When congas slap or the clave ta-ta-ta ta-taps, that’s the real language that binds many Latinxs—not Spanish or Portuguese, but a musical lingua franca with roots in Africa. Performed with great flourishes of ritmo—or as Celia Cruz might say, tumbao—these sounds, much like their respective countries of origin, boast their own accents. There’s Johnny Ventura’s merengue “hasta la tambora”, the twinkling marimbol of Los Cojolites’ son jarocho or the tresillo-sparked syncopation of Willie Bobo’s Latin jazz. Then there are the voices like the queen of salsa Cruz’s own contralto, with its mountainous hollers and nimble locution, all catching a ride on polyrhythm beats.
But most importantly, there’s the community Celia nods to every time she cheers “¡azúcar!”: Black Latin America, or Afro-Latinxs, whose soundtracks and rhythms hold histories from the sugar cane plantations of Celia’s Cuba to the triumph of maroon societies like the quilombos of Brazil and beyond. For artists like Celia and the others on this playlist, there is no separating Latin music from these Black origins. “Pues vive en mi corazón,” she sings to the guaguancó and the bongo drum on 1974’s “Quimbara”. These rhythms of the African diaspora live on in her heart.
For West Africans who were enslaved and survived the transatlantic journey to the Caribbean and the Americas, however, these rhythms weren’t just a means of emotional connection. They became a way to communicate, a lexicon of spiritual practices and instruments that—while certainly suppressed—did not vanish entirely along the Middle Passage. Whether forged in secret or permitted by Spanish and Portuguese enslavers as a way to placate rebellions, entire cabildos, or brotherhoods, were formed to preserve ties to the motherland.
On new soil, Yoruba peoples of Benin and Nigeria became the Lucumí, their Santería and Candomblé faith presenting a syncretic promise. Eddie Palmieri’s 1978 song “Lucumi, Macumba, Voodoo” picks up on their spirit of fusion, bridging the ancestors’ batá drums with the big-band horns of the new age. Meanwhile, from mixed settlements like the palenques of Veracruz, Mexico, or the Caribbean coast of Colombia, we hear the communion of Indigenous and Afro-diasporic styles like bullerengue emerge, cradled by those who escaped their oppressors.
Centuries later, salsero Joe Arroyo tucked this very history into his swaggering classic “Rebelión”, a deceptively danceable track that narrates the story of a 17th-century African couple confronting their enslaver. Arroyo never says if his couple broke free, alluding to shouts still heard from behind a gate. But to think that this party staple has seen the fabled couple’s descendants cutting it up on dance floors from Nochebuena salas to ballrooms around the world is, perhaps, one of the more satisfying forms of rebellion yet.
Something is freed in that exchange. Our bodies, inhabiting the rhythms they left us, hearts full like Celia’s. And our artists leaning in to tell us “un pedacito de la historia negra”, because they can. It’s only up to us to hear it. —JENZIA BURGOS