6. The Music of Latin America

Where is Latin America?

Latin America is a region spanning both the North American and South American continents. Although not everyone agrees on the exact definition, most people consider the American countries that speak either Spanish or Portuguese to be Latin American. Often the islands in the Caribbean are considered to be Latin American, too.

How many countries in Latin America can you name?

Click the button below to play a quiz with your partner. See how many countries you can get correct in two minutes.

Native Latin Americans

Long before Europeans arrived in the Americas, music played an important role in the lives of Central and South American natives. These people had no stringed instruments, but they had drums, a variety of flutes, and other wind instruments. Long ago, songs were used to pass tales of great deeds and events from one generation to the next. Songs were a great way to tell a story, much like movies and television shows are today.

Here is an example of music from the Olmec people in central America:

Olmec South American Traditional Music - Tribal War Chant.mp3

Latin American Folk Music

The first "Latin America" music, as we know it today, came from Folk Music. Folk singers and musicians combined European music with native styles. In many areas throughout Latin America, Africans had been brought over as slaves. In those areas, African rhythms and melodies were blended in as well.

Watch this video of South American folk musicians. Which instruments are originally from Europe, and which instruments are native to South America?

Latin American Instruments:


A guiro is a wooden instrument with notches. A player rubs a stick along the notches to make a "croaking" sound, similar to a frog.


Small drums that have two different pitches.


Small wooden instruments that "clack" when hit together.


A series of tubes tied together. Blowing over each tube plays a different note.