The Magic of Latin Rhythms
By Bobby Rodriguez
Whether it's a Cuban mambo or a merengue from the Dominican Republic, Latin rhythms are happy, fun, and great to dance to. Young and old alike love Latin dance music because of its movements and physical elements. Today, the cumbia from Colombia is one of the Americas' most popular dance styles, especially in Mexico and Central America.
In the 1920s, it was New York's Broadway theatre which brought Latin sounds and images to North American audiences. But in the 1930s, North Americans were gaining a greater awareness of Latin music's varied styles, exotic nature, and broad images through Hollywood movies. The tango, for example, gained mass appeal partly due to dance teams such as Maurice and Walton and Vernon and Irene Castle; it was movies which helped give the "Latin sound" its mass appeal.
Because of celebrities such as Don Azpiazu, Xavier Cugat, Desi Arnaz, Carmen Miranda, and films such as 1933's Flying Down To Rio (which paired Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire for the first time), North Americans were definitely becoming "hooked" on Latin music. In 1940, Alberto Socarras played opposite Glenn Miller at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York. A few years later in New York City, most night clubs would have two bands: the main or "headlining" band and the "break" band playing between sets.
The American swing and big bands soon adopted new instrumentation: four trumpets, four trombones, and five saxophones along with a rhythm section that would include piano, bass, drum set, and guitar. When the Latin bands wanted to compete with the American bands and modernize their sound, they also began using the same horn instrumentation, in addition to piano, bass and Latin rhythm section, including timbales, drum set, conga, bongo, hand percussion and vocalists.
In the 1950s, when the mambo craze exploded in the U.S., Americans took to Latin music like "ducks to water." Through the rich sounds of big orchestras like those of Perez Prado, Stan Kenton, Xavier Cugat, Machito, Jose Curbelo, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez, Americans went dance crazy. Be it because of the ending of World War II, the reunification of families, the "easy days" of the 1950s, or the sensuality and outright "romanticism" of the Mexican bolero, Cuban danzon, Argentinean tango, or the rumba, Americans simply couldn't get enough of Latin music. Because of great love songs like "Aquellos Ojos Verdes", "Besame Mucho", "Siboney", "Maria Elena", "Sabor a Mi", and "Solamente Una Ves", Americans were dancing cheek-to-cheek to the rhythms that brought out a more intimate side of dancing with a partner.
In swing and Latin music's heyday (roughly 1945-55), dancers filled large ballrooms. Today, swing dancing is relegated to smaller venues, but salsa, a new term for mambo, is again filling major dance rooms throughout America, Europe and Japan. The popularity of Latin dance rhythms is at an all-time high, and, whether because of immigrants to America or visiting music groups touring throughout major cities across the country, people of all ages and backgrounds are learning more about Latin rhythms and Latin dance music. Latin artists such as Machito, Perez Prado, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Celia Cruz, Ray Barretto, Joe Cuba, Calljader, Willie Bobo, Gato Barbieri, Eddie Palmieri, as well as pop music stars like Gloria Estefan, Christina Aguilera, Carlos Santana, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez and Luis Miguel have infused American pop music with elements of Latin music to a degree that one would be hard-pressed to define. The U.S. is in the middle of a "Latinization" period.
With its unmistakable momentum, Latin music has secured its future in this country as a style that we'll all be dancing to. Despite its long, rich, and varied history and undeniable future, one 5th grader summed it up best when she told me "dancing to Latin music is fun; it makes you feel good and it's good exercise too!"