Although Latin music covers a lot of different styles, it’s usually defined as music with a Portuguese or Spanish twist, with a catchy beat, sung in these languages. Latin music can originate from just about anywhere, although it’s most prevalent in Spain, the Caribbean, and the Americas.
The lyrics and tone of Latin music tends to be relatively robust and passionate, hitting on emotional topics and getting the crowd involved.
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Definition What Is Latin Music?
Latin music is classified as world music, and much of it draws its roots from ancient civilizations. In fact, there’s a lot of Incan and pre-Colombian civilization influence in modern-day Latin music. It also draws inspiration from the Caribbean and parts of South America, specifically in new variations of Latin music like reggaeton, which has made its mark in the club scene in South, Central, and North America.
There’s also a lot of African inspiration in Latin music, plus some aspects of Southern European musical trends. It’s fair to say that Latin music is a vast melting pot of different genres and styles, all tied together with a catchy beat and lyrics that everyone can relate to.
Latin Music Characteristics
Although Latin music manifests itself in several different ways depending on where you are in the world and what style you’re listening to, it has a few common characteristics. These characteristics define the genre and make you understand that what you’re listening to is a decidedly Latin song.
This type of music tends to be very heavy on percussion instruments. Different drums, maracas, and tambourines give Latin music its signature flair and style and set the beat for the song. The use of heavy percussion in Latin music is precisely what makes it so intoxicating and easy to dance to.
Plus, Latin musicians can amplify existing and new songs by adding in more percussion elements. In addition to the percussion instruments, you’re likely to hear a lot of brass instruments in Latin music. Depending on the style, you could listen to some very robust horns, trumpets, or even lower-pitched brass instruments like tubas.
Certain types of Latin music weave in electronica or other dance elements. There’s bound to be a rocking beat that you can tap your feet to or clap along with, no matter which one you listen to.
Primarily Spanish and Portuguese Language
The languages of choice for Latin music are generally Portuguese or Spanish. Although you might hear some English words sprinkled in the mix, they won’t be prominent. Sometimes other languages or dialects come through, specifically Creole or various mixtures of Spanish and English.
A great example of this type of fusion is Despacito, popularized by Justin Bieber and Daddy Yankee. Although some of the lyrics in Despacito are in English, the song is primarily sung or rapped in Spanish. Despacito was wildly popular on both Latin and pop music charts, bringing this style of music to the mainstream.
Latin music is nothing if not rhythmic. In addition to the percussion instruments, Latin music adopts rhythmic patterns from a lot of different types of sources. You’ll find Caribbean beats and African beats throughout all of your favorite Latin songs. These rhythm patterns act as the backbone of the music and set up predictable beat patterns that you can dance to.
Rhythm is one of the reasons why Latin music is so easy to dance to and catchy. Although all songs are different, many Latin songs employ a two or three-beat rhythm, which is very easy to pick up on and dance to. When you combine that with relatable lyrics and other instrumentation, you have an exceptional style that’s entirely unique all on its own.
9 Examples of Latin Music
Although there are plenty of excellent examples of Latin music out there, a few songs genuinely define the style. These are timeless songs that are nearly universally loved. If you like Latin music, there’s a good chance that you have one or more of these in your rotation.
If you’re just getting started in your Latin music appreciation, put these songs on your next playlist as soon as possible. They’re an excellent backbone for the genre and energize you no matter what you’re doing.
Tu Pum Pum by El General
Tu Pum Pum by El General is one of the top Latin music songs in the world, and it’s infiltrated just about every club in the United States. You just have to listen to it once to understand its appeal. Not only does Tu Pum Pum have a fantastic beat, but the lyrics are also endlessly relatable. It’s essentially a sensual love letter with a catchy chorus.
Tu Pum Pum starts by assuring the object of El General’s affection that his adoration is true before requesting that she return it. The chorus of “tu pum pum mami mami” repeats several times throughout the song, tying all of the different stanzas together and making it an epic Latin tune for the ages.
Gasolina by Daddy Yankee
If you’ve ever been to a club in South, Central, or big cities in North America, there’s a great chance that you’ve heard this Latin music classic by Daddy Yankee. Although Daddy Yankee is a perennial Latin music favorite, he recently came into the pop music scene through his collaboration with Justin Bieber on Despacito. So if you love that song and crave more Daddy Yankee, give Gasolina a try.
There’s no other way to say it; the chorus of Gasolina is downright infectious. Daddy Yankee starts off by praising the object of his affection. The first few stanzas talk about how much she loves to have fun and always brings the party before jumping into the chorus of “da me mas gasolina.” If you’re in the club when this song drops, you’ll know right away because the crowd will go crazy.
Hips Don’t Lie by Shakira
Colombian sensation Shakira is no stranger to the pop charts, and her cross-over hit Hips Don’t Lie is an exceptional example of artistry and skill. As with many Latin music classics, Hips Don’t Lie is a love letter to having fun on the dance floor. In this song, Shakira celebrates her own hips and dance moves, leaning fully into her sexuality in a fun and relatable way.
Hips Don’t Lie was Shakira’s first Number One debut in the United States. She went on to have several more huge hits, pairing with popular artists like Wyclef Jean. Although all of Shakira’s catalog is amazing, Hips Don’t Lie is one of the finest examples of Latin music effortlessly and effectively fused with pop.
Let’s Get Loud by Jennifer Lopez
JLo is another cross-over artist with strong Latin roots that knows how to bring the great club music. Let’s Get Loud is the ultimate club anthem. Although it debuted in 1999, you can still hear it played in clubs all over the world today. This song has a very simple message; it’s a call to start the party on the dance floor.
Although most people associate Jennifer Lopez with this epic son, Gloria Estefan, another Latin music great, actually co-wrote it. Lopez took the song and made it her own, adding powerhouses vocals and a rocking beat. Since then, Let’s Get Loud has been covered by multiple Latin and pop artists, but it will always be associated with Jennifer Lopez.
Ese Hombre by La India
Although a lot of Latin music revolves around men singing about the objects of their affection, there are some real girl power anthems in the mix too. Ese Hombre by La India is a shining example. La India’s work is heavily influenced by Latin and salsa music, and Ese Hombre is a good fusion of the two, sung in Spanish about a cocky, belligerent guy that La India has no time for.
It’s basically Latin music’s answer to No Scrubs, TLC’s ultimate diss to boys who aren’t worth your time. La India’s rendition breaks down “ese hombre” or “that guy” as someone who simply isn’t worth your love or affection. Although it’s not as popular as some of the other songs on our list, it still put La India on the map and earned her the title of the “Princess of Salsa.”
Conga by Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine
Before there was Jennifer Lopez, there was Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine. Gloria Estefan really made the Latin sound mainstream in English-speaking circles, and Conga is one of the best-known and most beloved James of the 1980s. Although you might not hear Conga played regularly at the clubs, rest assured, if this song comes on, the house will be on fire.
The premise of the song is simple, which makes it so infectious and catchy. Essentially, Conga is Estefan’s call for the club to appreciate Cuban music and “do the Conga.” It introduced Americans to Latin music, climbing the Billboard charts when it first launched. The combination of classic Cuban beats with English lyrics made it understandable and relatable at the time.
It’s possible that Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine opened up the doors for more Latin music artists like Daddy Yankee and Shakira to make their marks decades later. Conga was something totally new, and it transformed the music at the club scene at the time.
Oye Como Va by Santana
Although Tito Puente wrote Oye Como Va, Santana’s version is easily the most recognizable one. As with many Latin music favorites, the lyrics of Oye Como Va are both relatable and easy to sing. The chorus is “oye come va, mi ritmo,” which translates directly to “listen how it goes, my rhythm.” This chorus is repeated several times throughout the song, and even if you don’t know Spanish, you can sing along to it.
Although Tito Puente’s version is exceptional, Santana’s harder-rock anthem is downright legendary. The Latin Grammy Hall of Fame recognized it as a bedrock work of Latin music in 2001, and many music aficionados regularly praise it for being a cross-genre powerhouse.
Even though Santana released their version years ago, you can still hear it on the radio, in clubs, and sampled constantly. Even people who aren’t familiar with Latin music know and appreciate Oye Como Va. If you’re just getting into the style, put this song on your playlist and use it as a springboard to explore some of Santana’s and Tito Puente’s other work.
La Bamba by Ritchie Valens
Ritchie Valens’ La Bamba is probably the most well-known, covered, and appreciated example of early Latin music. While it lacks the thumping reggaeton beats of today’s modern Latin music, it’s still got plenty of classic guitar and a chorus that you can sing to easily. Although Ritchie Valens is famous for La Bamba, he didn’t actually write it. It comes from Mexico’s Veracruz region and is primarily considered a traditional song. Valens just brought it to the mainstream.
La Bamba is important because it first brought Latin and Mexican music into the rock canon. In 1958, popular American folk and rock music didn’t have too much diversity, but Ritchie Valens changed all that by putting his own spin on a Mexican folk song that nobody had ever heard of before. So today, no matter where you go in the world, everyone knows the first few bars of La Bamba and probably can sing most of it.
Top Latin Musicians
There are plenty of incredible Latin musicians out there, but there are a few of them that shaped the genre and brought it to the mainstream. Without these early figures, you wouldn’t hear incredible Latin beats in the club or get to experience the fusion between rap, reggae, and Latin styles.
What’s incredible is that a lot of this music still holds up today. So many of these famous artists have vast catalogs of work, and their songs are covered, twisted, and adapted by modern performers today.
If you want to get a good appreciation for Latin music and really understand the roots of today’s version, check out some of these top musicians. These are the artists that have helped to take Latin music to the next level or simply bring it to the mainstream.
Before there was Santana, there was Tito Puente. Tito Puente wrote Santana’s classic hit Oye Como Va, and his version is just as catchy as the original. Tito Puente was a man of many talents, composing multiple scores and leading huge bands in New York City. We can credit him for bringing Latin jazz to the forefront of American culture and also for setting the stage for multiple people that followed him.
Tito Puente specialized in mambo music, and often people called him the “King of Mambo.” In addition, he was a very talented musician, perfecting instruments like piano, drums, and saxophone. Although Tito Puente attended Julliard, he also picked up a lot of his inspiration from Latin culture, experimentation, and fusing different styles together.
Carlos Gardel was one of the earliest influences on Latin music, bringing tango to the masses in the early 1900s. Like Tito Puente, Gardel specialized infuses world and Latin music with more contemporary American styles. Although he was natively French, Gardel had Argentinian ancestry and drew heavily from this influence for his world.
He had a beautiful baritone voice and rapidly made his mark as a highly popular and well-regarded tango singer. Gardel’s music had flowery, passionate lyrics and catchy music that easily appealed to American audiences. So while Tito Puente was called the “King of Mambo,” Carlos Gardel became the “King of Tango.”
Although tango is highly popular today, and most people consider it to be one of the top styles of Latin music, it wasn’t always that way. We can credit Carlos Gardel for bringing it to the forefront and for giving us lovely tango music long before many people explored the Latin music genre.
Selena was a more modern influence on Latin music, a Mexican-American powerhouse who tragically died in her early 20s. As with Carlos Gardel and Tito Puente, Selena had her own nickname; the “Queen of Tejano Music.” In addition to her flair on the stage, Selena had a unique and highly-copied sense of fashion and a charismatic, infectious personality.
During her prime, Selena was often compared to 1980s superstar Madonna, and there’s no doubt that she would have gone to do even greater things if her life hadn’t been cut short so soon. Even so, Selena accomplished quite a bit during her comparably few years on the planet.
Her 1992 album Entre a Mi Mundo hit the Billboard charts, and many of her singles, like Como la Flor, became household hits. In 1995, at the peak of her career, Yolanda Saldivar, an ex-friend, shot Selena. She’s still cherished and remembered in her home state of Texas, though. April 16th is officially Selena day, and her small but impactful catalog of work lives on.
Carmen Miranda is a Latin music icon and performer. She’s credited with bringing Brazilian and Portuguese flair to the mainstream. As with many of the top performers on our list, Carmen Miranda had her own nickname, the “Brazilian Bombshell.” One thing that made Carmen Miranda so iconic was her fashion style. She often donned unique and extravagant hats, including a hat bursting with tropical fruits.
Even if you’re not familiar with Carmen Miranda’s music, there’s a good chance that you would recognize her pictures. She appeared in many classic American movies like Down Argentine Way. She also popularized Brazilian music far before anyone stateside had ever heard of Rio’s Carnivale.
Carmen Miranda even made it to the White House, performing for Franklin Roosevelt with her band Bando da Lua.
Celia Cruz was one of the top salsa stars in the United States, honing and perfecting the genre throughout her long career. The so-named “Queen of Salsa Music” made Latin music relatable and palatable for American audiences as early as the 1950s. When you consider the fact that legendary Latin music songs like La Bamba didn’t come out until afterwards, you can understand what a force Celia Cruz was.
Celia Cruz often sang with big bands and orchestra groups, leading influential companies like La Sonora Matancera in the 1950s.
These heavyweight Latin music stars helped shape a genre and made all sorts of different types of Latin music acceptable and palatable for American audiences. Without them, we wouldn’t have or enjoy the different, newer stylings of Latin music that we have today.
The History of Latin Music
Latin music is incredibly varied and has many different points of origin. Still, most music experts agree that it came from original indigenous populations in the Caribbean and South America, as well as Portuguese and Spanish influences. The fusion of all of these different things, plus African beats and a touch of French style, make Latin music what it is today.
It’s a complete blend of styles and influences that have shaped it into something entirely its own and something that can be traced back to a very specific moment in time.
One of the most beautiful things about Latin music is that it’s constantly evolving. Although we can still appreciate older styles, like tangos and salsa, we can also find tremendous beauty in newer forms. For example, Reggaeton is an inspired fusion of Latin and Caribbean styles that incorporates reggae beats together with Latin club music. It’s a brand new, fresh genre borne out of two previous ones.
How It Got Started
Latin music’s roots go back to the ancient cultures in South and Central America. The Incans, Mayans, and Aztecs had their own culture and musical style. Although the music differed from region to region, many ancient musicians used a lot of flute and percussion in their tunes. Today, you can see their influence in Latin music, specifically with beat patterns and the inspired usage of drums and other percussion instruments.
Although flute isn’t commonly used in much Latin music these days, there is some cross-over with brass instruments prevalent in some styles of Latin songs. Also, very old Latin music, such as ancient Quechua or Andean music, has plenty of flute in it still.
When the Spanish and Portuguese invaded South and Central America, they brought their own style of music. This mingled with the existing music and added other elements to it. For example, a lot of Spanish and Portuguese music has strong Arabian roots, which added another level of richness to Latin music and set the stage for new versions of it.
Spanish and Portuguese people also brought new instruments, like guitars, into the mix. As a result, guitar music became absolutely integral for salsa and tango.
How Popular Is Latin Music?
According to Billboard, Latin music is widespread, and its popularity shows no signs of waning. This might be because there are many fusion songs, like Despicito, that use English to appeal to American audiences. It could also be thanks to the popularity of sub-genres like reggaeton.
As Latin music evolves and changes, we can expect more cross-overs and new versions of classic styles.
What Does The Latin Music Scene Look Like Today?
The Latin music scene is highly robust and powerful today. 2017’s Despicito became a mega-hit and chart-topper along with Mi Gente. With two non-English songs at the top of the Billboard charts, it became evident that Latin music had a very bright future in the pop world.
Reggaeton also has a massive impact on modern Latin music. Daddy Yankee is the unofficial king of reggaeton, but there are also lesser-known artists like Nicky Jam and Melymel. It’s virtually impossible to go into any club these days without hearing reggaeton.
Older or legacy Latin artists are also getting quite a bit of play. As people are starting to appreciate newer forms of Latin music and fusion music, they’re looking to the past. Tito Fuente, Selena, and Gloria Estefan are getting slightly more popular as people seek out the roots of their favorite new music.
One thing is for sure; if these trends continue, we can only expect Latin music to gain popularity as the years go on.
What Is Latin Music? Final Thoughts
Latin music is a fusion of different types and styles of music. It’s part Incan, Mayan, and Aztec, part African, and part Spanish. Latin music is heavily rhythmic, with catchy choruses and verses that you can sing along to, even if you don’t speak Spanish. It’s also evolving rapidly and encompassing plenty of other styles like reggaeton.
So jump on in and continue to familiarize yourself with what Latin music has to offer. Its influence could only grow from here and continue to make a mark on popular music.