The African Roots of Latin Music
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Music of Latin America

Module 1: African Roots
In Europe, music (Western Music) lived in relative isolation for many centuries with the exception of its superficial contact with the Ottoman Empire’s, which loomed threateningly over the old continent during Mozart’s time.

Europe’s colonial adventures of the second half of the 19th century would bring it in contact with musical traditions from around the world; an event that would change European music henceforth.
At the time that the British, Spanish, French and Dutch colonists went to America these influences were still unknown. Western music was the only music they knew about.

Once in America, though, these colonists would come in contact with the music of a very different world: the powerful drumming, singing and circular rhythms of Africa. Or, more properly, what was left of it, considering that most people of African descent were brought against their wishes, as slaves, and were forcefully separated from their own original African communities and customs.

This confluence of European and African musical traditions, which also includes some native music from the pre-Columbian era, marks the beginning of what we think of today as an Afro-American musical foundation that has developed into a multitude of forms and styles, and which manifests itself in such geographically distant places as New York, Havana and Buenos Aires.

Assignment 1
Find out where the African people came from within Africa and learn about
their traditional musical instruments. Also learn something about Western
musical instruments.
Assignment 2
Learn about the drums associated with jazz, their origin, and why they were mostly from a western/military background.
Assignment 3
In contrast to Assignment 2, learn about percussion instruments used by
Afro-American people as they developed through Latin America.

Module 2: Musical Syncretism
From the origins of European civilization, dancing was a very important and habitual activity, a favorite form of entertainment, and a way of re-enforcing the existing social bonds amongst people. When European people moved to America this tradition was maintained. This is true especially up to the first half of the 20th century, when the pressures of modern life and alternative forms of entertainment displaced dance as the principal means of having fun.

In the past, dancing was considered a necessary social skill, and the higher up that person was in the social ladder the more time he/she would spend at the dance floor. Also, dance as a social activity (unlike today), was not segregated by age: on the contrary, at a dance or ball the grandmother, the mother, and the daughter were expected to participate. Since most dances were private affairs to which you were invited as a guest, in the less formal situations even children were welcomed. In this regard Europeans shared with the African people a passion for dance as a means of communal bonding, and not just for entertainment only.

Because most people dance to the rhythm in music, it is the rhythm in the music that suggests the kind of physical movements and expressions that the dancers may adopt. Liberal physical expressions in public situations were frowned upon in western (as well as other) cultures. So, in addition to the constraints imposed by the clothing fashions prevalent in European countries (especially for women) -all the way up to the early 20th century- there was also a great deal of sobriety in people’s physical behavior in public.

This very important fact alone determined some of the rhythmic characteristics dance music would adopt in European culture. <More>

Assignment 1
Learn about the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic differences between African
and Western European music.
Assignment 2
Learn about the characteristics of dance in Europe, especially the
contradance, and how it reflects European culture through its body language.
Assignment 3
Learn how African music affected the traditional European concepts of dance and body language by infiltrating European dance forms prevalent in America.

Module 3: Jazz and Latin music
While the roots of dance music in Latin America and the US go back many centuries and distinctive forms distinguished the music from Buenos Aires, Havana and New Orleans, there still remained a strong musical connection between these distant places due to a common source of influence: music brought into the Americas by African slaves.

In Buenos Aires the foxtrot was performed along with tango up to the first half of the 20th century, in La Havana the danzón, the son and the rumba co-existed with jazz at the dance halls, especially after the American occupation of Cuba following the Spanish American war. In New Orleans ragtime bands also included the habanera and other Cuban song forms.

In the US, musicians, especially in the south, performed a music in open spaces with military bands that would ultimately be known as ragtime. Ragtime is the predecessor of jazz. At night during the weekends, these same musicians would also perform at private parties, providing the music for people to dance.

Many of the musicians involved in these performances were Creole of color: they were of mixed European and African descent. Their African cultural heritage gave the music they performed a particular rhythmic quality, which would evolve in time into what we know today as jazz. One of the most remarkable features of this dance music was that musicians were often asked to extend the duration of the compositions to accommodate the needs of the dancers. Through this need to make the original compositions longer, they developed the skill to improvise (make up on the spot) new musical material into an existing dance, giving the compositions any length that was necessary.
This particular trait in American dance music distinguishes it from any other in the Americas and would evolve into one of the most salient features in jazz: a music that is mostly improvised rather than learned by ear or read off a music chart. <More>

Assignment 1
Learn about specific rhythmic differences between African-influenced North-American music and its Latin counterpart.
Assignment 2
Learn about some of the differences between a bass line in jazz and in Latin music.
Assignment 3
Learn about the fusion between Latin musical concepts and jazz music.

Module 4: Classical Fusion
Classical music in Europe was representative of the tastes of the sophisticated urban aristocracy and the growing educated middle class. Unlike the examples visited in the earlier modules, this music was not meant to be danced to, instead it was meant to be purely a listening experience, one that demanded familiarity not just with the stylistic traits in vogue, but with some historical tradition as well.

Today, European classical music still remains mostly an experience for the educated listener. The famous phrase “music is a universal language” is not only false when applied across cultural boundaries separating countries and civilizations, but it is also not true when applied across class boundaries within the same country and/or civilization. Typically, jazz musicians don’t truly understand classical music and classical musicians don’t truly understand jazz.

In fact, classical music is most authentically a European tradition. This tradition includes the many differences in styles between European countries and even between its cities. Similarly, many examples of classical music by composers from parts of the world other than Europe also have a distinct quality, one that points to its non-European origin. American classical music is no exception.

The music of the best American classical composers is now routinely performed in concert theaters across the globe, including Europe. Yet, it would be a stretch to think of this music as being indistinct from the music of European composers. <More>

Assignment 1
Learn about the geography of Europe and distances between main cultural points in that continent. Do the same with the American continent.
Speculate about the universal value of the classical music produced by European composers compared to their American counterpart.
Assignment 2
Listen to examples of European classical music and how American composers fused local folklore with European tradition.
Discuss how genuine and successful this fusion is.
Assignment 3
Learn about the geographical, cultural and historical contexts surrounding European composer J. S. Bach and compare it in the same terms with American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Listen to some examples of this last composer’s music.


This site was developed by Ana María Hernández, 718.482.5697, hernandezan@lagcc.cuny.edu
Humanities Department, LaGuardia Community College (CUNY)
31-10 Thomson Avenue, L.I.C., New York, NY 11101
This site was created with support from the LaGuardia Center for Teaching and Learning and is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities

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