Open Your Ears

When I first arrived at California State University Los Angeles to start my graduate studies, I was a performance major. My piano teacher, Dr. Paul De Castro, was the head of the Afro-Latin music studies department and quickly encouraged me to join the program. The problem? I had no clue what Afro-Latin music was, what it sounded like and what I was getting myself into!

So, for those of you wondering about Afro-Latin music, where it comes from and what it sounds like, here’s a “beginners crash course” on the music of three particular countries of Latin America: Cuba, Brazil and Peru, complete with audio examples to help you identify the specific sounds and rhythms of each country.


To understand the development of Afro-Latin music, it is very important to have a good knowledge of history and how things came about in Latin America. Of course, an entire book, or many books for that matter, could be written on the subject – so I’ll keep it relatively short.

We use the term Afro-Latin to describe types of music from Latin American countries that were influenced by the black slave population that came from Africa and was forced to establish itself mostly in major port cities. When the slaves were brought over, the only thing they really could bring with them was culture; whether it was music, dance or religious beliefs, they attempted to preserve as much of their rich cultural heritage as possible in their new country. This led to very interesting musical developments, as Latin American countries found themselves to be a melting pot of native individuals, slaves and European colonies.

Thus, what we refer to as Afro-Latin music is simply music that evolved due to various cultures being immersed with one another, influencing one another musically.

Afro-Latin Music: Cuba

Afro-Latin music in Cuba has its roots in four distinct African cultures: the Bantu, Yoruba, Dahomey and the Carabali. All four of these cultures mostly used drums to perform particular rhythms associated to religious ceremonies or cultural events. As slaves were forced to travel to Cuba, they brought elements from these four distinct tribes. From there, music in Cuba evolved in specific genres including Son, Rumba and Salsa, amongst others.


The Son is a musical style that emerged in Eastern Cuba and gained popularity in the early 20th century.
There are a few different types of conjuntos (or ensembles) that played son:

  • Trio: 3 guitars, or 2 guitars with maracas or clave
  • Sexteto: Guitar, tres, bass (or marimbula), bongo, maracas and clave
  • Septeto: Same instrumentation as the sexteto, with an added trumpet. This particular type of ensemble appeared in the late 1920s.


Salsa is the evolution of the Son, in many ways. It represents popular music from Cuba but was also very in demand in New York City in the 1970s, where the term “salsa” actually came from. Some of the most famous salsa artists include Fania All-Stars, Willie Colon, Larry Harlow, Eddie Palmieri, etc. The common instrumentation of salsa bands includes congas, bongo and other percussions, piano, bass, tres, a horn section and singers.


Rumba was developed in two major cities in Cuba: Havana and Matanzas. This particular music evolved as a way for the slaves to cope with the struggles of the daily life. There are three main types of Rumba: Yambu, Guaguanco and Columbia. Outlining the African influences on Cuban music, Rumba is usually played with a combination of three drums of different sizes, large, medium and small. Just like most Cuban music, Rumba is often performed with dancers, as in the following video:

Afro-Latin Music: Brazil

Brazilian music is commonly associated with three particular genres of music: Samba, Bossa Nova and the Tropicalia movement.


Samba is an umbrella term designing various subgenres of samba. The most well-known, of course, is Carnival Samba, or Samba de Enredo. Carnival Samba is very loud and performed by samba schools (community groups performing in the yearly Carnival celebrations. Samba de Enredo is associated with the poor Afro-Brazilian population and considered music of the “street”. It emerged in Rio de Janeiro in the early 1900s and sounds like this:

Groups performing Samba de Enredo feature a very large percussion section including the following instruments:

  • Surdo drums (basic pulse in 2, divided among three sizes of surdos)
  • Pandeiro (16th note division)
  • Cuica (accents)
  • Tamborim (syncopation)
  • Caixa (snare drum)
  • Agogo bells

Bossa Nova

Also a very popular genre of Brazilian music, the Bossa Nova was a very short-lived movement from the late 1950s to the early 1960s. Brazilian youth was very influenced by American musicians such as Frank Sinatra and Stan Kenton – the main name in Bossa Nova, Antonio Carlos Jobim, along with Joao Gilberto, created a new sound that would better represent the current musical interests of the upper-class youth of Brazil. The first Bossa recorded was Chega de Saudade, in 1958:


After a military coup in 1964, the sweet quiet sounds of the Bossa didn’t align with the current political situation of the country. Musicians such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil developed a new sound, as part of the Tropicalia movement. Their music was highly influenced by the Beatles and mixed classical music, rock and roll and Brazilian music:

The movement ended in 1969 when both Veloso and Gil were exiled to London after being judged dangerous by the government. The Tropicalia movement, while not overtly political, was an anti-establishment cultural movement that started in response to the new military government of 1964.

Afro-Latin Music: Peru

Peru demonstrates an important African presence felt through various cultural aspects. Since the arrival of the first African slaves in 1524, African influences on the Peruvian culture can be observed through language, dance, food and of course, music.

First things first, it is important to note that Afro-Peruvian music uses specific instruments to obtain its unique sound: the quijada, the cajon and the cajita.


The quijada is the jaw bone of a donkey and can produce different sounds depending on how it is struck or played. The loosened teeth are what produces its characteristic rattling sound!

On the other hand, the cajon and the cajita are man-made instruments; both are wooden boxes – cajon meaning “box” and cajita meaning “little box”. The cajon is the bigger of the two boxes, on which the percussionist sits and hits with his hands. The cajita is smaller, inspired by the religious donation box in church. It has a lid that can be closed and opened and is struck with a stick on the side. These instruments are part of the Afro-Peruvian musical tradition, which includes various rhythms and styles of music.


One of the most well-known of these styles is the Festejo. The Festejo, from the word “fiesta” is the most joyous and upbeat Afro-Peruvian style. The origins of the Festejo can be traced back to the slavery era and was used by the slaves as a way to cope with their situation.

There are various types of Festejo, such as the Alcatraz, accompanied by the most flirtatious and erotic types of dance in the world. In this particular dance, the man and the woman both use a candle to try and light a piece of cloth attached to their partner’s lower back:


Another very well-known style of Afro-Peruvian music is the Lando, originating from an Angolan dance (Landu) brought over by the slaves who traveled from Angola to Brazil. The Peruvian Lando has now become the symbol of black Peruvian music, similarly to the “son” in Cuba and the “samba” in Brazil.

Other styles of music and dance from Peru demonstrating African influences include the Zamacueca and the Panalivio. According to musicologist Nicomedes Santa Cruz, the name Zamacueca means “greeting dance”, from the African words Samba (greeting) and Cuque (dance). On the other hand, Panalivio is a slow song, usually of sad or mournful nature.

It is important to note that most of the information currently available on Afro-Peruvian culture has been brought to our attention through the research of Nicomedes Santa Cruz, whose work focused on creating awareness of the disappearing Afro-Peruvian culture. Besides Santa Cruz, other important names in Afro-Peruvian music include Susana Baca, Chabuca Granda and most recently, Eva Ayllon.

As you have read and will have experienced through the musical examples above, Afro-Latin music is a very varied collection of musical styles. Indeed, there is no one characteristic sound that exemplifies all Afro-Latin music! But there are some common strands which run through many of the styles discussed here. Can you hear them? Leave a comment and let us know!