All In The Familia
Since the debut episode of VH1’s Love & Hip-Hop: Miami, when Amara la Negra refused to heed the advice of a narrow-minded producer who recommended that she stop rocking her trademark Afro, the Dominican singer has become a hero to Afro-Latinos, sparking a much-overdue discourse about racism and colorism and about the recording industry and the media’s complicity in whitewashing the Latin music scene.
Even though a March 2016 Pew Research Center poll revealed that a quarter of U.S.-based Latinos identify as Afro-Latino or Afro-Caribbean, this population is vastly under-represented in the music industry—and in the media at large. The same is true throughout Latin America, where lighter-skinned artists have generally been more likely to achieve massive commercial success.
The tide, however, is starting to change as more Afro-Latino artists are getting the recognition they deserve and, in the process, educating the world about the rich African roots of their respective homelands.
Case in point: ChocQuibTown. Hailing from Chocó, a region along Colombia’s Pacific Coast predominantly populated by Afro-descendants, the members of the Latin Grammy-winning urban music ensemble draw inspiration from the traditional Afro-Colombian rhythms they heard throughout their infancy, fusing these with hip-hop, salsa, reggae, funk, and pop elements. On a number of ChocQuibTown tracks, among them “Oro” and “Somos Pacífico,” you can hear the marimba de chota, a wooden percussion instrument resembling a xylophone; the cununo drum; and the guache, a cylindrical shaker typically made of wood or metal and filled with seeds of pebbles—all instruments used to play the musical genre known as currulao, a distinctly Afro-Colombian genre born in the Pacífico region. The group’s lyrics, meanwhile, pay homage to Chocó’s cultural richness and celebrate blackness while also shedding light on the pervasiveness of institutionalized racism within their country and voicing the struggles of marginalized, impoverished, and often exploited Afro-Colombian communities.
Over in Puerto Rico, dreadlocked soul singer Calma Carmona is seducing audiences with a sound that draws upon bolero, Latin soul, Motown, and ‘90s neo-soul, combining the live-wire energy of the original Queen of Latin Soul, La Lupe, with the smooth vocal delivery of Sade, and the quirky intonations of Erykah Badu. Also hailing from La Isla del Encanto, the members of the experimental electronica ensemble IFÉ pay homage to their black ancestry, marrying trance-worthy synths with ceremonial-sounding drum loops, incorporating Yoruba phrases and references to the Ifá religion (a branch of Santería), and sprinkling in clave rhythms and melodic structures associated with Cuban rumba.
Similarly, mysticism plays a huge role in the work of Afro-Cuban singer and flutist La Dame Blanche, who aims to summon ancestral spirits through her unique mixture of hip-hop, cumbia, and reggae, even lighting a cigar before every concert as part of a Santería ceremony meant to reach a higher state of enlightenment.
These, of course, are just a few of the artists throughout Latin America whose dark skin, natural hair (whether styled in braids, cornrows, Afros, or dreadlocks), spiritual beliefs, and musical sounds clearly serve as an exaltation of blackness, as an exclamation point that emphasizes their place within the African diaspora.
But make no mistake about it: while Afro-Latino music artists are gaining greater mainstream visibility (albeit at a painstakingly slow pace), the sonic ties between Africa and Latin America span more than three centuries.
African influences abound in almost every Latin American musical form—from bolero to salsa, boogaloo, Latin jazz, cumbia, merengue, bachata, bomba y plena, reggae en español, rumba, mambo, landó, bossa nova, samba, Latin soul, hip-hop, and reggaeton—a result of the drumming sounds, percussion rhythms, and chants developed by the African slave populations in former Spanish and Portuguese colonies like Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, and Brazil.
Most Afro-Cuban rhythms, for instance, are driven by a 5-stroke clave pattern, a rhythmic tempo established using two wooden sticks known as claves; nearly identical iterations of the son clave and rumba clave frameworks have existed as bell patterns in sub-Saharan musical genres that predate any Afro-Cuban genre. The clave’s crucial role in son, rumba, salsa, and Latin Jazz is, in and of itself, a testament to these genres’ African roots.
But it’s arguably the percussion instruments in the aforementioned genres that function as their heartbeat, that give them their unique flavor—think of the batá drums, cajón de rumba, and conga, all of which were developed by the enslaved African communities in Cuba.
According to Havana-born singer and master percussionist Pedrito Martinez, leader of the Grammy-nominated Latin Jazz ensemble The Pedrito Martinez Group, there’s also an important spiritual thread that connects Latin jazz, rumba, and salsa rhythms and melodies to their African ancestors.
“As a result of the slave trade, different ethnic groups from various parts of Africa were brought to Cuba: among them the Yoruba people from Nigeria, the Bantu people from the Congo region, and the people from Calabarí (many of whom later formed the Abakuá secret societies],” explains Martinez. “The Yoruba people settled mainly in the Havana region and many Cubans, like myself, identify with this religion, its dances and rhythms and chants, and we’ve kept those alive for many years. The Yoruba faith and its folklore is the root, the spinal chord, of what we know as Afro-Cuban music.”
Indeed, songs like La Lupe’s “Elubé Changó and “Rezo a Yemayá,” Johnny Pacheco’s “Siete Potencias,” Celia Cruz’s “Ochún Con Changó” and “Saludo a Eleguá,”and Chucho Valdes’s “Yansá,” to name only a few, invoke the saints and spirits associated with santería, the Yoruba-based religion that thrived in places such as Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Even when the santería references aren’t overt, they can be present via specific drum patterns and melodies. Martinez, a babalawo (the Yoruba term for a Santería priest), says, “Religious musicians like myself have tried to incorporate some of the “toques” [rhythmic patterns often performed on batá drums and designed to summon or honor orishas], the beautiful chants, and the melodies associated with the Yoruba faith into our genres. What distinguishes each country is its particular folklore, and these Yoruba traditions are the essence of Afro-Cuban music.
The folklore of other Latin American countries is similarly rooted in the cross-pollination of musical influences from their respective African, indigenous, and European ancestors.
In Peru, landó music (and its corresponding dance) evolved after Angolan slaves brought to the country’s coastal regions invented the cajón, a box-shaped percussion instrument, out of sheer necessity. Authorities forbade the usage of drums among the slave population in Peru, fearing it would lead to an uprising. In the 19th century, slaves began seeking out objects they could fashion into musical instruments. Wooden shipping crates were soon transformed into percussion instruments; slaves would sit atop these boxes and tap or slap their front faces using their fingers or palms, thereby creating rhythmic sequences. Over time, the cajón came to be accompanied by the Spanish guitar, creating the blues-y sound popularized by such Afro-Peruvian stars as Eva Ayllón.
In its most basic iteration, cumbia, which was born in Colombia in the 17th century, combines three African drums (the tambora or bass drum, the tambor alegre or merry drum, and the tambor llamador or calling drum) and percussion instruments like maracas with indigenous wind instruments such as gaitas (cactus wood flutes) and flautas de millo (six-hole flutes made out of millo cane). The dance that accompanies the genre, meanwhile, started as a courtship dance performed by the African population along Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Over time, countries like Chile, Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, and Mexico developed their own cumbia sounds by incorporating instruments indigenous to their own countries. In Mexico alone, cumbia has gone through countless evolutions as musicians added accordions, marimbas, pianos, organs, and more.
When Colombia’s Bomba Estéreo mixes hip-hop, electronica, and cumbia or when Ondatrópica marries cumbia with dub reggae, jazz, boogaloo, and electronica, these artists are paying homage to their African roots while continuing the tradition of sonic fusion that led to the creation of these very genres.
But no discussion of the African influences in Latin music would be complete without mentioning reggae en español, reggaeton, hip-hop and trap. Reggae en español, as its name suggests, was directly influenced by Jamaican reggae. According to musical lore, the Panamanian descendants of Jamaican laborers who had settled on the isthmus quickly embraced reggae. As Jamaican reggae became all the rage, it was adapted to the local culture so that, by the 1980s, local artists like El General and Nando Boom were creating their own tracks over dancehall riddims but using Spanish-language lyrics. Soon thereafter, reggaeton emerged in Puerto Rico with its characteristic “dembow” beat and its strong hip-hop influences.
In the case of hip-hop, Latinos have played a pivotal role in the genre since its inception. Latino hip-hop pioneers include DJ Charlie Chase of the Cold Crush Brothers and Prince Whipper Whip of Grand Wizard Theodore & The Fantastic Five, both of Nuyorican descent. Over on the West Coast, Mexican American acts like Kid Frost and Cypress Hill were paving the way for future generations of Latino MCs. Decades later, hip-hop has gone from an underground movement to a global phenomenon, in the process breeding new generations of Spanish-speaking MCs all over Latin America.
True to hip-hop’s roots, some Latino MCs such as Residente, Rebecca Lane, and Danay Suarez see the genre as a way to enlighten others, to shed light on social injustices, or to lend a voice to marginalized communities.
“When I was first introduced to Cuba’s underground hip-hop scene, I was fascinated,” says Havana-born singer/rapper Suarez. “I loved that it wasn’t governed by all these musical rules, that you could be as genuine and true to your art form as possible. In three or four minutes, you could design your rhymes so as to convey a coherent message, adapting a smooth flow without your lyrics losing their meaning along the way.”
Like hip-hop, which wouldn’t exist without the art of sampling, most Latin American musical genres wouldn’t exist without the fusion of sounds and cultures. Only by affirming the African roots of these Latin genres can we properly honor our rich ancestry in all of its glorious totality. Pa’lante mi gente—juntos.
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