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Culture Corner: Hispanic Heritage Month, Music, and Music Therapy

  • October 19, 2023
  • Diversity News and Updates
Ruby Castilla Puentes headshot

By Ruby C. Castilla-Puentes, M.D., Dr.PH., M.B.A., FAPA

During Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 - October 15), we celebrate the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from the Caribbean, Spain, Mexico, and Central and South America. Music is central to culture and community and has well-documented therapeutic potential. I am not an expert in music therapy, so my perspective is quite narrow. However, I will be sharing background, my own experience, and resources to hopefully spark some ideas for you to incorporate music from this rich and diverse cultural collective.

Music therapy has been used to support the treatment of a variety of illnesses and conditions such as trauma, addiction, Alzheimer’s, brain injuries, physical rehabilitation, emotional support, and chronic pain (AMTA 2016). One example of music therapy can be seen in Batt-Rawden and DeNora’s (2005) Music and Health Promotion Project, which explored the links between musicking, well-being, and health.

In my experience working with psychiatric patients in acute units, we investigated the effects of group music therapy on the adherence to psychotropic regimens in patients with Schizophrenia, Psychosis NOS, Bipolar and Schizoaffective Disorder. Data from 85 adults confirmed the benefits of 8 sessions of group music therapy in those patients. The full report was published in the Acta Psiquiátrica y Psicológica de América Latina. mar2019, Vol. 65 Issue 1, p54-64. 11p.

The following are songs we incorporated into our sessions:

NOTE: A characteristic of Spanish music is that a lot of young people still listen to the classics, connecting generations or ages.

  • Egoismo (Julio Miranda)
  • La Gota Fria (Emiliano Zuleta)
  • Ay si, si (Alfredo Rolando Ortiz)
  • Pueblito Viejo (Jose A Morales)
  • El breve espacio en que no estás (Pablo Milanés)
  • Alfonsina y el mar (Mercedes Sosa)
  • Cancion Para Un Amigo | Palito Ortega)
  • Un Millon de Amigos (Roberto Carlos)
  • Zamba de mi Esperanza (Luis Profili)
  • Mama Vieja (los Visconti)
  • El Camino de la Vida (Héctor Ochoa)
  • Eres tu, El vendedor (Mocedades).
  • Chiquitita (Abba)
  • Try Everything (Shakira)!
  • Let’s Get Loud ( Jennifer Lopez:)
  • Cup of Life (Ricky Martin) 

Latin American Music Categories

Latin American music is often a great mix of cultures but if needed to be narrowed down, most popular music in Latin America is heavily influenced from our Spanish, African and Indigenous origins. The following are popular or significant genres of music.

  • Bachata: a form of music assigned a specific dance. Originated in the Dominican Republic in the first half of the 20th century. 
  • Bambuco: is a traditional music genre from Colombia. Its metric structure is similar to the European waltz or polska. Typically a bambuco piece is accompanied by a stylized group dance in either a or meter.
  • Champeta: also known as terapia, is a musical genre and dance that originated in the Caribbean coast of Colombia in the early 1980s. It developed from an earlier style termed chalusonga, which originated in Palenque de San Basilio in the mid-1970s. Chalusonga was a combination of Colombian chalupa and Afro-Cuban percussive music. When their music reached Cartagena de Indias, it evolved into champeta, which became a movement and identity among Afro-Colombians. It shows influences from African colonial settlements and from contemporary African culture, particularly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
  • Cumbia: a type of Latin American dance music of Colombian origin, using guitars, accordions, bass guitar, and percussion. It has elements of three different cultures, American Indigenous, African, and Spanish, being the result of the long and intense meeting of these cultures during the Conquest and the Colony. The Colombian cumbia is the origin of all the other variations (e.g. from Mexico, Argentina, Peru], including the tradition of dancing it with candles in the dancers' hands.
  • Currulao: Pacific coast Afro-Colombian music and folk dance performed by a marimba/percussion ensemble with heavy use of call-and-response vocals
  • Folk: This is broken up into two parts. Some examples of popular songs will be listed below because these are songs that can easily be found all across Latin America and the Caribbean. However, “folk music” for each country is vast and varies in sound and influence. To be “Latin American” is more of an American identity and one that many Latinos back in their mother countries do not identify with. It is important to know which culture the client identifies with most and learn of the distinctive music that comes from that country (if you find that they listen to it)
  • Guabina: is a rhythm from the Andean mountains in Colombia. The word "Guabina" refers to the musical style, as well as a type of fish or a tool used to control domestic animals. The features of this music are based on dances and lifestyles of the people from the regions. The Guabina rhythm includes dancers, but it may be played without them. There is a version of the Guabina that is played faster and is called Torbellino. Another type of Guabina, known as guabina-torbellino, is a mixture of the instrumental torbellino and the sung guabina, particularly in its a cappella format. Guabina is most popular in rural communities.
  • Joropo: is a musical style resembling the fandango, and an accompanying dance. It originated in Venezuela and is also present in the eastern Colombian plains. It has African, Native South American, and European influences.
  • Mapalé: is an Afro-Colombian and Ecuadorian style of dance that was brought over by the slaves, and representing the fishermen after a long day of work. Its name comes from the Cathorops mapale when they are out of the water. The dance moves are compared with the agility and strength of those who are performing it.
  • Merengue: is a type of music and dance originating in the Dominican Republic, which has become a very popular genre throughout Latin America, and also in several major cities in the United States with Latino communities.
  • Nueva Trova: is a movement in Cuban music that emerged around 1967/68 after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, and the consequent political and social changes.
  • Pasillo: is a type of music and dance that emerged in Ecuador in the nineteenth century, during the South American independence wars. It is a fusion of elements of indigenous music, such as the yaraví, with a complex variety of musical genres including the waltz, the minuet, and the Spanish bolero.
  • Ranchera: (or canción ranchera) is a genre of traditional music of Mexico. It dates to before the years of the Mexican Revolution. Rancheras today are played in virtually all regional Mexican music styles. The word ranchera was derived from the word rancho because the songs originated on the ranches and in the countryside of rural Mexico.
  • Reggetón: a mix of Jamaican reggae and African American influences originating in the Puerto Rican barrios of New York. This music is one of the most popular forms of music for young people.
  • Rock en español (Spanish for 'Spanish-language rock') is a term used to refer to any kind of rock music featuring Spanish vocals.
  • Salsa: a form of music assigned to a specific dance. Salsa music is a style of Latin American music, combining elements of Cuban, Puerto Rican, barrios (neighborhoods) of NYC and American influences.
  • Social Justice/ Conscious Music: Most of Latin America’s identity stems from times of colonization and injustices and so I would be remiss if I did not include these names.
  • Sanjuanero: (translation "St. John's Festivities Song") is a traditional Colombian bambuco song.
  • Tango: is a style of music in or time that originated among European and African immigrant populations of Argentina and Uruguay. The first generation of tango players from Buenos Aires was called "Guardia Vieja" (the Old Guard). The music was played on portable instruments: flute, guitar, and violin trios, with bandoneón arriving at the end of the 19th century.
  • Vallenato: music fuses cultural expressions from northern Colombia, the songs of cow-herders of the Greater Magdalena region and the chants of African slaves with the traditional dance rhythms of the indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. These expressions are also blended with Spanish poetry and musical instruments of European derivation. The lyrics of traditional Vallenato music interpret the world through stories that mix realism and fantasy, expressed through songs that are nostalgic, joyful, sarcastic and humorous. Traditional instruments include a small drum played with the hands, a wooden ribbed stick played with a wire comb, and an accordion.


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