Central & South America Culture

A musical tour of Latin America

Huw Hennessy shares some of his favourite tracks from across the Americas.

Music is the life-blood of Latin America and you’ll hear it everywhere you go: on the beaches and buses and in the bars. Latin America has given us some of the liveliest and most passionate music and dance over centuries, from samba to the perennially popular salsa.

This is a medley of some of my favourite tunes, painfully squeezed into just 15, but I could easily have listed 150. It’s an unashamedly personal selection, not supposed to be a ‘Best of …’ anything. So, if you’re outraged that something more important is missing or something here isn’t up to scratch, I can only apologise. Otherwise, listen, enjoy and iCanta y Baila!

Inti-Illimani – La Partida

The twinkling strings of the charango, the rattling goats’ hooves and the haunting pan-pipes … sounds that instantly conjure up the Andes, to me at least, in all their untamed, windswept majesty. Traditional Andean music has gone out of fashion for some years, eclipsed by salsa among other more upbeat musical styles. But in the 1970s and ’80s, the Chilean band Inti-Illimani, in exile from Augusto Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship, brought this music to the wider world.

And if you’re a fan of these haunting sounds too, check out Los Calchakis, Rumillajta and Los Kjarkas – the latter wrote the original tune Llorando se Fue, which was re-worked in Brazil as Chorando se Foi, the global hit of the Lambada dance craze.

Eliades Ochoa y el Cuarteto Patria – Al Vaiven de mi Carreta

Ochoa, lead guitarist of Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club, gives a beautiful rendition of this Afro-Cuban guajira melody.

With the title’s ‘swaying of my horse-cart’ and the theme of hard labour in the sugarcane plantation, Ochoa creates the perfect bittersweet blend of sweat and tears, perhaps masked by the romantic lilt of his guitar.

Totό la Momposina – La Candela Viva

Listen to Totό’s rousing voice and the thunderous drums of her back-up band, and try not to get up and dance! This song was the title track of the Colombian band’s best-selling 1991 album, released by Peter Gabriel’s Real World label.

The whole album is superb, with more heart-pounding Afro-Caribbean rhythms like this one, and also with subtler sounds, such as the lilting Sombra Negra.

Susana Baca – Maria Lando

This is one of the loveliest, saddest and most mesmerising songs I’ve ever heard from Latin America, or from anywhere else for that matter. A lament of the endlessly hard life of toil of the eponymous Maria Lando. Just beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

Susana Baca, from Peru, has a voice as soft and smoky smooth as silk, but also powerful and passionate. Her roots are in Afro-Peruvian music, traditional to the country’s Pacific coast where she was born, but she also has an impressive range of vocal styles, including jazz and blues. This song is on the The Soul of Black Peru album produced by Talking Head’s David Byrne. But if you like Baca in particular, have a listen to her 2001 album, Lamento Negro, which is a virtual showcase of her wonderful talent.

Bomba Estereo – Fuego

With its pounding beat and high-energy, this great dance track is by Bomba Estereo, from Colombia, whose original sounds have been described as everything from cumbia psiquedélica to electro-tropical. Whatever they call it, I love it, and offer a grateful nod to my daughter for suggesting something a little more up to date for this playlist.

Bomba Estereo are originally from Bogotá, but they’re also very popular in Medellín, whose vibrant nightlife scene is focused around the Zona Rosa area of El Poblado.

Rubén Blades – Pedro Navaja

Aka Mack the Knife, a great jazz classic given an equally great salsa makeover by the world-famous Panamanian singer, songwriter, actor and political activist. Together with Brazil’s samba, salsa is probably the most popular Latin American dance music in the world today, and has been enjoying a revival in recent years.

There are great salsa clubs all over Latin America, particularly in Colombia, Cuba and Venezuela, but one of my favourites was Hatuchay, in Lima, Peru: a no-frills cavernous place packed with clinching couples, performing effortlessly brilliant dance moves. Hatuchay has long since folded, but today Lima’s affluent suburb of Barranco is a nightlife hotspot for salsa and other live music too.

Los Koyas – La Negra Celina

I first heard this versatile Bolivian band in Mexico back in the late 1970s. Their spirited version of this traditional cumbia, and others on their Variations album (1976, Barclays label), offers a virtual musical tour of the sub-continent, plus even a delicate flute version of Ave Maria.

The album seems to have disappeared without trace, sadly. But it was probably this that first hooked me onto Latin American music, as I have been ever since. I’m afraid I couldn’t find Los Koyas’ version anywhere though, even on YouTube, but this one is by Cristobal Perez, and is quite similar. If you can get hold of the Variations album, I think you’ll be glad you did, it’s a gem.

Buena Vista Social Club – Chan Chan

I don’t know why but I’m almost apologetic for listing this massive global hit. But why not, it is simply a wonderful, lilting Caribbean melody. If you already know this song, but not the rest of the album – or the Wim Wenders 1999 film for that matter – they are both superb. And if they’re all new to you, you’re in for a treat.

The veteran Cuban musicians included Compay Segundo (composer of Chan Chan), Omara Portuondo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez and Eliades Ochoa among others, became stars in their own right and inspired future generations to keep the traditional danzόn music alive.

Los Lobos – Anselma

Is it right to have a US-Mexican band best known for their La Bamba movie theme tune in my playlist? Absolutamente! Their crossover mix of Mariachi, rock’n’roll, jazz and many other genres with Norteña Mexican music has attracted a whole new audience, including me.

This Grammy award-winning track is from one of their earlier albums, And a Time to Dance (1983), but Los Lobos went on to develop deeper and more reflective themes, such as in the album By the Light of the Moon (1987). They’re still playing and more recently are returning to their traditional roots.

Caetano Veloso & Maria Gadú – Leãozinho

A sweet duet of two lovely voices, with Veloso on acoustic guitar. Brazilian superstar Caetano Veloso was one of the founding members of MPB – Musica Popular Brasileira, the musical movement that rose out of bossa nova in the 1960s as a creative response to the oppressive military regime that ruled Brazil until 1985.

Caetano went on to have a huge influence over the country’s music, culture and politics, not just as a singer-songwriter, but also a poet, artist and film director; he is still going strong and his voice still sweet. And if it’s wrong for me to focus just on Veloso, this fertile movement also produced a mass of other stars, including Jorge Ben, Chico Buarque, João Gilberto, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento, Vinícius de Morães (of Girl from Ipanema fame), Gal Costa, Elis Regina and many more.

Maria Bethania – Gostoso Demais 

Another major Brazilian star from the MPB movement is Maria Bethania, from Bahia in northeastern Brazil, home to many Brazilian musicians and artists for centuries. She’s the sister of Caetano Veloso, but forged her own highly successful career with romantic ballads such as this one, from her 2016 Abraçar e Agradecer (Embrace and be Thankful) album.

Here she sings pensively of saudade, the Portuguese word for ‘missing or longing’ but which often embraces deeper emotions, including the melancholy sense of belonging and nostalgia for one’s cultural roots. I’ve never known people with such joie de vivre as the Brazilians but they can also express great saudade – especially in their music!

Alcione – Sufoco

Here’s an alternative to Bethania’s saudades for you, with Alcione’s gloriously bitter-sweet love song. Though she sings about the suffocating madness and jealousies of love, if I hadn’t listened more carefully, I probably wouldn’t have picked that up that from the sensuous passion in  her samba rhythm.

Alcione, from Maranhão in northern Brazil, is one of the country’s most successful and loved samba stars. In fact one of her hit songs was Não Deixe o Samba Morrer – Don’t Let Samba Die, but Sufoco is on her 1978 Alerta Geral album.

Daniel Melingo – Narigόn

Tango is another of Latin America’s great musical contributions to the world, so I couldn’t possibly leave this off my list. We’re all familiar with the melodramatic dance moves of clinching couples, either in a Buenos Aires basement bar or on Strictly Come Dancing. Well, listen to this weird but wonderful tragi-comic song about Narigόn (Big Nose), and think again.

Gravel-throated Melingo, whose album Santa Milonga this track comes from, is one of Argentina’s newer wave of tango singers, credited with introducing the genre to a younger, hipper audience. There was no-one like him around when I was last in Buenos Aires in the late 1980s, but I was still spellbound by tango’s strutting and preening passion, in historic clubs such as El Viejo Almacén and La Cumparsita. Today, you can hear tango in clubs worldwide, from Helsinki to Hokkaido.

Celia Cruz – Bemba Colora

I saw this Cuban salsa superstar at the Hammersmith Palais when I was living in London in the late 1980s. She was at the top of their game then and she blew my suburban English mind with her amazing voice and raunchy diva charisma. Dubbed the Queen of Salsa, Cruz was equally talented in the whole range of Afro-Cuban musical genres: from guaracha to son, bolero and the rest.

Leaving Cuba in 1959 after the revolution, she settled in New York where she collaborated with other exiled Cuban artists, including Tito Puente and the unsurpassed Fania All-Stars. I’m loathe to single out just one track from her vast catalogue, but Bemba Colora (1960) is widely considered her ‘signature’ song. Another one to get you sashaying across the dance floor, or your kitchen if you’re still in lockdown!

Mercedes Sosa – Como la Cigarra

This sweet little lullaby about a cricket singing to the sun after a year in hibernation is Mercedes Sosa at her most tender and poetic best. An Argentinian folk figurehead during the so-called dirty wars of the 1970s, Sosa rose to fame in exile.

With her formidable vocal range, she gave rousing renditions of Nueva Canciόn protest songs written by contemporaries such as Leon Gieco, Violeta Parra, Pablo Milanes, Silvio Rodriguez and Victor Jara, leading members of the protest movement against the region’s brutal military dictatorships. Some of their music might sound a bit dated to modern ears, but in its time it was a beacon of light for Latin America’s oppressed masses, perhaps as symbolised by the metaphor in this song.

If you’d like to listen to all of these in one hit, check out the full playlist!