Stars of Latin music ready to pop

Traveling to the beat of a different drum, Latin pop -- from merengue to mariachi -- is crossing over to the Anglo mainstream.

September 26, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Marc Anthony. Mana. Shakira. Elvis Crespo. Luis Miguel. Jaguares. Jaci Velasquez. Los Fabulosos Cadillacs.

Their names may not ring a bell right now, but if current trends continue, most of them will be familiar soon enough, as the stars of Latin pop cross over into the Anglo mainstream. Already this year, both Enrique Iglesias and former Menudo member Ricky Martin have topped the Billboard singles chart, while Mana and the Buena Vista Social Club are currently gaining ground on the albums chart.

According to the industry buzz, Latin pop is music's Next Big Thing.

This isn't the first time Latin music has invaded the American charts. Back in the 1930s, almost every dance band in America had at least a couple rumbas and tangos in its repertoire (even if the arrangements were so heavily Americanized that Latin listeners could barely recognize the rhythms). But the biggest boom came in the early '50s, when the mambo and cha-cha were introduced.

But what constitutes Latin pop today?

Merely having a Hispanic surname does not make a singer a Latin pop star. Jennifer Lopez may have played Latin pop phenom Selena in the movies, but with her own album, "On the 6," Lopez comes across as the New York-born pop/soul singer she is in real life. Nor is there anything particularly Latin about the sound of Christina Aguilera's self-titled debut (much of which was recorded in Sweden).

In fact, the notion that Latin pop is a specific musical style is misleading. Here in America, the Latin music market is divided into three segments: Tropical, Regional Mexican and plain old Pop.

Musically, these styles resemble one another about as closely as hip-hop resembles country and western. The Tropical style has its roots in Cuba and the Caribbean, and is best-known through the brassy, percussive sound of salsa; the Regional Mexican style stresses guitar, violin and accordion, as heard in mariachi and "Tex-Mex" music. Meanwhile, the Pop end of the Latin market offers everything from big, string-soaked ballads to raucous, electric-guitar-powered rockers.

What makes it Latin is language. Whereas most of the releases on the mainstream charts are recorded in English, recordings aimed at the Latin market are made in Spanish. Crossover occurs when an artist who has previously only appealed to Spanish-speaking music fans ends up with an equally large audience of English-speakers

It's not necessary to habla Espanol to understand the appeal of Latin music. But it does help to know the difference between merengue and mariachi. What follows is a brief guide to the major movements in Latin pop.


Veteran rock star Carlos Santana likes to say, "People call what we do Latin, Spanish, whatever, but we're all playing African music." Nowhere is that more true than in the music of Cuba.

As with American popular music, the African influence on Cuban music has its roots in slavery. African slaves had been used for labor in Cuba since the 1600s, but in the 1700s, the Catholic church in Cuba created cabildos, or mutual aid societies, which allowed the Africans to restore the tribal identities slavery sought to abolish. One of the end results of the cabildos was the formation of several Afro-Cuban religious strains, complete with ritual music styles.

Those Afro-Cuban beliefs survive today as Santeria, while echoes of the ritual music -- particularly the drumming, which has sacred importance to Santeria -- can be heard in almost every form of Tropical Latin music, particularly salsa. Those interested in hearing Afro-Cuban ritual music in its pure form should look for either "Cuba: Les danses des dieux" (Ocora 559051), a Radio France recording of various rites, or "Sacred Rhythms of Cuban Santeria" (Smithsonian Folkways 40419).

Rumba: Numerous pop forms grew out of Afro-Cuban ritual music, but perhaps the first to have major impact outside of Cuba was the rumba. This was a festive music that relied as much on objects at hand -- spoons, pans, sticks, even furniture -- as on actual percussion instruments.

An Americanized version of the music -- spelled "rhumba" -- became quite popular in the 1930s, thanks to hit songs like "The Peanut Vendor." But the beat Americans danced to was far less complex than Africanized music popular in the Latin world. There, rumba was divided into three main types -- guaguanco, rumba columbia, and yambu -- each with its own distinctive central beat, or clave.

Clave is an important concept in Afro-Cuban music. Unlike rock and roll, where the emphasis tends to fall simply on the afterbeat -- boom thwack! boom-boom thwack! -- Tropical Latin music tends to build on a specific rhythmic pattern. Although there are many variations, a clave beat tends to be three slow beats, followed by two fast ones: bom bom bom, bip-bip. (The closest thing in rock to a clave is the hambone, or "Bo Diddley beat.")

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