A World Tour of Music 4 – South America

The South Americas – historical crossroads of Mediterranean explorers, African slaves and indigenous peoples – have always been a melting pot of musical cultures. With tango and salsa, especially the works of Piazzolla, now popular as never before, that pot is boiling, says Jan Fairley.

From Andean pan-pipe music to tango, Paraguayan harp to bossa nova, the popular music of South America has been extremely prominent on the world stage this century. The Portuguese, Spanish, and practically every other European power had their hand in the conquest and settlement of the New World, so the intoxicating diversity of exciting music found there today is not surprising: it developed out of the challenging encounter between conquerors; original indigenous peoples, though largely wiped out, left their legacy; those brought as slaves from numerous African tribes and nations; later immigrants, migrants, and all those who travelled in and out of harbours and into the interior, searching for new lives, chasing futures, dreams and riches. It’s the remarkable way in which all the multiple ingredients from three major sources – European, African, indigenous – combine that makes for such original music: every European instrument which made its way to the Americas has evolved to meet local aesthetics: many different shaped and sized guitars, coupled with diverse percussion and drums, and vocal styles, have spawned multiple traditions.

Ships moved from port to port, trnasporting not only goods, but musical traditions with the people they carried. Hence the reason why tango, which emerged in the River Plate (Argentina/Uruguay), has ingredients involving the Cuban habanera, with its European country dance features, the milonga song of the gaucho cowboy, bringing cattle to port, and African, Andalucian and Italian elements. Tango, with its stories of thwarted love and classic betrayal, traces a larger metaphor of the betrayed dreams and hopes of immigrants, as well as the fused themes of dreams of nation and women common to other genres.

For several centuries Cuba was the Piccadilly Circus for trade, with Havana the biggest port in the Americas, a cosmopolitan city, and the island itself long known as an innovative musical powerhouse. As in Brazil, African slaves created new cultures of resistance, which survive to this day unhindered by the Revolution, playing anything percussive in sight, developing secret drumming languages within sacred cults. They are a prime ingredient of inspired musics of the twentieth century, including Latin jazz and salsa.

Classic CD magazine, 1998

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