traditional son. Another traditional music is rumba, an African tradition of singing and drumming. Los Munequitos de Matanza are the most well-known of groups continuing this tradition. Yet another older tradition in Cuban music is the danzón, more influenced by Classical music than the son, but with African rhythmic elements nonetheless. The instrumental group that played danzon came to be called a charanga .Charanga bands which include flute, violins, piano, bass, pailas or timbales (creole tympani) and a scraper called the guiro, also play cha cha chas and sones. Cuba's most enduring charanga is Orquesta Aragon. Another great charanga is Orquesta Original de Manzanillo. In the '40s another style developed from the son and charanga. Conga drums and brass were added for a much heavier sound called mambo. Musicians associated with this style were tresero Arsenio Rodriguez, band leader Arcano, vocalist Beny More, and a bass player named Cachao ,whose improvisational jam sessions, or descargas of the '50s were a major influence on Afro-Cuban Jazz and groups like Irakere, whose members included Paquito D'Rivera, Chucho Valdes, and Arturo Sandoval. All of the aforementioned styles are a part of the mix in modern Cuban music today. Although the term Salsa is not a term used in Cuba, but rather one that was coined by U.S. Latinos to describe the mix of Caribbean styles and nationalities in their music, we use the term to categorize the present day Cuban dance bands as well. The most popular Salsa band in Cuba for many recent years is Los Van Van who call their music songo. Another very popular Cuban band is NG La Banda. For a good sampling of modern Cuban dance music from the '60s to the present we suggest the Cuba Classics series Vols. 2 and 3. Another musical style that grew both out of the son tradition and out of ideals of the Cuban Revolution in the '60s was called nueva trova (see also nueva cancion under the Andes). The emphasis in this music is on the lyrics as well as the music and artists like Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes have been embraced by audiences all over Latin America for their songwriting. At this point we can go no further without mentioning that a recent release called Cuba: I Am Time is absolutely essential to any Cuban music collection if not for the musical overview of everything thus far said about Cuban music, then for the wealth of information and photos in the book that comes in this "cigar box" set. Finally, we must also mention that there are several worthy artists of Cuban extraction living in the U.S. (particularly, Miami) who we categorize under Cuba. Among them are Gloria Estefan (for her two recent excellent Spanish releases), Willie Chirino, and a recent arrival from the island, Albita, who has brought the guajira singing tradition with her. They each offer great examples of the current "Miami sound," or Cuban music in exile. And, of course, probably the most popular Salsa singer in the world, Celia Cruz , has spent half of her stellar career in Cuba and half in the U.S.


There's a song that says that Puerto Rico and Cuba are two wings of the same bird. That the islands have shared alot musically with each other over the years is certainly true. The Salsa music that dominates Puerto Rican radio has many of its roots in Cuba. However, Puerto Rico has some distinctive musical traditions and instruments of its own. The bomba and the plena are the most common folk styles of Puerto Rican music. The bomba is more African and the plena is more Spanish in origin. The plena and other styles like the danza are usually played on a small, 10-stringed guitar called the cuatro (it must have once had four double strings instead of the five it has today). This is a beautiful sounding instrument in the hands of a virtuoso like Yomo Toro. A group we recommend among several that play both bomba and plena are Los Pleneros de la 21. Of course, the most popular music in Puerto Rico today is Salsa, which has its roots in bomba and plena as well as in Cuban music. Puerto Ricans on the island and in the U.S. (mainly, New York) predominate in this music, which came out of the melting pot of Latin immigrant communities (Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican) in New York and has since spread all over the Caribbean and to other parts of Latin America. The salsa band most identified with and based on the island itself is El Gran Combo. In New York, Puerto Rican timbalero and bandleader Tito Puente has played an essential part in various Latin music genres from Mambo to Salsa. Pianist Eddie Palmieri brought new modal jazz harmonies and the heavy, urban sound of trombones to Salsa. ...He also recently introduced the best new female vocalist to the genre since Celia Cruz- La India . Singer & trombonist Willie Colon and Panamanian singer Ruben Blades have introduced socially conscious lyrics as well as innovative arrangements to Salsa music. In the last decade or so, Salsa has suffered some musically from its growing popularity by giving into formulaic arrangements. However, there is a new generation of great singers many of whom can be found on a compilation called Salsa Fresca,

We should mention here that many Salsa bands are made up of members from various countries and for that reason we urge you to look for Salsa recordings on our web site under the style category Salsa because we have not always assigned these groups to a specific country. This also true in reference to the many Latin Jazz recordings in our catalog as well.


The Dominican Republic is known for two styles of music, both of which are popular all over the Caribbean (especially Puerto Rico) and Latin America-Merengue& Bachata. Merengue is a fast paced dance music that in its traditional form features the accordion but horns have replaced the accordion in the urban orchestras. Modern merengues can be heard from popular artists like Johnny Ventura ,etc. on any number of compilations. The rural merengue tipico can be heard on recordings by accordionist Francisco Ulloa. The bachata is a more romantic, slower dance music that has been popularized in recent years by rising star Juan Luis Guerra, who has added more sophistication and innovation to both the lyrics and arrangements of his merengues and bachatas.


Mexico has a great variety of musical traditions and styles. Mariachi music with its trumpets and violins is the most well-known internationally. There are also many regional folk styles which include: the son jarocho from coastal Veracruz, which usually features a harp. ("La Bamba" was originally a son jarocho); the son huasteco, a fiddle tradition from northeastern Mexico; marimba music from southern Mexico; and the corridos and rancheras of northern Mexico. Los Folkloristas are a group that has long dedicated itself to all of these folk styles and, recently, the Chicano rock group Los Lobos recorded a pan-Mexican album of the music they grew up with called La Pistola y El Corazón and the results are an excellent introduction to the folk music of Mexico. The Mexican Corazon label is dedicated to recording traditional music in Mexico as well as Cuba and have a good "sampler" of their of their Mexican & Cuban recordings called From the Heart. Beyond maraiachi and traditional music there is an interesting rock scene in Mexico. Several of these bands can be heard on Reconquista-The Latin Rock Invasion, which also features rock bands from Argentina and Spain. And, while the bolero might have its roots in Cuba, some of the great songwriters of this style and many of the vocal trios romanticos have come from Mexico. Finally, there is also the music of the Mexican people living in Texas. We use the category Tex-Mex for these conjunto, tejano, and norteno styles that all have the accordion as their common instrument. While there are collections of these musics too numerous to mention, start with something that includes well-known accordionist Flaco Jimenez or the not so well known but incredible accordionist Steve Jordan.

CENTRAL AMERICA - Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatamala

We admit to a weakness in this portion of our catalog. Recordings from Central American countries (especially on CD) are harder to come across than elsewhere. We hope to improve our selection soon. But of course we can list here recordings of Panamanian Salsa singer Ruben Blades.


Spain is a country of many cultures and traditions from the Celtic music of Galicia in the north to the gypsy Flamenco music in the southern region of Andalucia. The most familiar flamenco instrument is, of course, the guitar played at a feverish and passionate pace with melodies that reflect the influence of Arabic music (listen to Radio Tarifa) from the centuries of Moorish dominance over southern Spain. Paco de Lucia is considered by many to be the best flamenco guitarist in the world. Of particular interest are his group recordings which add jazz elements. Flamenco music also has its great singers like Camaron De La Isla, La Nina de los Peines, etc. They are found on a good introductory collection called Duende: Passion-Voices of Flamenco. Flamenco music has also entered the pop music arena with groups like the Gipsy Kings, Spanish gypsies who's families emigrated to southern France; Ketama, who mix Flamenco and Salsa, or in the case of their Songhai recordings, mix Flamenco with African music. We highly recommend the the Young Flamencos, Nuevo Flamenco or Exploration-Crossing Borders of Flamenco recordings for an an introduction to these nuevo (new) Flamenco groups. For a complete introduction to all aspects of the Flamenco tradition, the complete Duende collection (3 CDs) is essential. There are also excellent popular singers in Spain. One of our favorites, because she also interprets the songs of many Latin American artists , is Ana Belen. Northern & Central Spain have traditional musics closer to those of Europe instead of North Africa. A group dedicated to preserving those traditions is La Musgana.


Portugal is home to the fado, a melancholy song accompanied by various instrumentation including the guitarra portuguesa, which looks and sounds like an oversized mandolin. The Serenada collection is a good introduction to traditional fados. Amalia Rodriguez has for decades been the most world-renowned singer of fado, but there are new singers like Dulce Pontes and Paulo Braganca and groups like Madredeus spreading modern versions of fado worldwide.


Out in the Atlantic are two sets of islands that have served as the crossroads for travel between Portugal & Spain and Latin America. The music of these islands reflects the influences of these migrations. Cabo Verde was a Portuguese territory and a creole form of Portuguese is spoken there. The main musical style is called morna . The sound is similar to a Brazilian choro without the percussion. The most well-known singer of this music is Cesaria Evora. She is also included on a compilation of Afro-Portuguese music from Cape Verde, Angola, Sao Tome & Portugal called Afropea 3: Telling Stories to the Sea.

From the Spanish Canary Islands we know of one well-known group, Los Sabandenos, who interpret the music of the islands as well as Spain and Latin America.