Styles & Forms | Latin & South America | World

Latin America is particularly rich and varied in its musical traditions, with each country boasting a broad and very distinct collection of genres whose development has been shaped by indigenous rhythms, migration patterns from Europe and the influx of slavery.

At the uppermost tip of Latin America is Mexico, a country whose musical sub-genres are too many to name, but may be best known for its mariachi music. Played by a large ensemble that includes violins, guitars, trumpets and vihuelas (five-string guitars), and which dresses in traditional, silver-studded charro attire, the mariachi may well be Mexico’s most-recognized cultural expression, even though it does not include indigenous instruments such as flute or percussion. The origins of the word ‘mariachi’, and indeed of the music itself, remain murky, but the mariachi is a staple in both Mexican pop and folk music. Although any song can be adapted to the format, there is a standard mariachi repertoire that includes classics such as ‘Cielito Lindo’, with its recognizable ‘Ay, ay, ay, ay’ chorus and sweeping violin lines. Thanks to emissaries such as the band Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, and ranchero icons such as Vicente Fernández (known for his rendition of ‘El Rey’), mariachi music has also become part of the culture of other countries, including Colombia.

Another Mexican musical form that stemmed from folk traditions was the corrido, which became popular during the Mexican revolution – much later than mariachi, thought to have made its appearance in the 1860s. The root of the corrido is its narrative quality (imagine a Mexican version of the troubadours!), as it often dealt with the tales and stories of revolutionary heroes. Through the years, corridos evolved to incorporate anti-heroes, ranging from bandits to Robin Hood types, and gained notoriety in the 1970s with the so-called narco-corridos of Los Tigres del Norte. Based in California, the group was one of the first to talk about drug smuggling and drug dealers in their songs. Los Tigres have become icons in the corrido genre and in 2002 their 1971 hit ‘Contrabando y Traicion’, a tale of treason and murder, was adapted into a best-selling novel, La Reina del Sur, by the Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

The Cumbian Beat Goes On

The traditional music of Colombia – the cumbia – has been adopted in Mexico and, in turn, mariachi has become part of the culture of Colombia. The original cumbia, as with other Caribbean rhythms, has an African rhythm base and dates as far back as the seventeenth century, where it developed on Colombia’s northern coasts. The music, which also takes elements from Spain and Colombia’s indigenous population, uses drums and flutes (called gaitas) and is meant to be danced to, with emphasis placed on hip movement. Over the years, cumbia has evolved and adapted urban characteristics; today, a cumbia orchestra will include horns and keyboard, and play at a faster clip. But the cumbia beat remains unchanged, and the standard repertoire, notably...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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