Since beginning our adventure five months ago, we have collected a long and varied list of Latin American music from every country we have visited. We have asked couchsurfing hosts or fellow street revellers for recommendations; shazammed music heard on buses or local events, and taken down names of the bands that got us dancing at festivals. We have only just scratched the surface, but we have utterly loved what we have discovered so far. From cumbia to jazz, salsa to reggae, Latin America’s music is as diverse and colourful as its nature and its people.
Below is a sample of some of the incredibly talented Latin American bands and musicians that have got our ears tingling so far, listed in the order in which we came across them. Enjoy!
Rio de Janeiro
We arrived in Rio de Janeiro at the start of the Carnaval. It is not easy to capture the vibracy, excitement and pulse created by Carnaval. To say that the entire city turned into a party is an understatement. To compare the movement of people and atmosphere to a festival is a diservice to Rio. What festival has a state-of-the-art subway system? The entire metropolis is wrapped up in Carnaval. Neighbourhoods become festival arenas; streets become clubs; hustlers become barmen; pavements become stages; and communities turn into performances. Carnaval is not restricted to some part of the city which everyone else tries to ignore, as perhaps with festivals and carnivals in Europe. It is the living expression of Cariocan passion for life and music.
Wrapped up in the festivities, we only managed to capture a tiny part of what we heard. Below are a few recommendations from the indescribably warm and welcoming people we met.
Described by a man at a blocco (street party) in Santa Theresa as ‘the most important Brazilian artist of all time’.
Funk Carioca e.g. MC TH
A type of dance music unique to Rio. If a car goes past with people under the age of 25, or if a group of teenagers are posted up on a street corner with a makeshift soundsystem, this is what they are playing.
A legend of Brazilian music, a composer that has worked with artists from all over the world. The streets erupt when the intro to his most famous tracks hit the speakers; you are sure to recognise at least a few of them yourself.
Girl from Ipanema
This legendary Bossa Nova Jazz song, with its melody that has become recognisable around the world, was written in a bar in Ipanema, the swanky area of Rio where we were staying.
We heard mixed reviews of Sao Paulo, though in general they were negative. Phrases we heard to describe the city were: a concrete jungle, soulless, Babylon. But this in no way reflected our experience. In the short time we spent there we were approached by friendly people who took a genuine interest in who we were, saw mind-blowing street art and attended a powerful open air trans poetry event.
Sao Paulo has a reputation for having a cutting-edge house and techno scene. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to attend either the superclubs or the illegal rave in an abandoned train station we heard about, but during our visit we learnt about other artists that attest to the eclectic and rich music culture Brazil has to offer.
If you can find a hostel that doesn’t pander to a strange idea of what tourists want to hear (Katy Perry, Taylor Swift), then Mart’nalia is one of the go-to chill out selections.
Natiruts – Quero Ser Feliz Tambien
This song could be Shazam’d from hostel bars, cafes and restaurants. A classic of Brazilian reggae.
Preparing for a few drinks in a jazz bar on our last night in South America with two close friends, others in the hostel were gearing up for an illegal rave. A French guy was DJ’ing to set the mood, and then put on a mix by this ‘Paulista’ who was going to be gracing the decks in the abandoned train station that night.
Described by some as the ‘Paris of Latin America’, Buenos Aires certainly had a more European, Western feel to it than other cities we have visited so far, with its broad avenues, bars and famous coffee shops. In general, most of the music we have discovered from Argentina, apart from the unique sound of its sensual tango music, also has a more Western flavour, with rock and reggae being two extremely popular genres in the country. We actually received most of the Argentinian music recommendations after we had left the country, thanks to Argentinians and Chileans we met travelling in Peru, so see below for these. Meanwhile, here are the artists we heard about whilst in BA.
Arriving in our fun and sociable hostel in the city, the person working at reception was playing a great selection of music, including this striking and original Mexican singer. She has an incredible voice and varied selection, reaching operatic tones in the dramatic crescendos, and also rapping for the choruses of more political numbers.
La Bomba de Tiempo
On our last night in Buenos Aires people from the hostel told us about a night that happens every Monday in the city – a performance from La Bomba de Tiempo, a 20 strong collective of drum players who play to hundreds of people every week. We decided it sounded too good to miss, and it certainly was. One of the most intoxicating and all consuming live performances we had ever been to, culminating in the crowd spilling out into the streets in a carnivalesque parade filled with drums and dancing!
Whilst in Bariloche in the beautiful Argentinian Lake District, we stayed in a hostel staffed by a 20 year old Argentinian called Axel, who had an extremely good taste in music. He gave us some recommendations of local Argentinian artists.
One of the most popular reggae groups in Argentina.
One of the many powerful, soulful female singers we have come across on this continent. Axel was blasting Mecedes Soza out in the hostel one day and all the local Argentinian guests were singing along to her passionate, political lyrics.
One of our biggest regrets for the journey so far is that we did not have more time to spend in Chile. We trekked in the Torres del Paine in the south, home to some of the most awe-inspiring landscape we have ever seen, and we had one week in the capital city, Santiago. We have friends who livedhere before and loved their experience, and we were not disappointed by what the city had to offer. While we didn’t have the opportunity to explore the nightlife, it is a city busting with cultural activities and history, and our wonderful Couchsurfing host, Johanna, gave us the great recommendations posted below.
A well known political folkloric Chilean group who were part of the Nueva Canción Chilena movement in the 60s, a genre of political folk which spread outwards from Chile and played a key role in political movements in the Southern Cone of South America at the time.
A political folk singer and political activis, Victor Jara was arrested and murdered by Pinochet’s far-right military dictatorship shortly after the military coup against socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973.
All in all, we spent almost three months in Peru and in that time we received an overwhelming amount of musical recommendations, both from Peru and further afield: from traditional cumbia to progressive electronic music; tropical latin salsa to the percussive fusion of afroperuvian music. Spending our first two weeks in Lima, we stayed with two close friends in the bohemian neighbourhood of Barranco, as well as visiting Ruth’s Peruvian host family from her time in Lima in 2012, and during our time there we were able to add a large number of artists to our already extensive musical playlist.
One of the most original and genre-bending artists we have come across so far, we first heard the group being played while eating a mouth-watering meal on Dan’s birthday (the food in Lima is like nowhere else on the continent, seriously). After finding out the name of the band from the friendly waiter, Angel, Novalima’s intense, percussive, afrolatinelectronic fusion has been a constant favourite on our Spotify playlists.
Dengue Dengue Dengue and Zufu
Dengue Dengue Dengue are a Peruvian DJ collective who produce electronic music fused with tropical sounds. After years playing the Lima circuit, they now tour all over the world. We saw Zufu, one member of the collective, DJ live at a night in a veterinary centre inside a military compound in one of Lima’s southern barrios. After three months away from the British electronic music scene, Zufu’s set of UK Bass and garage mixed with tropical beats and house was a breath of fresh air, and we let the skank out.
In our opinion, Afroperuvian music has an intensity and percussive depth that other Peruvian genres sometimes lack. Coming from the UK with its own African and Afro-Carribean inspired music filled with bass and percussion, it is refreshing to hear music with a similar full sound. Susana Baca is one of the legends of Afroperuvian music, and her powerful passionate voice joins the list of incredibly striking female singers we have come across over here.
Toto la Momposina
This Colombian singer is another one of these powerful women, who has often collaborated with Susana Baca and other artists across the continent. Ruth first saw her play live in Lima when she lived there in 2012, and has revisited her time and time again; her upbeat percussive cumbia is impossible not to dance to.
Our friends in Barranco gave us this recommendation. From Puerto Rico, Calle 13 is a rap group that any politically minded Latin American you come across will have heard of. They sing and rap about the identity and strength of Latin Americans and aim to break borders and empower the oppressed people of the region through their music. One song in particular, Latinoamerica, expresses this in an extremely powerful way, and features both Susana Baca and Toto la Momposina. Watch the song’s video below; you will not fail to be deeply moved.
Villa El Salvador
Going to visit the school where Ruth used to live, we were both welcomed into the home like family members. We were lucky enough to be around when Ezequiel, Ruth’s ‘Peruvian Uncle’, was celebrating his 60th birthday. It was an incredible night, drinking beer and different kinds of homebrewed spirits with a family that spanned three generations, and dancing to cumbia and salsa from all over the continent.
Supported by an imaginative and lively band, this guy sings with passion about his troubles with love to a cumbia beat.
Tropical cumbia vibes from the coast of Colombia.
Venezuelan legend of salsa.
Manuel de la Roche
With a striking intro and a beat that would fit into the selection of any respectable 4/4 DJ, this is one of Daniel’s favourite songs we’ve discovered. Put this on your weekend playlist. Rum and tobacco.
Los Corraleros De Majagual
Straight from the Carribean Coast of Colombia, with harmonies, an acordian and music that gets into your waistline.
Los Guaracheros De Oriente
A highly regarded group from the 1960s era of Colombian Carribean music, also featured Calixto Ocha from above.
Peruvian cumbia at its best. As a treat, there’s also a link to a remix by DEngue Dengue Dengue.
Ruth spent two weeks participating in an amazing community Workaway project in a small village in the mountains of Huancavelica. Two of the other volunteers on the project were from Argentina and gave her many more recommendations of their favourite groups from the country.
An alternative rock group from the 80s with an interesting and original style, the legendary group Soda Stereo are very well known in Argentina and across the continent for their moody and intense sound.
A traditional folkloric Argentinian singer.
Yet another powerful and percussive female singer, this Afroperuvian/Cumbia artist was a recommendation from the Peruvian woman leading on the project.
We spent three weeks on an immersive and rewarding Workaway project in the low jungle of Peru. Another volunteer there called Yaque, from Chile, became a very close friend and gave us her favourite Latin American artists from Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.
Los Jaivas – Mira Niñita
Yaque recommended this song to Ruth as a nice simple Chilean song to take back and teach to her choir in Manchester. A great recommendation!
A Chilean reggae band. They did a cover of a song by another political Chilean group called Los Prisioneros, called El Baile de Los Que Sobran.
A group from Argentina, their two female singers have utterly beautiful harmonies.
Where best to go for new local music than a music festival with almost all Latin American artists, held in the Peruvian jungle?! After the Workaway project we spent the weekend dancing our socks off to local Peruvian and Latin American artists at Selvamonos, and came away with a long list of all of our favourite acts.
Colectivo Circo Band
A 10 strong collective of Peruvian men in Hawaiian shirts playing the most infectious and danceable music imaginable, with a lead singer who had more energy and charisma than anyone else who played at the festival.
An impressive Peruvian rap duo and DJ who ripped the crowd up with their political verses and back-to-back freestyling. It was a test for our Spanish to see how we much we understood!
Pochi Marambio y Tierra Sur
Pochi is a Peruvian reggae legend, and at the age of 70 plus, he did not disappoint as he danced about the stage with his floppy white hair and multicoloured trousers singing about looking after the earth and each other. Ridiculously cute.
Colombian eight-piece funk band with an upbeat brass section and a large number of very attractive musicians, including the female lead singer with her sequin dress and extremely powerful, husky voice.
The only non Latin American group, this Swiss rap dub band blew us away. The lead singer sang and rapped in English over a dark and moody bassline and the lyrics were profound, political and thought provoking.
El Cuarteto de Nos
The headline act, this Uruguayan rap rock band were not a group we expected to particularly enjoy. They ended up being one the most impressive live performances we had seen in a long time. These guys are true professionals and put on a show for the crowd like no other group at the festival. Smart, savvy, and great fun.