Transatlantic Cartographies of Popular Music in the Americas – Full Text

Marcos Napolitano, Department of History, University of São Paulo (USP)


Popular music is frequently analyzed through national ‘musical genres,’ consecrated through specific aesthetic and socio-cultural conventions, and usually formed over various decades. It is enough to think of the most traditional music genres in the Americas, such as samba, jazz, rumba, bolero, and tango, for our cultural memory to relate them to their country of ‘origin:’ Brazil, United States, Cuba, Mexico, and Argentina, respectively. Not by chance, the history of these large musical genres is confused with the process of modernization and cultural massification of the countries in which they originated.

Is it possible to construct another cartography of popular music in the Americas?

For this purpose, I tried to think a cartography centered on intersected musical exchanges between Europe, the Americas, and Africa, responsible for the formation of the principal national musical matrices in the Americas.


The circulation of various musical sonorities in the Americas, or between the Americas, Africa, and Europe is older than the colonization of the continent. This not imply see the pre-colonial American music as ‘autochthone’ or ‘static’ in the time and space. Amerindians had complex networks of cultural exchanges, especially in the Andean and Mesoamerican macro-regions, as well as in the Atlantic and Pacific coastal regions, in the Pampas, and in the confines of the Artic and Patagonia.  It would be more appropriate to state that colonization instituted other patterns and materials of cultural transfers, with the result that European and African music established a previously unknown form of hybrid timbre and rhythm, a phenomenon from which popular music in various American countries originated. This paper will focus on the exchanges that emerged at the end of the eighteenth century and during the nineteenth and twentieth. It was these exchanges which molded a dynamic and mutable musical cartography, but with identifiable patterns and agencies of various ethnic and social groups, which molded the matrices of musical genres.

As a general rule, it can be stated that between the eighteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, exchanges between intellectualized mediators (travelers, artists, writers) and mass populational displacements, whether of enslaved Africans or emigrating Europeans, were central in the affirmation of these musical exchanges and in the assimilation of the musical genres which we call ‘matrices’ in local and national contexts.

From the middle of the twentieth century onwards the circulation of cultural products with a radiophonic, phonographic, or audiovisual nature, produced under the seal of mass culture, transmitted by electronic media, within a structure of a mercantilized cultural consumption, came to be the principal format of musical diffusion between countries, even though the physical movement of mediators and populations was still significant. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, digital media and products, distributed or formatted by large multinational corporations, assumed the principal protagonism in this system of cultural and musical exchanges. In other words, we start from the premise that experiences of musical exchanges in the twenty-first century, in principle, depend less on the physical movements of anonymous or authorial cultural agents than the experiences of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that these physical movements functioned in the twentieth century and at the beginning of the twenty-first, constituting particular experiences and specific musical forms, even if little visible in the musical market in this digital age.

On the other hand, in relation to the historical phase when population movements were determinant in the constitution of transcultural musical experiences, we cannot underestimate the circulation of printed material and the action of cultural institutions linked to the national elites being formed, as elements which instituted the musical cartography of the Americas.

Also in the eighteenth century, modinha and lundu, considered by a large part of Brazilian musical historiography as the ‘matrix genres,’ are examples of this complex network of migrations of people and printed material between Africa and Brazil, Brazil and Portugal, the Iberian Peninsula and the Americas, including printed songbooks (SLIDE DE EXEMPLO).

In the middle of the nineteenth century, a new genre of dance would leave Central Europe, cross the Atlantic and cause a furor in the Americas: the polka. It is worth noting that the waltz, one of the matrices of paired ballroom dancing, had already reached the Americas, becoming favored in the aristocratic ballrooms of the new continent through its assimilation in the Viennese courts and the English aristocracy at the beginning of the nineteenth century. However, the ‘polka fever’ appears to have been wide-ranging and quite influential on American musical matrices.


It is no exaggeration to say that, in the matrices of popular music formed in various countries along the Atlantic coast of the continent from the beginning of the twentieth century, the African element was primordial. The combination of the African cultural elements (including musical elements) in their various ethnicities with other European ethnicities and American ‘autochthones’ varied from region to region.

The exception to this African preponderance was the vast Mesoamerican and Andean zone, where the music of the Amerindian base was predominant: carnavalito, taquirari, huayno. These traditional Amerindian dances, alongside other dances and genres with important Iberian and African influences (zamacueca, cueca chilena, zamba, vals peruano), were important in the formation of the popular musical heritage of the Andean and Pacific region, a focus outside the scope of this article. These genres present in the vast South American hinterland, and formed the musical foundation of the Latin American Nueva Canción, with a strong political meaning, one of the matrices of the protest song continent.


The increased slave traffic in the first half of the nineteenth century, above all in Brazil and Cuba, had a profound impact on American musical life. Between the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, this process of the creation of Afro-American music appears to have become more identifiable and delineated, in terms of aesthetics and culture. As well as the Cuban-Iberian habanera and the African cell rhythmic of tresillo, both the fundamental conventional matrix for various types of music from the Americas, there emerged musical configurations which can be conventionally grouped according to genre: spirituals (first found in 1860), jongo from South-Central Brazil, candombe from the River Plate region (both identified by writers at the beginning of the nineteenth century). (SLIDE DE EXEMPLO MUSICAL E ICONOGRÁFICO)

Although the African music practiced in the Americas was not the object of careful notation in the nineteenth century and disappeared from sheet music and phonograms until the beginning of the twentieth, it was present in the daily life of society, albeit in an oblique and repressed manner. It was generically called by the press and travelling writes as batuque. While there is no sheet music, there is abundant documentation in the form of reports and iconography which allows researchers analyze types of instruments, their genealogies, the way they were played, and their social function (SLIDE DE EXEMPLO ICONOGRÁFICO).

However, the changes in the treatment of the ‘African question,’ in various American colonies or even in the national countries, often repressed the sonorities which remembered the African continent, above all in relation to the timbres of percussion (SLIDE DOCUMENTO Negro Act). On this point, we can remark that is a strong line of Afro-American musical expressions which do not have the ‘batuque’ or beat of drums and percussion at the center of their expressivity. For example, the various work songs practiced above all on the plantations, as well as ladainhas (kyrielles) and songs of a religious nature, had a fundamental role as musical matrices of various modern genres, such as spirituals and blues in the United States.


In this process, many musical matrices were being forgotten, assimilated, diluted, or reiterated, forming the modern cartography of popular American music in the first half of the twentieth century. Ancestral forms, such as habanera, modinha, and lundu, practically disappeared from the musical map of the twentieth century. Others such as Brazilian choro and maxixe underwent alternative periods of revival and ostracism, becoming incorporated into the generic field of samba, the principal national Brazilian genre during the twentieth century. The Argentinian tango, delineated as a type of dance and song around 1920, became mainstream music in the region of Buenos Aires, at the same time that candombe underwent a process of ghettoization which was only questioned in the 1980s. In the Caribbean, rumba (Cuba), mambo (Cuba), cha-cha-cha, calypso (Trinidad), merengue (Dominica), amongst others, constituted the base of dance music in the region, widely diffused from the middle of the twentieth century by the phonographic industry in the United States.  In the latter country, from the proto-jazz of New Orleans, such as cakewalk and ragtime, and the blues of the Mississippi Delta, there emerged an entire line of modern popular music, such as jazz itself, fox-trot, bebop, swing, rhythm ’n blues and rock ’n roll. Alongside the songs of operettas, European dances, and Music Hall, it constituted the base of the US record industry, which spread widely around the world.

Finally, it is worth remembering that the musical migrations which are at the base of American music did not occur on a one-way street. Due to the strength of the record industry, (especially, but not only, in the US), in the second half of the twentieth century it underwent a reverse movement. Popular American music (above all in the United States) crossed the Atlantic back to Africa and Europe, pollinating the continent above all with US (pop, soul, and jazz), Jamaican, and Cuban music, but also Brazilian musical genres. In addition, we cannot forget that much before this, ballroom dances from the Americas, such as fox-trot, Charleston, tango, and maxixe, were very successful in Europe, especially in Paris and in Berlin during the Weimar Republic.

As cartography, this text is only a provocation, an invitation to dive in, a ‘journey’ through the musical territory of the Americas, one of the most instigating products of the cultural history of the Transatlantic.


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