While Oct. 15 may have marked the official end of National Hispanic Heritage Month in the United States, it is still a great occasion to take a look at the music of Hispanic cultures. It can sometimes be easy to get sidetracked into thinking that music in the Spanish language is limited to pop crossovers from artists like Enrique Iglesias and Shakira or the reggaeton radio hits of the early 2000s.
Of course, the music that comes from Spanish-speaking countries is incredibly diverse and as rich as the cultures that influence it. Even if you may not be able to understand the lyrics, listening to music from another language is a rewarding experience. It allows you to focus on the marriage between the melodies and the cadences of the vocals, while also guessing at what exactly the words mean.
For those who are already familiar with this kind of music and the Spanish language, celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month by trying to discover a new artist or unfamiliar genre. Music can often reveal the history and values of a particular culture. Like the flavors and spices of a national dish, the beats and rhythms of a song help explain a group of people and their lifestyle. As the late, great composer Marvin Hamlisch once said, “Music is truly an international language.”
1) “Todo Cambia” by Mercedes Sosa
Mercedes Sosa was a powerhouse singer from Argentina, strong both politically and musically. While she produced 40 albums over her career, she specialized in songs that utilized traditional Latin America instruments and spoke of social activism. Here, listen for the whispery pan flute that complements her mighty voice.
2) “La Avispa” by Zacarías Ferreíra
Bachata is a style of music that originated in the Dominican Republic. Early works of the genre are analogous to the classic country and blues of America—songs of sorrow (“amargue”) made by people of the countryside. Over the years it became more acceptable in larger Dominican society and evolved into the dance style that it is known as today. Ferreíra leans more to the traditional style of bachata with his song of heartbreak titled, “The Wasp.”
3) “La Reina del Sur” by Los Tigres del Norte
A popular Mexican group, Los Tigres sing in the accordion featuring norteño method that developed in the northern part of the country. This track is an example of a “corrido,” a traditional ballad that tells a story while usually giving a lesson or moral. The drug trade in Mexico has been a frequent topic of Mexican music, especially in recent years amid escalating violence. The tradition continues here with the story of an interesting female “traficante.”
4) “La Maza” by Silvio Rodriguez
A native son of Cuba, Silvio Rodriguez could easily be labeled a poet just as much as he is a singer. His music is often challenging to interpret and heavy with political commentary. While you may not agree with or even understand his references to Latin American politics and leftist ideology, it is easy to enjoy his smooth voice and guitar picking.
5) “Fotografía” (Feat. Nelly Furtado) by Juanes
Juanes is a highly successful and internationally known recording artist who hails from Colombia. With several Grammys under his belt, Juanes can best be described as a contemporary Latin soft-rock/pop artist. “Fotografía” is a catchy 2002 duet with Nelly Furtado that is about the physical and figurative distance between two lovers.
6) “Guantanamera” by Celia Cruz
A titan of music history, Celia Cruz demonstrated the interesting historical dynamic between Latin American musicians and the United States. While originally from Cuba, she moved to America after the rise of Fidel Castro. Eventually dubbed the “Queen of Salsa,” she offers her take on a classic Cuban song that has been covered by countless artists. Cruz is in fact buried in The Bronx at Woodlawn Cemetery and has a local high school for music named after her.
7) “Suavemente” by Elvis Crespo
This mega-hit song from Puerto Rican-American Elvis Crespo might sound familiar. While released in 1998, the track has earned staying power and remained popular with its upbeat and danceable merengue rhythms. Merengue music developed in the Dominican Republic and over time spread throughout Latin American and the world, picking up different instruments and styles.
8) “Triste Canción de Amor” by El Tri
While Celia Cruz shows the influence of Hispanic culture on music in the United States, one could argue that El Tri shows the inverse relationship. An offshoot of a Mexican band that at first only sang in English, El Tri is very reminiscent in sound and style of classic American rock. Lead singer Alex Lora has a gritty voice that on this track reminds me of a scraggly Rod Stewart.