Music: The Third Culture





Music: The Third Culture

Latin American music is the consequence of the colonial legacies and current socio-cultural relationships in the respective South American and Caribbean states key among them classical African music. Upon arrival into the New World, the social environment became a melting point of diverse cultures. The Latin American music is the result of interaction of European, African, and Native American influences. Contemporary Latin music is a culmination of the tri-cultural heritage. As the individuals within their social and cultural divisions expressed themselves using their individual genres, there was transference of their music traditions. In the end, music transcended the social classes, racial divisions, and regional demarcations. The amalgamation of musical cultures began with simultaneous influence with each group adopting a part of the others rhythmic legacy until the divisions were blurred. Music is a form of human expression that the individual grouping leveraged relative to their respective circumstance and socio-cultural relationships. The slaves from African dissent used their music to express their frustration and suffering. It is from the different perspectives and experiences of life that makes the music styles of Latin America to be distinct even within the same region. The most enduring colonial influence of music in the Latin America is the language. Hitherto, The Spanish and Portuguese languages define the musical culture of Latin America. The musical legacy of Latin America is expansive with the most popular genres being Salsa, Argentine tango, Jamaican reggae, Afro-Cuban Rumba among others. To understand the contribution of each group to the Latin American musical genre one must study them first as individual entities then as syncretized cultures with special focus on the African culture.

Akin to the African slaves, the Aboriginals already had a rich musical culture informed by wind and percussions instruments. Some of the percussion instruments were the guiro, turtle shells, and the maracas working in tandem with wind instruments comprising primarily of zampona and quena. The communities utilized local resources as materials for their instruments (Aparicio, Frances, and Jáquez 34). They used animal skins and hardwood trees for their drums, trumpets were made from sea shells, cane and clay were the raw materials of flutes while gourds and their seeds made rattles.  Human and animal bones were fashioned into drum sticks and flutes in some of the communities. The wind and percussion instrument orchestras of the Inca, Aztec, and Maya societies were complex comparative to contemporary music traditions in Asia and Europe. The premise of Native Americans musical tradition was the voice. The prominence of the flute among indigenous population owed to their perception that it was the highest proximity to the human voice. Consistent with most of the world’s tribal cultures, the music was played to celebrate life and its various rites of passages, to maintain traditions, for recreation purposes, assuring fertility in lands and the subsequent good harvest, healing sickness and facilitating successful war and hunting ventures. Their religious practices placed high value on spectacles. The ceremonies were punctuated by song and dance.

Christopher Columbus was the prelude of the Christian missionaries’ arrival who aimed to evangelize to the incumbent heretic Natives and subsequently the African pagans. Christian evangelists leveraged music to convert the natives. Initially, they used the locals’ languages before switching to what they perceived as a superior language. The Natives Americans with time embraced some European musical elements like the string instruments incorporating them into their traditions. The repurposed instruments like the harp or the violin, their sounds, acquired corresponding aesthetic and cultural symbolism to the indigenous people. The resultant instruments differed in construction and shape number of strings from the European instruments as they underwent regional and cultural adaptation. The best example of the incorporation is the charango, an Andean guitar made from the shell of the Armadillo. The guitar was non-existent in previous generations and differed from the European model.  Striving to purge the natives of their pagan elements, the missionaries also decimated the music traditions that accompanied the traditions. They were replaced by liturgical European music. The missionaries disparaged native music for the failure to attain their preferred standards of polyphony or harmony. Their intricate syncopated rhythms were perceived as incoherent and out-of tune. The loss of indigenous music traditions can also be attributed to the indigenous communities’ lack of musical notation. Musical cultures were passed on to the next generation through oral transmission. The racist outlook on the aboriginal traditions and their corresponding musical legacies persisted even after the end of colonial rule.  Historians of European descent had to justify the colonial reign by implying they had rescued the natives from primitive musical traditions punctuated by animal like chants.

Unlike their British contemporaries, Spain and Portugal viewed the new lands as an extension of their home territories, they were not mere outposts. It follows that the various urban centers in the colonies competed for aesthetic and cultural superiority. The urban centre that had replicated their countries culture in the fullness of its majestic splendor emerged victorious. To this end, an integral part of Spanish and Portuguese cultures, music, was widely performed. European operas were a common place in said colonies. The Europeans set the artistic benchmark for music. The colonial music informed the class divisions in Latin America. The classical music was considered as refined targeted at the elite of society, predominantly of European descent. The folksongs were perceived as coarse and they served the rural communities, usually used in their ceremonies. Akin to any colonial experience, the dominated were forced to adopt the dominant culture along with its musical practices. To their credit, some of the slave and native population became adept in the classical music even surpassing European ensembles in proficiency. Some of the colonial European musical legacies remain intact while majority became accultured. Though the distinctions in contemporary society are blurred due to the intermarriage of musical influences, some aspects of the divisions still persist. For instance, the upper class believes that some genres like reggaeton are for the low class.

The Black slave population brought with them African cultures and their corresponding musical traditions into the new world. The most enduring African influences to Latin American music were rhythmic enrichment (Clark 67). Majority of Latin American instruments trace their origins to African ceremonial and religious contexts from bells, rattles, flutes even some dances and songs. The infusion of African culture further diversified the nascent musical traditions in the Latin colonies. Back in Africa drumming had spiritual implications. Song and movement were integral to African worship, drums facilitated free motion dance. Similarly, drums were utilized for communicative purposes. On arrival in the new lands Africans were denied their liberty but allowed to continue playing their drums. It follows that they played with utmost vigor and passion exploiting the only freedom they had. The call and response singing style prevalent in contemporary society can be raced back to African musical culture. The African culture integrated easily with European musical traditions as they had almost similar structure, harmonic textures, and scale systems relative to the indigenous songs.

The tri-cultural heritage that informs Latin American music was aided by the great urban migration of the underclass in the 20th century. All Latin American music was originally folk songs with ceremonial essence (Olsen, Dale, and Sheehy 87). When the rural folk songs metamorphosed into urban styles, they shed their religious and ritual foundations. At the same time, countries started adopting nationalistic outlooks on literary, artistic, and political matters. The entire states embraced rural folk music and its artistic accompaniments as the fundamental expression of their distinct cultures. Music became an emblem of national identity. There was emergence of street carnivals that showcased different music forms that were hitherto the reserve of rural folk. The Argentine tango, Brazilian samba, Cuban son, and Afro-Cuban rumba became endemic. They characterized the concert halls and nightlife of Latin America. The upper class in the nationalistic spirit accepted the previously coarse rural music as acceptable art forms. Eventually the middles classes followed suit transforming the folk songs that informed communities living in the fringes of society to become popular music.  For instance, the Argentine tango that was initially considered immoral became the epitome of grace and romance.

Latin American music at the height of mainstream popularity took a commercial dimension. The performers strived to modernize the folk songs to fit the international criteria by infusing foreign elements and abandoning their traditional features (Olsen, Dale, and Sheehy 98). The popularization of the folk songs was a byproduct of the increasing globalization and modernization. Among the foreign elements incorporated to the songs was the use of modern electronic instruments that characterized rock -and-roll. The above Western influences can be attributed to the dissemination of foreign media. Spiritual Rastafarian drumming gave birth to reggae as Andean rhythms led to Peruvian chicha these exemplify the transitions of rural folk songs to urban styles. Similarly, contemporary salsa music was derived primarily from the Cuban son tradition and was exported to different corners of Latin America and even the US. It critical to note that salsa was created in United States urban center, New York, by Cuban immigrants rather than in Latin American cities. It was born during the Latin craze in the 1940s.  The rise of some music traditions such as Argentine chamamé, Colombian vallenato, Brazilian forro, Louisiana zydeco, and Mexican tejano are inexplicable in political, social or economic terms. The instantaneous global prominence of folk songs instrument the accordion is equally intriguing. The musical styles transcended their native beginnings even where adjacent countries did not share cultural or historical past. For instance, Jamaican reggae beats that resulted from integration of English and African culture gained popularity in the French, Dutch, and Spanish Caribbean before percolating to the rest of the world.

Latin American music transformed to feat the changing times with its authenticity persisting, retaining its African, Native and European elements. The above supposition is widely challenged. The forces of modernization and globalization have undermined the purity of community rituals by supplanting traditional folk songs with their more popular urbanized version (Turino 178). According to critics, the Latin music contribution to the world is tantamount to desecration of sacred representations of the countries’ unadulterated national cultures. Attempts to reenact traditional folk style are impeded by the incorporation of electronic instruments like the bass, synthesizers, drum sets, and the electric guitars. Critics also highlight that the performers compromise the Latin American values for commercial interest evidenced by their mass media orientation. The error of their perspective sprouts from their departure from the essence of music. Music’s core function is social representation; the incorporation of global styles expresses the changes in the larger society. The urban tunes are derived from different social contexts than their historical forbearers. Akin to Latin American music itself, popular versions are products of socio-cultural evolution. Nonetheless, some of the accusations levied are valid.

The ‘world music’ phenomenon’s heavy pop inclination leads to homogenous uniformity of the diverse genres of Latin American music. The loss of diversity courtesy of same instrumentation translates to a loss of its individuality, the defining quality that made it special (Slonimsky 56). Henceforth, a balance between embracing modernity and preserving the past should be pursued. As attempting to obstruct the musical implications of globalization would prove counterintuitive. It is inaccurate to posit that Santeria drumming ritual performed in the periphery of Cuba is a genuine musical style concomitantly branding a vibrant, pop-oriented salsa routine at an Urban Glitz concert as inauthentic.  Equal respect and recognition should be attributed to the two styles of musical expression, as they are both real music addressing real issues to real audiences. Music should be recognized and subsequently analyzed on its respective merits. Criticism should be founded on objective analysis of musical evidence rather than subjective tendencies. Cross evaluation of different genres, classical, popular or folk styles, amounts to prejudice. The claim that reggae is better than salsa is partial. However, individual aesthetical or musical preferences are acknowledged and encouraged.

The Latin American music is a product of syncretized traditions, African being the most prominent, that resulted in a third distinct culture. The said culture was characterized by adopting of some Indigenous, European, and African elements into the respective music traditions. Contemporary Latin music, owes its rhythm predominantly to the African culture. The Europeans that composed the elite in colonial and pre-colonial times viewed the native and slave populations’ cultures as inferior. It follows that their established their classical music as the embodiment of ultimate artistry. The drum that was an integral part of African worship ceremonies has the most enduring implication on Latin American music. The Native American population elevated the flute in their musical culture. The interaction of the different rural folk songs during the great urban migration informs the present Latin American musical cultures. The forces of globalization mostly Western influences have modified contemporary Latin American music. In modern society, the ensembles of Latin American music utilize electrical instruments along the traditional ones. The influence of cultures was mutual occurring both through coercion and organically. The music in Latin America defines the individual countries’ national identity. Latin American music has become a global cultural force in its own right. Latin American music is subject to changes in socio-cultural, economic, and political changes. The incorporation of modern elements in Latin American music led to diminishing influence of the traditional values and rituals. Some musical styles achieved global recognition by unconventional means. They did not undergo the social transformation of their contemporaries. Despite the syncretization of musical cultures, individual musical preferences in contemporary society are informed by social, economic, and cultural divisions. The individual contributions of the different stakeholders inform the amalgamation and subsequent cross-pollination of the cultural elements to form a third distinct tradition. Majority of the folk songs were informed by their religious ceremonies.


Works Cited

Aparicio, Frances R., and Cándida F. Jáquez. Musical Migrations, Volume I: Transnationalism and Cultural Hybridity in Latin/o America. Vol. 1. Macmillan, 2003. Print.

Clark, W.A. “Preface: What Makes Latin American Music “latin”? Some Personal Reflections.” Musical Quarterly. 92 (2009): 167-176. Print.

Olsen, Dale, and Daniel Sheehy. The Garland Handbook of Latin American Music. Routledge, 2007. Print.

Slonimsky, Nicolas. Music of Latin America. New York.: Da Capo Press, 1972. Print.

Turino, Thomas. “Nationalism and Latin American music: selected case studies and theoretical considerations.” Latin American Music Review 24.2 (2003): 169-209. Print.

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