Latin Music of the Caribbean

The Caribbean is filled with a variety of different musical sounds and beats, many of which have become extremely popular outside the Caribbean as well. A vast majority of the musical styles in the region are Latin, or Latin-influenced, but you'll find music of every kind throughout these islands.

Island Evolutions

Much of today's popular Latin sound can be traced back to Cuban roots. The musical style known in Cuba as son was later distilled into the rumba and the mambo in both Cuba and Puerto Rico.

These styles moved to the U.S., particularly to New York, in the early 1900s when a great number of Spanish-speaking Caribbean islanders came to the city. Many of these people were Puerto Rican, as they had recently been given free travel to the U.S. as a territory.

Son music and its descendants transformed in the streets and dance halls into several varieties of music. Salsa, cha cha, and panchango music were widespread in New York, though the dance styles vary throughout the world, even from island to island in the Caribbean. Each island also developed its own flair for these styles.

Merengue, on the other hand, came from the Dominican Republic. Spanish Bolero music also influenced the bachata in the countryside of the Dominican Republic. Former African slaves strongly influenced these dance styles from Latin America.

Perhaps surprisingly, Trinidad is also home to a Spanish-based musical style called parang. In the Dominican Republic this musical style was called arguinaldo, but Trinidadian listeners combined this music with soca to create soca-parang. This style has also been heavily influenced by music from Venezuela.

Style Guide

Latin music is very inter-related, with one style influencing another and new sounds being derived from the fusion. Therefore, a little background on each of the styles is sure to help you keep the similarities and differences straight.

Rumba specifically refers to the style of music in which one or two dancers are joined by a singer, chorus, three congas, and two pairs of tapped sticks. Though this style has a decidedly African sound, it is a truly Cuban creation, derived from the music of its African creators. There are currently three styles of rumba still regularly performed: the guaguancó , the yambú (which is slower), and the columbia (a solo male dance).

Son music grew out of the rural areas of Cuba. At first, son was a strongly European-influenced style of music featuring stringed instruments rather than just percussion instruments. However, when son moved to Havana, additional jazz influences created the son we know today.

In the 1940s mambo emerged from a mix of Latin sounds and jazz music. Big band and swing music were also important in the development of this upbeat style of music. Mambo also owes a great deal to Haitians who moved to Cuba. The cha cha is a direct descendant of the mambo, but has some slight variations and easier dance steps.

Salsa's history, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated. Though it has roots in both Cuba and Puerto Rico, it also claims heritage in the Spanish-speaking community of New York. This fusion of many Latin dance styles closely resemble the mambo in some ways and is one of the most popular musical styles to come out of the Caribbean, particularly in the 1950s and 60s.

Merengue, the Dominican Republic's national style of music, has international roots. Taken from the Caribbean to France, and then back to the French colonies, many different styles of the music that became merengue have been played throughout the region. Though it began in the upper-classes, the lower classes, particularly in the Dominican Republic, have made the music what it is today.

The Spanish attempts to convert Trinidad's Caribs to Catholicism resulted in a musical style called parranda in Spanish. These songs were sung at Christmas time.

Though the islanders changed the name to parang, and most do not speak Spanish, these songs are still sung today and are an important part of the island's Christmas tradition.

These Latin styles are the basis for a number of other styles and are descended from yet more styles. The Latin music community in the Caribbean has been and continues to be influenced by many sources.


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