Understanding Latin American Musical Styles

By Wynn-Anne Rossi
Wynn-Anne Rossi
Teachers and students may wonder why a Minnesota composer is writing Latin American music. In short, I could not be more “taken” with this fabulous musical style. In today’s small world, where Russians write jazz and Japanese compose big band music, I feel that I can certainly take on the mambo (and other Latin styles).

When I appeared at the Tango Lights Music Festival in Langdon, North Dakota for the premiere of one of my Latin pieces, students were surprised to see that I had blonde hair. To top that off, my French is better than my Spanish. But, this does not dampen my enthusiasm for Latin American music.

It has indeed been a pleasure to research Latin American music to complete my vision of eight books devoted to this style. The recent release of Musica Latina, Solo Book 4 completes that vision of four books of graded solos and four books of graded duets. Solo Book 4 is written for the late intermediate pianist. Writing at this level gave me the flexibility to use challenging syncopations and rich harmonies.

In the spirit of this series, each piece includes a “nugget” of information that offers students the experience of a journey through Latin America. Book 4 opens with Trem para Paranaguá, capturing a spectacular train trip from Curitiba to Paranaguá in Brazil. This route crosses over 67 bridges and runs through 13 tunnels, descending a steep mountain to the sea.

Each piece also includes a rhythm workshop to help students move from counting to “feeling” the difficult rhythms present in the music. I recommend that students begin by counting and “lap clapping” these slowly, three times in a row. A drum can also be used to play the rhythm. The goal is for students to internalize these rhythms and speed them up until the rhythms feel natural. Latin rhythms can be very tricky, and counting aloud can often get in the way of a smooth performance.

Trem para Paranaguá
Notice the unusual ties in the rhythm workshop for Trem para Paranaguá. Ties are a sign of syncopation, and in this case, a polyrhythm. In the first measure, the right hand has a 2+3+3 against a left hand 4+4. Polyrhythms are at the heart of Latin rhythm, thanks to a history of multiple drummers simultaneously performing multiple rhythms. In the second measure of the workshop, you see a more common use of syncopation. The tie over beat 3 causes an anticipation and natural accent to fall on the previous note.

Rhythm is not the only hallmark of Latin music. Rich, colorful harmony abounds in this style. In both American jazz and Latin styles, you can find extended harmonies (7ths, 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths) along with quartal and quintal configurations. However, the two styles sound very different. I think of this as similar seeds that have been sown in completely different ground.

In the score above, I have marked several things that should aid students in performance, analyzing the music, and understanding the style. Enjoy the ever-changing rhythms, rich colors, and conversational melodies that are so unique to this American music from our southern neighbors!

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4 responses to “Understanding Latin American Musical Styles

  1. I’d love to hear you play this- is it available?

  2. Lea F. S. Tsui

    Thank you so much for these new series of books on Latin American music .I appreciate the good tips you give in order to teach the tricky rhythms of this music style. I am Brazilian, living in Canada now for 46 years, and it made me homesick, but happy that someone has composed a piece describing the train trip from Curitiba to Paranagua, which is indeed spectacular!
    Obrigada! (thank you).
    Lea Tsui

  3. Lea F. S. Tsui

    Thank you so much for this new series of Latin American music books. I appreciate the tips you give in order to help us teach the tricky rhythms which make up this style of music.
    I am Brazilian, living in Canada for 46 years, and it made me homesick, but happy at the same time to see someone composing a piece describing the train trip from Curitiba to Paranagua, which is indeed spectacular.
    Obrigada (thank you!)
    Lea Tsui

  4. Kristin Graham

    Do you have a recording of this piece? I would like to hear it!

    Kristin Graham

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