That Latin Tinge, Then and Now

Ricky Martin at the Latin Grammys. 

The extraordinary success of artists such as Ricky Martin, the late Selena, Jennifer López, Marc Anthony or Enrique Iglesias blurs the fact that, over the past century, Latin music has been the single most important outside influence in the popular music of the United States.
This is not just the occasional novelty hit or flavor-of-the-month “craze.”
Rather, it’s an influence that has long seeped into the ground and has been absorbed by what we think as “American” styles – jazz, R&B, country music, rock,  you name it.

Much has been said and written about Jelly Roll Morton’s dictum that a “Spanish (i.e. Latin) tinge” was an essential element in jazz. In fact, in his important “Latin Jazz The First of The Fusions, 1880s to today” (Schirmer Books, 1999), music journalist John Storm Roberts unearths not only examples of Cuban habaneras and proto-tangos in turn-of-the-century New Orleans but also hints of Brazilian lundú rhythms and references to a group, or groups, called “the Mexican Band.”
Come to think of it, Latin jazz as we know it emerged in the 1940s through the efforts of musicians such as Mario Bauzá and Dizzy Gillespie — but W.C. Handy’s classic “St. Louis Blues,” featuring a mix of blues and tango, was published in 1916.
As a matter of fact, while tango enjoyed a revival in the 1990s through efforts as disparate as that of the late New Tango master Astor Piazzolla, pop singer Julio Iglesias and classical musicians such as Daniel Barenboim, Yo-Yo Ma, and Gidon Kremer, the music had already held the country under its spell in the 1910s.

Similarly, one of the musical phenomenons of the 90s was the extraordinary success of  Ry Cooder’s “Buena Vista Social Club,” an album of old songs and traditional popular Cuban styles, recorded in Havana and featuring a multigenerational group of Cuban musicians, some of them music veterans nearly forgotten even in Cuba. With “Buena Vista,” a whole new audience crossed generational and ethnic lines, ignored language barriers, and fell in love with the earthy elegance of Cuban son  — just as so many North Americans had done 60 years earlier.
Back then it was called “the rumba craze,” although it was mostly actually son, and generated hits such as “The Peanut Vendor” and “Mama Inez” and made stars out of artists such as bandleaders Don Aspiazu and Xavier Cugat (himself a Spaniard not a Cuban).
Around that time, artists like Tito Guizar and Carlos Gardel also brought Latin music to Hollywood in movies such as “Under the Pampas Moon” (1935) and ‘El Dia Que Me Quieras “ (1935).

For some, it might have seemed that Latin music had reached the summit of mainstream culture in North America. But it was only the beginning. Since, nearly every decade has brought major Latin music trends – think of the mambo, the bossa nova or salsa. In turn, these styles have expanded the musical vocabulary of North American popular music.

It’s an influence that can be heard not only in Morton’s jazz but in Bo Diddley’s beat or, more recently, Carlos Santana’s brand of rock. Instruments once thought of as exotic are now common fare. Dizzy Gillespie’s featuring a conga drum with his 1947  big band was an astonishing development. By the 1970s, R& B-funk bands (think War or Earth Wind & Fire) and jazz-rock fusion groups (such as Chick Corea’s Return to Forever or Weather Report) had made Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban percussion instruments standard part of their rhythm section. Today a hotel lounge band might feature a set of congas and patrons would not look twice at it.
In fact, the irony is that, for all the achievements of the Ricky Martins and Jennifer Lopezes, the great success of Latin music in the United States is that we no longer think of it as other people’s music.
It is American music in the truer, larger sense of the word.

It is our sound.


Fernando González