Rock is as American as Pepsi Cola, but it’s also as Latino as a glass of horchata. Jazz, soul, and R&B have all made their mark in places as varied as Japan, France, and Argentina. Guess what these genres also have in common. They can all trace their roots to Africa, the origin of (hu)man and the vast majority of music that we enjoy.
If Africa is the origin, then Latin America is the destination; an accidental and, at times, willing recipient of diverse peoples and music. In that sense, our music was world music hundreds of years before the phrase was even coined. However, many of these artists and genres have struggled for years under judgmental governments and people who looked down upon such genres as beneath the proper image of music. Their descendants now dance and sing to the same songs that were once scorned.
So without further ado, here is a hybrid playlist. It’s part history and part song. In the end, it adds up to something that you can dance to and maybe even cry over, just like a real party!
Listen to the full 51-song playlist here, and read on below for some of the history behind 10 of its stand out tracks.
Celia Cruz / "Caramelo" [Cuba]
What’s the one word you associate with Celia Cruz? It’s a key ingredient for caramelo and it rots your teeth. But it sure sounds sweet. “Caramelo” is Cruz’s take on a Guaracha standard. While the word itself is generic, the genre has added meaning in Cuba: it was an important component of Bufo theater that catered to the lower classes. As for Cruz, she would later become a superstar but she would never set foot in Cuba again after 1959.
Johnny Ventura / "Capullo y Sorullo" [Dominican Republic]
Johnny Ventura’s name is known far and wide. This danceable number belongs to the merengue genre, traditionally seen as a low-class genre of music suitable for peasants but not the gentry. Enter Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo came from humble origins and this led him to promote merengue as the national genre of music. It is one of the few things that Trujillo did which could be thought of as positive. The genre itself has grown with the times by incorporating rock, R&B, and other genres.
Novalima / "Festejo" [Peru]
What happens when you bridge Afro-Peruvian music with modern musical sensibilities? “Festejo,” that’s what! The title means “celebration” in Spanish and the name also lends itself to a dance from Peru of African origin. Afro-Peruvians had a tough go at it. Enslaved by the Spanish and mistreated by their own compatriots, Afro-Peruvians eventually received an apology from the government of Peru in 2009. Problem solved everybody! In all seriousness, the government is trying to make (baby step) amends.
ChocQuibTown / "El Bombo" [Colombia]
ChocQuibTown hails from Colombia, a nation with a comparatively large population of African descent. ChocQuibTown itself is composed of Afro-Colombians. The fact that the group took hip-hop and funk to make their music is like dripping chocolate on fudge. The result is something that is as amazing as it sounds. Since you are very familiar with our music site, you probably already know that ChocQuibTown has gained much acclaim and fans since their founding in 2000.
Seu Jorge / "Rock With You" [Brazil]
Seu Jorge is an actor, musician, and all-around cool dude. Hailing from a favela on the outskirts of Rio De Janeiro, Jorge had a less-than idyllic upbringing. The flipside is that it made him tough. Even a spell of homelessness wasn’t enough to deter him. The favelas themselves were the results of desperation and a government that had no idea what proper city planning meant. The situation can be traced back to the 19th century, as poor soldiers were left to fend for themselves. As for Seu Jorge, samba is one of his primary loves and the genre first gained attention in the 1930s and ’40s when Carmen Miranda and her banana hat charmed their way to our hearts.
Orishas / "Naci Orishas" [Cuba]
Orishas is the name of both a hip-hop group and a group of manifestations of God, according to the Yoruba people. In other words, they’re kind of like God’s spokespeople. In any case, Orishas the band is Cuban in origin. Cuba is home to a large population of African descent and their influence is evident even in the name. The band ‘s name is an obvious nod to the beliefs of Afro-Cubans who contributed so much yet gained so little. Like ChocQuibTown, Orishas takes some of its cues from American hip-hop, further compounding their African origins and ties.
Quarteto em Cy / "Tudo Que Voce Podia Ser" [Brazil]
Quarteto em Cy is a tad bit different from the rest. The group is made up of ladies that are quite fair-skinned. Their music, on the other hand, has all the hallmarks of samba, MBP, and tropicalia, all which have been derived from slave traditions and culture. “Tudo Que Voce Podia Ser” is definitely putting things in overdrive. I mean, come on! Listen to that bass! If anything can exemplify the total saturation of African musical influences in Brazilian music, it’s this.
Frank T / "Humor Negro" [Spain]
Originally from Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Frank T grew up in Spain and his music shows influences from American hip-hop and his Castilian-tinged delivery makes for a unique sound which complements this song perfectly. “Humor Negro” is exactly that, a song that skewers racial stereotypes over an almost detached delivery. Spain is not exactly the most welcoming place for immigrants, let alone people from Africa, but Frank T uses la lengua de Cervantes and turns it right back on its own place of origin.
Various / "La Bamba" [Mexico]
This song has been covered by countless artists and is the name of the 1987 film starring Lou Diamond Phillips. “La Bamba” belongs to the son Jarocho genre that is native to Veracruz. It is no accident that the genre originated from a state that was an important conduit for the slave trade. The song is a hybrid of indigenous, Spanish, and African musical styles and the result is a song that is now world famous. You may think “what an obvious choice.” It is, but its exclusion would be mind boggling.
Benny Moré / "Que Bueno Baila Usted" [Cuba]
Benny Moré is not a singer. He is one of the singers of Cuba, if not the singer of Cuba. His reputation cannot be underestimated. He did it all: mambo, Guaracha, and bolero. “Que Bueno Baila Usted” is a catchy number that embodies the carefree feeling that seems to have cast a spell over the island. Then the revolution happened. In contrast to Celia Cruz, Moré decided to stay. Cuba was home and no other place on Earth could hope to compete. He died shortly after, his death mercifully sparing him of the future failures of Castro’s regime, if not its horrors.
So, keep that clave timing tight and dance away. This is not a definitive list. Please make your choices known. Who knows, we may even take a boombox and hold it over our heads à la John Cusack while we play it toward the Spanish Consulate!