Latin music? What does that sound like?

The 17th edition of the annual Latin Grammy Awards is scheduled for November 8th 2016. It seems difficult to imagine a time when the term Latin music was not a household word in North America and, indeed, worldwide. The populous Latin American countries themselves are quickly becoming, in the words of a reporter from the British newspaper, The Guardian, “the music industry’s new frontier.” The establishment of the Latin Grammys by the American National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences is proof of what is at stake for the so-called mainstream music industry as it attempts to woo the staggeringly growing number of consumers of Latin music.

Success of the commercial type, however, usually also raises skepticism. The question is whether it has done away with the authenticity and cultural value of Latin music. Regardless of how one may be tempted to respond to this question, the indisputable fact is that Latin music and its political legacy of a Pan-Latin American identity lives on stronger than ever. Yet, sorting out the virtues from the evils of the Latino banner is an exercise prone to carry anyone into contradictions and inconsistencies. The history of Latin music is rife with these.

The term Latin America itself was coined by the French around the mid-19th century. It was their way ‘to make nice’ to Spanish and Portuguese-speaking American countries which had begun to achieve independence from Spain. France’s pitch was that romance (Latin) language-speaking countries had an inherent connection and should be suspicious of English-speaking British and Americans with whom they had little in common. It was the dawning of the era of “post-colonial” expansionism. France was simply attempting to compete for a piece of the pie with Britain and Anglo-America as the Spanish empire languished in the throes of decline. The French did not fare well in their coveted Latin America. Their only incursion into the continent was their short-lived invasion of Mexico where they installed Archduke Maximilian of Austria as a monarch in 1864. Only three years later, the French were deposed with Maximilian dying in front of a firing squad.

The ethnolinguistic roots of the term, Latin, as coined by the French in the 19th century, has come to bite The Latin Grammy’s committee in the 21st. Apparently the committee has received queries about why French and Italian artists are not included in the Latin Grammys competition. Their response, posted in the Latin Grammys’ website’ is that, “so far no one has entered a product in Italian or French sung in Spanish and Portuguese.” Rather than clarify, this response muddles the significance of the label of Latin music. One would think that clarity about the term, Latin would be of most importance, if only because it is what identifies the Awards. There are other more important cultural and political reasons to take the trouble, however.

The terms, Latino and Latin music were coined in tandem in the mid- to late 1960s among Latin American immigrants in the U.S. The time was ripe. It was the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement, which brought about ideals of racial and social consciousness among African Americans. Latin American immigrants, as well as other visible minorities and women in the U.S. followed suit. Latin music was really what, in their countries of origin, Latin American immigrants referred to as música tropical. Música tropical included popular dance musics from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Cuban genres like són, mambo and chachachá and bolero, Dominican merengue and cumbia from Colombia acted as the drawing cards. Thus, for most Latin Americans in the U.S. música tropical had a ring of home and familiarity. It functioned as a powerful unifier. Under the umbrella term of Latin music, música tropical allowed Latin American immigrants from a diversity of nationalities, ethnicities and races to put their differences on hold in order to associate, celebrate and, ultimately, identify with each other, thus, making it easy to forge effective political alliances. Soon, Brazilian music also began to be classified as Latin music.

The Latin banner, however, is not universally accepted. Its power resides in that it glosses over the differences that otherwise divide Latin Americans. As such, it appears to paint all Latin Americans with the same brush, “all Latinos are the same.” Dissension is unavoidable. For instance, some dislike the term Latino because of its association with popular culture and “commercialism.” For that and other reasons, some prefer the term Hispano. Others, who identify more with the European strands of Latin American culture, prefer to call themselves Ibero-American, and so on.

Figuring out the precise meaning of the Latin music label is also complicated by its propensity to change over time. To be sure, it has become ubiquitous and has expanded both as a cultural and as an economic force. Since the 1990s it has overlapped with mainstream. Latin artists like Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, and Ricky Martin, to mention only three, have been nominated in both mainstream and the Latin Grammys.’ Today, Latin music is a multi-billion-dollar global industry with a diversity of artist and business competitors fiercely vying for a share of Latin music’s market. As The Guardian reports, Latin America is “set to become the fastest-growing region in the world in terms of spending for media and entertainment over the next five years.”

The list of genres has also changed and expanded. What does Latin music sound like today? The Latin Grammy’s website listed nineteen genre categories for its 2015 edition. They represented a wide range of musics, most of which, prior to the existence of the Latin Grammys, would not be identified as Latin. They appear simply to duplicate the mainstream Grammys’ list with genres like, rock, jazz, pop, hip hop, children, Christian and alternative. A question that rises (which as I said, is not properly addressed on the Latin Grammy’s website), is the eligibility of nominees as regards to their national, racial or ethnic identity. Who is a Latino/a artist?

For better or worse, the power of the pan-identity umbrella of Latin music is undeniable. Latino is not simply an identity people choose. It can also be a label imposed on them. More importantly, the term Latino is a testament to the political, cultural and economic power of music. Simply put, Latin music brings into play issues of power among musicians, audiences, politicians, and business entities. Understanding how this works is important, but also very complex. It never is an either/or answer to the question. It requires looking into who, when, how and why the term is invoked.

By by Brigido Francisco Galvan Ph.D. EthnomusicologyIndependent Researcher, Freelance Musician, Music Educator