The musical legacy of North America, South America, and the Caribbean is rich and diverse. Supplement your study of this region by listening to its musical contributions. In addition to challenging one’s tastes about what is “normal”, it also offers insight into a country’s history, religion, and even climate.
Below you’ll find musical genres organized by region with an accompanying playlist. Listen in the order they are presented here or as part of my recommended Three Year Geography Program that covers the entire world, region by region, over three years.
Remember, this playlist is just a sampling. There are many great artists, songs, and genres and I cannot include them all. To dig deeper into a particular musical genre, visit the World Music section of your local library’s CD collection. Listen from this webpage, or through my YouTube channel. Before showing your students, be sure to read my disclaimer here.
Start exploring by clicking a location below:
- United States (bluegrass, jugband, jazz, blues, ragtime)
- Native American music (Inuit, Southwest)
- Brazil (bossa nova and samba)
- Mexico (mariachi, ranchera, and grupero)
- Argentina and Uruguay (tango and cuarteto)
- Andes (Peru, Bolivia, Chile)
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If your student gets Peru and Paraguay confused, listen to my North and South America learning songs here to review these countries.
Bluegrass and Jug Band
Mostly associated with rural music of Appalachia, the jug band actually originated among African Americans in urban areas. The jug was commonly a whiskey jug and accompanying instruments were made of everyday objects, like spoons and washboards. Bluegrass music was named for mandolin player and songwriter Bill Monroe’s band, the Bluegrass boys. Their style of playing was highly energetic and technical.
Jazz originated in African American communities in New Orleans. It drew inspiration from the blues and ragtime. I love jazz and so much could be said about it, but I feel totally unqualified to even summarize the topic, so I will refer you to this article by Smithsonian Magazine, “What to Listen to and Watch For When Enjoying Jazz”
The blues has deep roots in American history, particularly African-American history. Researchers generally hold that it evolved from African spirituals, African chants, work songs, field hollers, rural fife and drum music, revivalist hymns, and country dance music. The blues was initially developed in the Mississippi Delta, near New Orleans. As a result, the blues and jazz have always influenced each other.
Ragtime is uniquely American. A ragtime composition is usually composed of three or four contrasting sections or strains. It is not usually made for dancing, but instead listening and enjoying. So, play the videos, sit back and enjoy!
Video, “What is Ragtime?“, by Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Jazz Academy.
Salsa is a dance music that initially arose in New York City during the 1960s. It came together through the combination of many Latin musical forms from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Colombia. But its strongest influencer is Cuban music, called son.
Native American Music
As a result of settling across wide regions, each Native American tribe developed unique musical traditions. However, each tribe uses similar types of instruments – drum, flute, and rattles, for example. Vocals, however, are the backbone of Native American music throughout.
The Inuit are the indigenous peoples of northern Canada. The Inuit form of throat-singing is practiced almost exclusively by women in groups of two or more. The technique requires short, sharp, rhythmic inhalations and exhalations of breath. It was traditionally sung as play or competition between women during the long winter nights while the men were away hunting.
Read Smithsonian Folkways article, “Throat Singing“
There are five tribes from the Southwest: Apache, Hopi, Navajo, Pueblo, and Zuni. Most of these Southwest Indians lived in villages and farming was their main occupation. The music from this region is known for demanding melodic phrases and enigmatic rhythms.
For more Southwest Native American music, visit the Smithsonian Folkways playlist of authentic historic recordings
Before you explore music of the Americas, listen to my North and South America learning songs here to review these countries.
Music of Brazil
Samba and Bossa Nova
Samba’s history is so deeply rooted into Brazilian culture that historians argue about its origin. Whether rooted in African traditions and developed through slave culture or rooted in Choro music, an amalgamation of European, African, and American musical styles, Samba is closely tied to the Brazilian identity. Played at carnivals, Samba is energetic.
Bossa Nova evolved from samba but is more complex harmonically and is less percussive.
Music of Mexico
Mariachi can describe both a musical genre as well as a group of musicians. As a genre, it is often played at special events like weddings and quinceañeras (girls’ 15th birthday parties). Mariachi bands usually consist of violins, trumpets, a classical guitar and a “vihuela” (a five string guitar) and players wear a traditional silver studded “Charro” suit, including a sombrero.
Ranchera music draws on traditional folklore of the Mexican countryside. “El Grito Mexicano” is a vocal yell during instrumental interludes made either by the musicians or by members of the audience. Rancheras are varied and can reflect the tempo of a waltz, a polka or a bolero. Mariachi bands often play Ranchera music.
In the 19th century European immigrants brought the accordion, waltz and polka to Northern Mexico (Norteño means “Northern”). Local musicians adopted these elements and blended them with Ranchera music to make this new genre. The accordion and the “bajo sexto” (a twelve string guitar) are its most characteristic instruments.
Music of Argentina and Uruguay
Tango music originated among the European immigrant and African slave populations of Argentina in the 1800s. Its distinct style is drawn from many influences including flamenco, polka, milonga, and candombe. Tango music is most often played with guitar, bandoneón (known as “Tango accordion”), piano, violin, flute and double bass. Just like the dance moves, tango music uses frequent accented notes, sudden changes, and the use of slides (glissandi).
This musical genre comes from the Córdoba region in Argentina. It has been carefully preserved and is hugely popular. Cuarteto is played with accordions, pianos and violins and influenced by Spanish and Italian folk music.
Music of the Andes (Chile, Bolivia, and Peru)
This quintessential Chilean genre is upbeat and resonates most closely to its national identity. The music’s origin is thought to have evolved in the countryside sometime during the mid 19th century. It is often accompanied by a guitar, harp, piano, accordion and tambourine. The dance of the same name was declared Chile’s national dance in 1979 and is characterized by flirtatious courtship with ample waving of handkerchiefs.
The Morenada is a music and dance that interprets the plight of African slaves who were brought to Bolivia to work in the silver mines. In the dance the men wear black-colored masks and scruffy long beards, while bells around their ankles signify the clinking of slave chains. For music inspired by oppression, this music is surprisingly upbeat. In 2011, Bolivia declared the dance as “Intangible Cultural Heritage”.
Andean folk music is shared by all the Andean countries and it is best represented by its panpipes made of bamboo and rhythmic charangos. The pipes have a long history in the region, pre-dating the Incan empire. The most recognizable song, even outside South America, is El Condor Pasa.
Music of the Caribbean
Reggae began in Kingston, Jamaica (find this island in the greater Antilles) where the local bands were playing a mixture of American R&B, Caribbean, and pan-African sounds. In the 1960’s drummers began to emphasize the afterbeat, the 2nd and 4th beats (4/4 time) in unison with the piano and guitar. This ultimately led to many unique musical genres, most notably Reggae.
Calypso is a style of Afro-Caribbean music. It originated in Trinidad (find this island in the Lesser Antilles) as a means of communication among plantation workers who were not allowed to talk to each other. Instead of speaking directly, they wrote songs.
Steel pan history is traced back to the Africans enslaved in Trinidad (find this island in the Lesser Antilles) during the 1700s. They brought the tradition of playing hand drums during festivities. The ruling British banned cloth drums in 1877, and when the Africans developed bamboo drums, the British banned those too. Undeterred, the African people improvised and turned to steel oil drums. This art form has seen constant innovation since.
(more coming soon)