Latin America

People in costume for Carnaval

Music in Latin America is widely influenced by colourful and exotic carnivals and a range of dance styles. Carnivals may include fanfarras, featuring brass instruments associated with fanfare, and almost always a samba band.

The samba band features bass drums known as surdo, tenor drums known as repiniques, smaller drums known as tamborim and timbales and the distinctive sound of the agogô bells.

Musical features

Among the distinctive dance styles arising from Latin America are salsa and tango. You can find out more about these styles in the Paired Dance guide.

Other distinctive dance and musical styles are:

  • rhumba - where the music is slow in tempo, expressive and in a 4/4 time signature
  • bomba - which features call and response, with two beats in a bar
  • merengue - a dance in a 2/4 time signature, but featuring groups of five
  • bossa nova - less dense in texture than the samba, a 2/4 time signature, and highly syncopated dotted rhythms

In addition to these famous dances and their musical accompaniments, there are a range of musical traditions, ensembles and styles across Latin America

These include the Chacarera from Argentina, which includes clapping and is in waltz time. Cuba’s habanera is a variation on the tango and is based around a dotted rhythm, which also appears in some other tango influenced dances.

Vallenato is a popular style of folk music in Bolivia. It makes extensive use of the accordion and originates from village and rural life. Among the music of Mexico is the Huapango in which the metre often shifts. The time signature may continually shift from 3/4 to 6/8, for example.

Andean music also appears across several countries in Latin America and can be recognised through its distinctive use of the panpipes, charango and percussion such as the chajchas.

Musician Rafael Manriques discusses the origins and construction of the charango and demonstrates how it is to be played.

Latin America music


Well known Latin American percussion instruments include the conga and claves . Conga are large hand drums which the musician has to stand to play. Claves are short wooden sticks which have a surprisingly clear sound, even in a large ensemble and play many of the central rhythms used in Latin American music. Cow bells and timbales also feature alongside other instruments in the salsa band.

Ladies playing drums in Cuba
Cuban women playing drums

Different types of guitar also feature extensively in Latin American ensembles. These include the Cuban guitar (usually with six or nine strings), the guitarrone (an acoustic bass guitar used in the music of Mexico), the Bajo Sexto with its sharply curved neck and the Vihuela, a five string instrument constructed in a variety of sizes from small to very thick bodied.