The Origins of 7 Key Latin Music Genres

Most of what is called Latin music comes from the fusion of cultures that took place during the Spanish and Portuguese colonization of the Americas. Musicians of various races and cultures came into contact with instruments they had never heard before – the European guitar, the African guitar congas and tambourine battery, native gaita flutes and maracas– and by combining their sounds, created a wide range of shapes and styles.

These sound combinations traveled across the hemisphere – and later around the world – acquiring new subtleties and variations, and continuing to morph into exciting new musical forms. Here is how seven major Latin musical genres emerged:


WHERE IT COMES FROM: Cuba, Puerto Rico, New York

WHAT DEFINES THE SOUND: A distinct beat called the key. A section with three drums (bongos, congas and timpani) performs complex and syncopated rhythms. Salsa lyrics tell short stories and usually end with a call and response section.

HISTORICAL ROOTS: The Cuban son, a musical form developed by Afro-Cuban musicians.

KEY ORIGINAL ARTISTS: Frank “Machito” Grillo, Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco, Celia Cruz

RELATED GENRES: Mambo, Charanga

Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians of the 1940s and 1950s developed this upbeat, danceable genre inspired by the Cuban sound, but incorporating other styles, such as mambo, rumba, and cha cha. Machito’s orchestra added jazz and a big band sound. Puerto Rican musicians like Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez brought elements of their island’s folk music, such as the bomba and the plena.

The term “salsa” (sauce) was coined in the 1960s. Many of the genre’s top musicians were signed to a label co-founded by Dominican bandleader Johnny Pacheco and performed internationally as Fania All Stars.

READ MORE: Milestones in Hispanic History: Timeline


WHERE IT COMES FROM: Dominican Republic

WHAT DEFINES THE SOUND: A repeating five-beat rhythm pattern called quintillo played by three key instruments: a diatonic accordion, a two-headed hand drum called tambourine and a metal scraper called charrasque Where güira. The lyrics are generally festive and optimistic.

HISTORICAL ROOTS: Spanish ballroom dancing fused with African and indigenous Taíno instruments.

KEY ORIGINAL ARTISTS: Francisco “Ñico” Lora, Luis Alberti


Merengue music and dancing became popular in the Dominican Republic during the Haitian occupation of Santo Domingo (1822-1844), but Dominican musicians upped its tempo to disassociate it from Haiti. Originally played with stringed instruments, it changed with the introduction of the button accordion, brought by German traders towards the end of the century.

Long a musical embodiment of pride and resistance, merengue was shunned by the country’s elite until Rafael Leonidas Trujillo came to power (1930 to 1961). The working-class dictator promoted it as the national dance of the Dominican Republic and contributed to its proliferation. During this period, Luis Alberti composed the classic aria “Compadre Pedro Juan”.

READ MORE: 11 Anthems of Black Pride and Protest Across American History


The undisputed king of traditional Mexican ranchera music, Vicente Fernandez, aka "El Idolo de Mexico," performs live at the Rose Garden in Portland, 2007.

The undisputed king of traditional Mexican ranchera music, Vicente Fernandez, aka “El Idolo de Mexico”, performs live at the Portland Rose Garden, 2007.


WHAT DEFINES THE SOUND: Traditionally played by a mariachi ensemble that relies heavily on stringed instruments like the vihuela and deep bodied guitarron. The lyrics are deep and passionate, evoking love for country and honour.

HISTORICAL ROOTS: European waltz and polka, as well as Cuban bolero

KEY ORIGINAL ARTISTS: José Alfredo Jiménez, Felipe Valdés Leal, Vicente Fernandez


The popularity of the canción ranchera is linked to the feeling of national pride that followed the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917). As the country grew and progressed, rural Mexicans moved into the big cities, bringing their music with them. In the 1930s, the Mexican government promoted the ranchera and encouraged the production of so-called comedia rancheras, musical films starring radio stars like Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante. In the 1950s, Ranchera was the country’s most popular musical genre.

No other composer has matched José Alfredo Jiménez in the quality and quantity of Rancheras created, often evoking feelings of passionate love and deep grief. And no other artist has elevated Rancheras like international superstar Vicente Fernández.



WHAT DEFINES THE SOUND: A characteristic double beat is played on maracas or a drum, while flutes known as gaitas carry the melody. The lyrics are about love, homeland and the celebration of life.

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HISTORICAL ROOTS: Africans enslaved in the 19e century incorporated indigenous instruments into their drum-based dance forms.

KEY ORIGINAL ARTISTS: Celso Pina, La Sonora Dinamita, Aniceto Molina

RELATED GENRES: The Sonora Dinamita

The cumbia began as a courtship dance during colonial times in the Colombian Caribbean region. African slaves learned to play native instruments such as the gaita and the guacharaca, a percussion instrument made from palm trees. Rhythmic structures were kept simple, as many male dancers were chained together. As cumbia spread throughout Colombia, it allowed for European influences such as string and brass instruments, and the introduction of vocals in Spanish.

Cumbia spread across the whole continent. Regional versions appear in Argentina, Peru, Mexico and even the United States. (Tejano star Selena popularized a style dubbed techno-cumbia.)


Jazz saxophonist Stan Getz, guitarist Antonio Carlos Jobim and singer Astrud Gilberto perform on stage at Cafe Au Go Go in New York, New York, circa 1964.

Jazz saxophonist Stan Getz, guitarist Antonio Carlos Jobim and singer Astrud Gilberto perform on stage at Cafe Au Go Go in New York, New York, circa 1964.


WHAT DEFINES THE SOUND: A soft and jazzy style combining classical guitar with soft and discreet voices. The lyrics are subtle yet romantic.

HISTORICAL ROOTS: Its origins are in samba, a style that developed in Afro-Brazilian communities in Rio de Janeiro in the early 20e century.

KEY ORIGINAL ARTISTS: João Gilberto, Vinicius de Moraes, Antônio Carlos Jobim


Bossa nova emerged as a calmer, gentler form of the dance samba popular during Brazil’s annual Lent carnival. Singer João Gilberto began experimenting with the sounds of jazz with his guitar in the late 1950s, a period of cultural effervescence. Bossa Nova (loosely translated as “new trend”) first appeared in Brazilian singer Elizete Cardoso’s 1959 album, Canção do Amor Demais, in which Gilberto played guitar on two tracks composed by de Moraes and Jobim. That same year, Gilberto released his own first album, Chega of Saudadeand immediately became part of a new cultural movement, with the two composers.

The Bossa Nova sound attracted jazz musicians like Stan Getz, who collaborated with Gilberto on the now classic 1964 Getz/Gilberto album, which included the hit “Garota de Ipanema”. (“Girl from Ipanema”). Sérgio Mendes and Brazil 66 pushed further with “Mas Que Nada”.


WHERE IT COMES FROM: The Río de la Plata region in Argentina and Uruguay

WHAT DEFINES THE SOUND: The bandoneon (a type of accordion) is the essential sound of this dramatic and danceable form. Tango can be strictly instrumental, but when sung, the lyrics can be philosophical, denounce social ills or express passionate love.

HISTORICAL ROOTS: European immigrants from Montevideo and Buenos Aires combined European ballroom dancing with African rhythms brought to the Americas during the slave trade.

KEY ORIGINAL ARTISTS: Rosendo Mendizábal, Vicente Greco, Carlos Gardel, Astor Piazzola


Tango originated in the 1880s in the dance halls and brothels of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, as a form of dance in which couples kissed. At the end of the 19e century, the bandoneon was introduced by German immigrants, and in the early 20e century, it has become an essential part of tango.

A major change was introduced when singer Carlos Gardel recorded the first song composed to be performed as a tango, “Mi Noche Triste”, about doomed love. Gardel will record hundreds of tangos and become the biggest star of the genre. His composition “El Día Que Me Quieras” is considered a masterpiece and has had several versions around the world.

Gardel also starred in dozens of films he produced under a distribution deal with Paramount Pictures. He died in a plane crash in Colombia in 1935, but his music continues to be played by legions of fans across the Americas.


WHERE IT COMES FROM: Panama, Puerto Rico

WHAT DEFINES THE SOUND: A loud and driving drum machine track with the dembow rhythm, a syncopated beat pattern repeated in almost every song. The lyrics are often about erotic love, inspiring a sensual dance move known as perreo.

HISTORICAL ROOTS: Jamaican reggae and dancehall recordings. In Puerto Rico, musicians incorporated hip hop and island folk genres like bomba and plena.

KEY ORIGINAL ARTISTS: El General, Vico C, Don Omar, Daddy Yankee

RELATED GENRES: Reggae, Dancehall, Trap

Since the beginning of the 20e century, when Jamaican laborers were imported to build the Panama Canal, Panamanian musicians recorded Spanish versions of reggae hits. In the 1980s, El General and other artists began recording original songs that combined elements of hip hop with reggae. In Puerto Rico, rapper Vico C was doing the same with his tape recordings.

In the early 1990s, the term reggaetón was coined in Puerto Rico and began to be widely used by artists like Don Chezina, Speedy and Wisin, and Yandel. In 2004, albums by NORE and Daddy Yankee became huge hits among Latinos in the United States, and artists like Don Omar, Tito El Bambino and Tego Calderón began to travel to Europe, where reggaetón acquired a immense popularity.

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