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.


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.")

Los Munequitos de Matanzas are considered the top rumba band in Cuba, and can be heard on "Congo Yambumba" (Qbadisc QB 9014). A good general survey of rumba can be found on "La Rumba de Cuba" (Milan Latino 36743).

Mambo: The next dance craze to spread north from Cuba was mambo. Like much modern Latin pop, mambo resulted from the interaction of Caribbean and American culture -- specifically, the fusion of jazz and Cuban dance music. Bandleader Perez Prado had the first mambo hit in 1950, with "Mambo jambo (Que rico el mambo)," and would later have enormous commercial success with the single "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" in 1950. (Perez also had a lot of success with the cha-cha, a Cuban dance derived from the French quadrille.)

But the real "mambo kings" were Tito Puente, Machito and Tito Rodriguez, bandleaders with a strong grounding in jazz (Machito worked frequently with Dizzy Gillespie in the '40s), whose heyday was celebrated in the 1992 film "The Mambo Kings."

Son: These days, the dominant Cuban style is son, a fusion of Spanish and African elements that can be played by anything from small, guitar-based combos to brassy, percussive big bands. Perhaps the best-known son group in America is the Buena Vista Social Club, but for Cubans, the No. 1 son group is Los Van Van, along with the jazzy Irakere, the very modern NG La Banda and the more traditional Orquesta Ritmo Oriental. "Cuba Classics 3: Diablo al Inferno" (Luaka Bop 45107) and "Cuban Gold" (Qbadisc 9006) are good overviews of contemporary son.

Salsa: Often associated with Cuba, salsa is actually an American music style. As Charley Gerard and Marty Sheller write in "Salsa: The Rhythm of Latin Music," it's best defined as "the New York Sound, developed primarily by Puerto Rican New Yorkers, known as Nuyoricans."

Although Puerto Rico has its own national musics, the plena and bomba, these play virtually no role in the sound of salsa, which relies heavily on the Afro-Cuban sound that arose in New York in the '40s and '50s. But salsa did absorb other beats from the Caribbean, in particular the brisk merengue of the Dominican Republic.

Like the rumba, salsa music is focused on a clave beat. Generally, a salsa band features a singer, several percussionists (including conga and timbales), piano, bass, guitar and a horn section (often stressing trombones over trumpets). Among the most famous and influential salsa stars are Beny More, Celia Cruz, Willie Colon, Ruben Blades (who started out with Colon), Juan Luis Guerra, Joe Arroyo and Albita Rodriguez (who now bills herself simply as Albita).


Given the number of Mexican immigrants who have come to America, it makes sense that pop based on Mexican traditional music is enormously popular in Texas and the Southwest. What may seem surprising is that some of this music is more American than it is Mexican.

Tejano: Norteno music arose in the northernmost states of Mexico, some of which is now Texas. The music's roots are in the corrido ballad tradition, but over time, norteno also absorbed elements of the polka music that Czech immigrants in Texas had popularized.

The result became known as tejano music, which itself gave birth to Tex-Mex style rock and roll. A good sampling of classic tejano music can be found on "San Antonio's Conjuntos in the 1950s" (Arhoolie 376). Among the best-known tejano musicians among English-speakers today are Freddie Fender and Flaco Jimenez, both of whom also perform with the Texas Tornados. For Spanish speakers, however, the biggest norteno acts are Los Tigres del Norte, Los Huracanes del Norte, and Selena, who remains astonishingly popular despite her untimely death in 1995.

Cumbia Mexicana: One of the most interesting elements in Selena's popularity was the way she incorporated an updated version of the cumbia Mexicana into some of her recordings. Although the cumbia beat -- a loping, danceable rhythm built on one long beat and two short: BOM-pikky BOM-pikky -- originally hails from Colombia, it has become extremely popular in Mexico, thanks to groups like Los Bukis. For a taste of actual Columbian cumbia, check out "Cumbia Cumbia" (World Circuit 016).

Ranchera: While norteno music is generally upbeat, ranchera is melodramatic and dark, a ballad form so full of torment and fate it makes Irish ballads look positively optimistic. Maria de Lourdes, Lola Beltran and Chavela Vargas are among the biggest names in ranchera today, while "Corridos & Tragedias de la Frontera" (Arhoolie 7019/20) offers a broad overview of the style's evolution.

Mariachi: Many Anglos think of mariachi as being the most vivid of Mexican pop sounds because of its distinctive blend of guitar, trumpet, strings and harp, but it's a mistake to think of mariachi as a style of music.


Originally, mariachi bands specialized in the traditional music of Jalisco on Mexico's central Pacific coast, but contemporary mariachi bands play cumbias, polkas, waltzes and other styles. Bandleader Juan Gabriel has even pushed the mariachi sound into something resembling soft rock.

For a taste of classic mariachi, look for the Mariachi Vargas album "Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan" (Arhoolie 7015), or the very traditional "Sones from Jalisco" by Mariachi Reyes del Aserradero (Corason 108).

A popular misconception about Latin pop is that it is exotic, fiery, mysterious and strange. Maybe so, but not as strange as many Anglos might think.

Because Latin musicians are generally quite familiar with Anglo-American music trends, contemporary Latin pop runs the gamut from sweet, middle-of-the-road balladry to the edgiest hip-hop, hard rock and house music. One of the great ironies of Gloria Estefan's career is that the music she made with the Miami Sound Machine when the group's audience was mostly Spanish-speaking was less salsa-based than her big crossover hits, "Conga" and "Bad Boy."

For years, the most popular Latin pop singer was Spanish balladeer Julio Iglesias, and his sons, Enrique and Julio, Jr. (both of whom have English language releases due this fall), seem likely to create a something of a Latin pop dynasty. Nor are they atypical of the field, as singers like Ricky Martin, Luis Miguel, Juan Gabriel, Cristian, Ana Gabriel and Carlos Ponce offer a similarly melodic, pop-savvy sound.

Others draw from traditional sources but update their music with electronic beats and rock or soul influences. Marc Anthony, for example, plays off salsa rhythms in his music but is by no means a strict traditionalist, and much the same can be said for stars like Elvis Crespo and India.

Then there's rock en Espanol, the Latin rock movement, which has gained a growing market here in the United States. At the forefront of this movement is Mana, whose albums routinely go gold in America, but Shakira, Puya, Molotov, Los Amigos Invisibles, and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs have also made significant inroads into the American scene.

Apart from language, these acts have little in common. Mana, for example, boasts a majestic, tuneful sound that could be described as a cross between Live and Bon Jovi (though there's a strong Santana influence to their current album, "MTV Unplugged"). As a vocalist, Shakira could pass for Alanis Morissette's kid sister, but her songs have more in common with Paula Cole's soul-based sound.

Los Fabulosos Cadillacs do pop ska more skillfully and interestingly than No Doubt; Molotov's hip-hop/hard rock fusion is in the same league as Limp Biz-kit's; Puya plays the sort of thrash Godsmack fans live for; and Los Amigos Invisibles are devoted P-Funk acolytes.

Latin concert The rise of Latin pop music is illustrated Wednesday night when MPT (Channels 22 and 67) airs "The Kennedy Center Presents: Americanos Concert." The show, taped earlier this summer at the Kennedy Center, features Gloria Estefan, Jose Feliciano, Juan Luis Guerra, Mariachi Les Comperos de Nati, Susanna Baca, Cachao and Paquito D'Rivera. The 90-minute music fest begins at 9 p.m., followed by "Club Tropicana," which promises to turn a London location into "Havana's biggest nightclub."

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