In our eighth article following our armchair travels, we continue on our westward journey, across the Atlantic Ocean, to the Americas. I had debated whether to only consider the geographical continents of South and Central America versus the cultural identity that is Latin America – a larger area consisting of over 20 countries. So after much research and back and forth, I bowed to the knowledge of David Bushnell, Emeritus Professor of the University of Florida, who stated that “Latin America is generally understood to consist of the entire continent of South America in addition to Mexico, Central America, and the islands of the Caribbean whose inhabitants speak a Romance language”. With such similarities in language history and culture, it therefore made sense to me to look at the music of Latin America.

In this article, we will therefore briefly view the music of the past, the evolution of Latin American music in the present day and consider 4 pianists from the region who are making their mark on the world today.

Music of Latin America Past

Indigenous tribes of the Americas believed that their traditional music was formed at the very creation of the world. Through trances or dreams, shamans were given specific songs, dances, ceremonies and musical instruments by the spirits or ancestors.

Wind instruments such as flutes, panpipes made of bone, reed, and fired clay, conch trumpets called pututos, and percussion instruments like drums and rattles, made with a variety of materials were used to communicate with the ancestors, heal the sick and bury the dead. Indigenous peoples also believed that music gave them supernatural powers during war and pilgrimages.

Peru lamas

Then in the 16th century, the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors arrived and brought with them their European music, instruments (like the guitar) and their African slaves. Spanish music at that time was itself influenced by the Moors and this music, combined with both the indigenous music and the music of the slaves saw the birth of Latin American music.

In fact, African music and in particular, drumming became the single most recognisable element of this fusion. During the slave era, drumming was used as a form of communication and was one of the few ‘rights’ that slaves retained despite their harsh day to day existence.

The guitar, along with the güiro (a notched, hollowed-out gourd percussion instrument that is believed to have been brought over to Latin America with the slaves) also played key roles in the music of the region. At busy ports all around South America, Central America and the Caribbean, slaves and the local population mingled and exchanged their musical rhythms, dances and songs. This was heard most commonly in styles like samba, salsa, merengue, bachata, and timba.

Conquistadors drumming

Music of Latin America Present

Music plays an important role in present-day Latin American culture and is always sung, played or danced to at social events like weddings, birthdays, births, baptisms, holidays and festivals. Latin American music at such events is recognisable by ostinatos (or riffs), improvisation and the use of percussion instruments such as bongo drums, congas, shakers and cowbells.

In different Latin American countries particular musical styles are celebrated and have become synonymous with that country:

  • In Argentina, the tango is thought to have begun in the seedy brothels of Buenos Aires where prostitutes invented the ‘risque’ moves to check whether or not the men had money tucked in their socks and were, therefore, able to pay for services rendered.
  • In Bolivia, the vallenato is a popular style of folk music that uses the accordion and celebrates village life.
  • In Brazil, the samba and bossa nova are synonymous with the carnival. Samba was born in the region of Bahia, or “Little Africa”, where it was performed to honour the Angolan gods where most African slaves in Bahia came from. When slavery was abolished, the Bahian slaves migrated to Rio de Janeiro and the samba was then viewed as entertainment for the lower classes who would gather in the favelas (ghettos) and dance together.The turning point for the samba came in 1917 when samba schools began to spring up and today the samba is seen a source of national pride.

    The bossa nova is a jazz fusion with a slow samba beat and emerged in Rio in the 1950s.

  • Cuba is synonymous with rumba, cha-cha-cha, mambo and salsa, even though the salsa was actually invented by migrant Latino communities living in New York in the 1960s.In modern day ballroom dancing, the rhumba is called ‘the dance of love’ and originated in the East coast of the United States in the 1930s. However, Latin American rumba means ‘party’ and dates back to the 1800s (note the different spellings). As with the samba, the rumba was born from the spirit and drumming of the African slaves and these rhythms were combined with Spanish melodies to pulse hypnotically through the music.In 1925, President Gerardo Machado banned the rumba because it made “bodily contortions”. However, Fidel Castro later overturned this law as he believed that Afro-Latin music represented the working class.
  • The Dominican Republic celebrates both the bachata and merengue and in Ecuador a downtempo waltz called the pasillos is enjoyed.
  • In Venezuela, a fun, fast style of music called the joropo (from the word ‘party’) migrated from the countryside to the cities and in Peru, an Andean style of folk music using panpipes called folklorico is celebrated.
  • In Haiti music is synonymous with vodou (voodoo), a unique blend of African religious music and drumming that was brought to Haiti with the slave trade and mixed with European colonial music. Slaves were told to give up their beliefs and adopt a new one – Roman Catholicism, but instead of doing this, the slaves cleverly disguised their deities and practices with Catholic names and saints.

Pianists from Latin America

From the vast number of both classical and jazz Latin American pianists who are making their mark on the world of music, I could have chosen:

  • Myriam Avalos or Juan Jose Chuquisengo (Peru)
  • Enrique Graf or Alberto Reyes (Uruguay)
  • Gabriela Montero, Guiomar Novaes or Clara Rodriguez (Venezuela)
  • Raúl Di Blasio. Sérgio Mendes or Tania Maria (Brazil)
  • Aruán Ortiz, Manuel Valera, Harold López-Nussa, Michael Camilo (Cuba)

It was with great difficulty that I chose the following pianists: Daniel Barenboim, Martha Argerich and Eddie Palmieri. However, before we examine their lives in a little more detail, there is a special pianist to whom I would like to draw your attention and that man is João Carlos Martins.

João Carlos Martins

Martins is a Brazilian classical pianist and is celebrated as an acclaimed interpreter of Bach’s music. He was a well-known child prodigy in Brazil and he spent his blossoming career impressing concert audiences around the world, including with his collection of the complete works of Bach – a 20 CD collection and the most extensive series of Bach recordings by a single artist.

However, in 1995 his career and life suffered a major setback when he was attacked by thugs in Budapest. He received injuries to his brain, his skull and he lost the use of his right arm. After undergoing many operations and treatments he was left with a useless right arm, but remarkably, he refused to retire and continued to play the piano with his left hand and 1 finger of his right hand, as well as expanding his career into conducting orchestras.

But in 2020 (during the year of the coronavirus and much death and devastation across the world), a Brazilian industrial designer, Ubiratan Bizarro Costa designed a pair of bionic gloves for the 80-year-old Martins and I have added this moving video of him being able to use both his hands to play.

Daniel Barenboim

Barenboim is one of the most iconic and well known classical pianists and conductors in the world today. He is a citizen of 4 countries – Argentina, Spain, Israel and Palestine and was the first person to jointly hold Israeli and Palestinian citizenships simultaneously.

Barenboim was born in 1942 in Buenos Aires, Argentina to Jewish-Russian parents. He began music lessons at the age of 5 with his mother and then continued to study with his father – who remained his only teacher. At the age of 7 he gave his debut concert in Bueno Aires,  made his international debut in Vienna and later that same year (1950), he played in and observed the avant-garde Russian Igor Markevich’s conducting class as well as relocating with his family to Israel.

At the age of about 11, he became the youngest member of Igor Markevich’s conducting masterclasses, met German composer Wilhelm Furtwängler – considered to be one of the greatest symphonic and operatic conductors of the 20th century - and was invited to perform the Beethoven First Piano Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. However, Barenboim’s father turned the offer down as he thought it would be too soon after the end of World War II for the child of Jewish parents to be performing in Berlin.

In 1967, he married his first wife, renowned British cellist Jacqueline du Pré at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, during the Six-Day War. They toured and performed together until du Pré was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (she died in London in 1987). Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Barenboim continued to perform and record. In 1966 he made his debut as a conductor with the English Chamber Orchestra in Abbey Road Studios, London and in 1975 he was made Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris.

Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pre

Over the years Barenboim has recorded all the Beethoven Concertos three times as both a pianist and as a conductor, he has extensively toured all around the world and in 1989 he led the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in concert at the Philharmonie, on the momentous occasion of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. They performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Symphony No.7.

In 1992, Barenboim signed a 20-year contract to be the music director of the Berlin State Opera and in the same year, he also signed an exclusive recording contract with Warner Classics International.

In 1999, alongside Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said, he co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Workshops for music students in the Israel, Palestine and Arab countries to come together to study, perform and promote mutual reflection and understanding.

In 2000, Carnegie Hall paid tribute to Barenboim’s 50th year of performances as pianist, chamber musician, conductor and teacher, and in 2002, his autobiography ‘Daniel Barenboim, A Life in Music’ was reprinted with 6 extra chapters. He has won multiple music awards including 4 Grammys, the Wolf Prize for his dedication to Human Rights Causes and named Honorary Conductor for Life by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Oxford University is among 6 universities to award Barenboim an Honorary Doctor of Music degree, France has bestowed on him the rank of a Commandeur dans L’Ordre National de la Legion d’Honneur and he has been named an Ambassador for Peace by the United Nations

Furthermore he has given countless lectures across the world, public debates, concerts too many to name, including a farewell concert for United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan at the UN. In 2010, The Telegraph newspaper named him ‘Top Man of 2010’ and in 2012 he carried the Olympic flag at the London Olympic games.

In 2013 he received the Freedom Award of Freie Universität Berlin for contributions to promoting mutual understanding in the Middle East and finally, in 2015 Barenboim was named one of “The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” by Fortune Magazine.

Martha Argerich

Argerich was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1941 and started playing the piano at the age of 3. At the age of 8, she gave her debut concert playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor and Beethoven's First Piano Concerto in C major.

At the age of 14 her family relocated to Austria and at the age of 16 she won 2 prestigious competitions within three weeks of each other. At the age of 24, she won the 7th International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, where her exceptional technique and emotional depth when playing won her international recognition and admiration. In the same year she made her 1st recording including works by Frédéric Chopin, Johannes Brahms, Ravel, Prokofiev, and Franz Liszt.

Argerich has won numerous awards and prizes including 3 Grammys and in 1999, an annual piano competition was set up in her name in Buenos Aires.

Argerich has often stated in interviews that she feels "lonely" on stage during solo performances. After the 1980's she played few solo concerts, instead choosing to focus on concertos, and in particular, chamber music. In 2016, her performance of Liszt's First Piano Concerto conducted by Daniel Barenboim at The Proms, London was noted in The Guardian as, "It was an unforgettable performance. Argerich celebrated her 75th birthday in June this year, but that news doesn’t seem to have reached her fingers. Her playing is still as dazzling, as frighteningly precise, as it has always been; her ability to spin gossamer threads of melody as matchless as ever. This was unmistakably and unashamedly Liszt in the grand manner, a bit old-fashioned and sometimes even a bit vulgar at times, but in this of all concertos, with Barenboim and the orchestra following each twist and turn, every little quickening and moment of expressive reflection, it seemed entirely appropriate."

In 1990 Argerich was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and after treatment for the cancer, she went into remission. The cancer returned in 1995 and metastasised to her lungs and lymph nodes. After experimental treatment by oncologist Donald Morton, the cancer again went into remission. As an expression of gratitude, Argerich gave a performance at Carnegie Hall to benefit the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, where Dr Morton had treated her. As of 2020, she remains cancer free.

Eddie Palmieri

Palmieri was born in 1936 New York to Puerto Rican parents, where he and his older brother Charlie would set up talent competitions for the neighbourhood children. He took piano lessons from an early age and performed at Carnegie Hall when he was 11.

He loved jazz from an early age, counted Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner as his musical heroes and at the age of 13, he joined his uncle’s orchestra playing the timbales.

In 1961 he formed his band, La Perfecta, with the unconventional front line of trombones rather than the usual trumpets seen in Latin orchestras at that time.  He experimented with and incorporated Latin and Afro-Caribbean rhythms into his jazz and in 1975 he won his first Grammy for Best Latin Recording.

Since then he has become known as one of the finest jazz pianists, a band leader, arranger and composer of salsa and Latin jazz. He has been awarded 10 Grammys in total, numerous other awards and in 1988, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington DC recorded two of Palmieri’s performances for their archives.

In 2002 Yale University awarded him the Chubb Fellowhip, usually given to heads of state, but in Palmieri’s case, it was in recognition of his work building up communities through music. In 2013 he was awarded the presigious Jazz Master award by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) – the highest honour an American jazz artist can achieve. In the same year he was also awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.

Throughout the years he has continued to release original music and in 2017 at the age of 81 he completed a year long tour. Up to the writing of this article, he continues to perform concerts and he has even released the Palmieri Salsa Jams App, the world’s first interactive salsa music app for both musicians and music lovers alike.

And so in our armchair travels across Latin America, we have briefly viewed the music of the past. We have seen how the music of the present day has its roots in the past and how particular styles of music and rhythms have become linked to particular countries.  Finally we peeked into the lives of four Latin American pianists who have celebrated the joy of music in combination with their own heritage and in so doing, have brought much pleasure to audiences worldwide.