By Diana Blidy

Our musical journey this month takes us to Latin America and the celebration of Carnival. Music is an important part of understanding the history and people of Latin America as the diversity and complexity of Latin America is extraordinary, having developed over centuries as the product of cultural exchange. Below are some fun facts about the music of Latin America:

  • Europeans first introduced stringed instruments, such as guitar, violin, and harp, as well as wind instruments, such as the flute and chirimia, to the people of Latin America as part of the European missionary evangelization efforts.
  • Africans, enslaved and free, brought new rhythms, dances, songs and musical practices to Latin America.
  • In the 19th century, more modern music soon became popular and important parts of processions and ritual celebrations, especially in those of the Catholic Church. Genres from son, to salsa, merengue, rumba, and samba gained immense popularity not only in Latin America but also in the United States and worldwide.
  • Carnival (or Carnaval in Latin America) originated as a pagan holiday in Greece and Rome, during which masters and slaves would swap clothes, the rich would wait on the poor and basically everyone would drink too much, party hard and toss all social rules out the window!
  • Life was hard in many societies so, to keep people from going crazy, certain times of the year were designated as times to let loose and party it up – what historians call a “safety valve” – a way to release all the social pressures that build up in society during the year.
  • Brazil’s Carnaval is perhaps the most famous example of this 5-day party, which ends on Ash Wednesday, a Christian holiday that denotes the beginning of Lent.
  • Carnival was first called Entrudo – and was an important pre-lent party to Catholic societies. It was the Portuguese immigrants who brought this custom with them to Brazil.
  • Entrudo was first celebrated with food, music and a giant water fight! People, poor and wealthy alike, could attack each other with buckets of water or mud without warning. Masks were worn to hide identity as, during Entrudo, everyone was more or less equal.
  • Over the years, Entrudo became Carnaval and water fights were replaced with masquerade balls, massive parades, dancing, and elaborate costumes.
  • African and Portuguese-Brazilian traditions came together to develop the samba, which officially became part of Carnival in 1917.