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Dance To The Beat Of The Origins And Facts About 12 Caribbean Music Styles

Latin dancer striking a pose, green background.

We’ve all been talking—a lot—about “Bruno.” The catchy song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Disney’s Encanto, which blends elements of Latin pop and salsa together, took the charts by storm—and it’s the first Disney hit since 2013’s “Let It Go” to enjoy such popularity.

The song is a perfect metaphor for Caribbean and Latin American music—each character has a different part to sing, weaving and fusing together different musical styles that come together for a highly danceable and catchy chorus at the end. From reggaetón to the cha-cha-cha to the “singing newspapers” known as plena, Caribbean and Latin American musical genres have interesting origin stories and collaboration, across countries and cultures, is always key to their creation.

Let’s travel around the Caribbean for a tour of the names and origins of some of these musical styles, including those being further popularized by Mirabel and friends.

reggaetón

Bad Bunny is one of the most streamed artists in the world, meaning he’s taken the genre known as reggaetón far beyond the countries of Puerto Rico and Panama, where it originated. The word reggaetón was first recorded in English in the early 2000s, and it’s basically a combination of reggae (a name that originated in the genre’s birthplace, Jamaica) and the ending -tón, the Spanish version of -athon used in words like marathon (or maratón). Reggae has long been popular throughout all of the Caribbean, and in the 1990s, various artists created the blend now known as reggaetón, which combines Spanish rap lyrics with a vigorous percussive beat for dancing.

Notable artists: Bad Bunny, Ozuna, and Daddy Yankee (Puerto Rico); J Balvin and Karol G (Colombia).

cumbia

While the worldwide popularity of reggaetón is a relatively recent phenomenon, many of the words used today to refer to Caribbean music date back hundreds of years. That’s the case with cumbia, “a dance music of Colombian origin, similar to salsa and using guitars, accordions, bass guitar, and percussion.” Colombia has a coastline on the Caribbean Sea, across from Cuba and Puerto Rico, a proximity that led these places to influence each other musically.

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The word cumbia was first recorded in English in the 1860s, but its origin is uncertain. Some lexicographers believe it comes from Africa, via the Bantu people, noting that the African words cumbé (“dance/rhythm”) and kumba (“noise/shouting”) could have musical meanings. African cultural influences in the Caribbean and South America trace back to the estimated 5 million African people who were enslaved and forcibly brought to these regions by European colonizers from the 1600s to 1800s. Their descendants are now spread throughout the Caribbean and Latin American countries, and many identify as Black, biracial, or triracial.

Notable artists: Los Corraleros de Majagual, La Sonora Dinamita, Totó La Momposina (Colombia). The musical genre crossed over into Mexico in the 1940s, inspiring such artists as Selena (sometimes known as the “Cumbia Queen”).

bachata

Bachata, “a Latin American musical genre in the style of a ballad, featuring guitars, percussion, and singing,” originated in the Dominican Republic. The word bachata is believed to have been first recorded in Spanish in the 1920s from West African origins (possibly an abbreviation of cumbancha, which is also related to cumbé). Because of its poignant, often heartbreaking lyrics, this type of music was originally known as amargue (“bitterness” or “bitter music”).

Notable artists: José Manuel Calderón, Marino Perez, Leonardo Paniagua, Luis Vargas, and Yoskar Sarante (Dominican Republic).

merengue

The word merengue—the name of both a dance and the music for it—was first recorded in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in the 1840s. The name shares a connection with Krio maringa, the Jamaican Creole merengue, and Haitian Creole mereng. There may be a relation to the dessert meringue (which is typically made from a mixture of egg whites and sugar). The connection to the confection is unclear, but it may be a reference to the idea that the dance is a “mixture” or due to its quick, rhythmic steps (like whipping up a dessert). Merengue is known for its romantic themes and is based on a five-beat pattern known as a quintillo.

Notable artists: Olga Tañón (Puerto Rico); Juan Luis Guerra and Johnny Ventura (Dominican Republic).

cha-cha-cha

Speaking of the ballroom, the cha-cha-cha is a fast ballroom dance from Cuba with a quick, three-step movement. The word likely imitates the musical sounds accompanying the dance. The name was shortened to cha-cha (probably first in the US) in the 1950s as it gained popularity.

Notable artists: Enrique Jorrín and Xavier Cugat (Cuba); Tito Puente (Puerto Rico); Johnny Pacheco (Dominican Republic).

bomba

Dating back to the 1600s, the bomba is another exciting musical blend created by the diverse peoples of Puerto Rico. Bomba mixes the sound of maracas—a traditional Taino instrument—with African drum beats and a penchant for improvisation. Early bomba songs were improvised by enslaved workers to pass time in the sugar fields. Similarly, enslaved people in the US cultivated their own musical styles, including blues and gospel. Bomba (which means “bomb” in Spanish) is still used at protests today.

Notable artists: Tito Cepeda, Víctor Montañez, and Eugenia Ramos (Puerto Rico).

Do you know these Spanish words from In The Heights?

plena

Plena developed from bomba in the early 1900s in Puerto Rico, fusing African, Caribbean, and Spanish sounds. Its early songs were passed along through towns as a periodico cantado (“sung newspaper”) full of gossipy tales and local happenings. These were often satirical or protest songs with participatory elements. Traditional instruments for the heavily percussive plena include a hand drum (pandereta), maracas, accordions, and the Latin American guiro (a hollowed gourd that is scraped).

Notable artists: Manuel Jiménez, the combo of Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera (Puerto Rico).

salsa

Salsa (which means “sauce” in Spanish) is derived from the Latin salsus, or “salty.” This music combines other well-known genres (including bomba and plena) into a “lively, vigorous popular music, blending predominantly Cuban rhythms with elements of jazz, rock, and soul music.” Salsa has roots in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and New York City in the 1930s, and one musicologist even traces its origins to one specific Cuban song: “Échale Salsita” (“Put Salsa On It”).

Notable artists: Héctor Lavoe, Marc Anthony, and Willie Colón (Puerto Rico); Rubén Blades (Panama); and Celia Cruz (Cuba).

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rumba

The term rumba differs a bit from others on this list as it has been used over time and in different places to refer to completely unrelated types of music and dance. The name is sometimes applied to Congolese music from the mid-1900s. Other senses of the word relate to Cuba (where the word rumba is sometimes used generally to mean “party”), but even these are distinct. In the US during the 1920s, rumba became known as a ballroom dance with Afro-Cuban rhythms—but this is largely unrelated to the music that Cubans call rumba. This rumba, which is considered an essential part of Cuban culture, gets its name from the Spanish rumbo (“spree, party”) and is ultimately derived from the Latin rombo (or “rhombus”), in reference to a compass.

Notable artists: Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Grupo Yoruba Andabó, and Mongo Santamaría (Cuba).

bolero

This romantic Cuban genre (unrelated to the Spanish dance also called bolero) developed in the late 1800s. The name bolero is believed to be derived from the Spanish word for ball (“bola”), coming from the Latin bulla (“round swelling, knob”), in reference to the circular motion of its accompanying dance.

Notable artists: Miguel Matamoros, Benny Moré, Elena Burke, and Omara Portuondo (Cuba).

vallenato

One of the most famous musical genres from Colombia’s Caribbean region, the vallenato, relies on accordions and drums for its signature sound. Lyrics typically follow a tale, often a sad one—Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez compared his novels to “one long vallenato.” The music was born in the city of Valledupar (known in Spanish as the “valley of [Indigenous chief] Dupar”). A person born in this valley would be called a vallenato.

Notable artists: Alejo Durán, Emiliano Zuleta, and Jorge Oñate (Colombia).

Did you know these English words all come from Spanish?

guajira

Let’s talk about “Bruno”—or at least his song. The hit from Encanto is, like so many Caribbean and Latin American creations, a mix. There are definitely elements of Latin pop and salsa blended together, but the song also draws inspiration from a Cuban style known as guajira, according to composer Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The word guajira is based on an Arawak word (guajiro) meaning “farmer/peasant.” This genre likely developed in the 1800s and typically pairs lyrics about rural life with acoustic, stringed instruments.

Notable artists: Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa, and Pío Leyva (who are all three part of the Cuban Buena Vista Social Club).

Take the quiz!

Now that you’re feeling the rhythm of these musical styles, add some salsa to your vocabulary by reviewing our word list, where you can practice using many of these terms. Or, put your melodic memory to the test by cha-cha-cha-ing over to our short quiz on these terms. Then pull up a Spotify playlist, turn up the sound, and start talking about more than just Bruno.

Music transcends borders, like these Italian music terms that are used in English.

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