A brief history of Pop Music

by Piero Scaruffi
A chapter of my History of Popular Music

TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.


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(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Popular Music")

Latin America


Argentina: the Tango

TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

During the "belle epoque" (1890s), the working class of the "Boca" of Buenos Aires (Argentina) invented a new rhythm, the tango. "Tan-go" was the name given to the drums of the African slaves, and the music was influenced by both the Cuban habanera and the local milonga. The choreography originally devised in the brothels to mimick the obscene and violent relationship between the prostitute, her pimp and a male rival eventually turned into a dance and a style of music of a pessimistic mood, permeated by a fatalistic sense of an unavoidable destiny, a music of sorrow enhanced by the melancholy sound of the bandoneon. When lyrics were added, they drew from "lunfardo", the lingo of the underworld (the term originally meant "thief"). Tango was embraced enthusiastically in Europe and landed in the USA in the 1910s. The Viennese waltz and the Polka had been the first dances to employ the close contact between a male and a female. The tango pushed the envelope in an even more erotic direction. One of the earliest hits of tango was pianist Enrique Saborido's Yo Soy La Morocha (1906). By that time, tango had already established itself as a major genre among young Argentinians. Roberto Firpo is credited as having set the standard in 1913 for all future tango orchestras: the rhythm set by syncopated piano figures, the melodies carried by bandoneon and violin. Firpo's Alma de Bohemio (1914) and Gerardo Hernan Matos Rodriguez's La Cumparsita (1916) were among the early international hits. Bandoneon player Osvaldo Fresedo and violin player Julio de Caro were among the instrumental stars and composers of the 1920s. From his debut in 1917 to his untimely death in 1935, Carlos Gardel was the most charismatic vocalist, the master of erotic abandon. The tango craze took New York by storm during World War I. Rudolph Valentino created an international sensation in a steamy scene of his film "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (1921). But tango became a more intellectual affair during the 1930s, when literate songwriters created more poetic lyrics. Representative musicians of the decade are pianist Osvaldo Pugliese (Recuerdo) and violinist Elvino Vardaro. Bandoneon player Anibal Troilo ruled the 1940s. Tango then became a dogma that allowed very little freedom. It was only in the 1960s that someone dared question the dogma.

Brazil: the Samba

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Brazil's colonial history is unique in that the dominant white class showed some tolerance for the black slave class and the native pagans. The latter's traditions range from the African-derived voodoo (or, better, Candomble religion) of Bahia to Rio's Macumba religion. Unlike Mexico and Peru, where the original cultures were erased by the Spanish colonizers, Brazil retained them and simply recycled them into the general "saudade" (melancholy existentialism) of the Portuguese conquerors. The fundamental dichotomy of Brazilian music is between Bahia and Rio. Bahia is the Brazilian equivalent of New Orleans: a melting pop where African traditions mixed with local and European concepts. Rio is both the capital of the aristocracy, where European culture was imported, and the underworld of the slums, where poor (black and white) immigrants from the rest of Brazil (including Bahia) lived in miserable conditions.

In the last decades of the 19th century, the orchestras of Rio de Janeiro (basically, woodwinds and horns, with the clarinet as the soloist) that performed European dance music (such as waltzes and polkas) were called "choro". Joaquim Antonio da Silva Calado, the band-leader of Choro Carioca, revolutionized the style by emphasizing virtuoso playing and improvisation, and by introducing the cavaquinho and the violao (a seven-string guitar). After him, the choro orchestras preferred the flute as the soloist, the violao as the bass, and cavaquinho as the rhythm. The great composers of choro were Chiquinha Gonzaga (a female and a pianist) and Ernesto Nazareth. But the choro ensembles abhored the African percussion instruments.

The first appearance of the word "samba" dates from 1838. The "samba" was originally a dance of African origins, the mesemba, which came from Bahia and was probably related to the Candomble rituals. It wed a Brazilian dance, the "maxixe", which was an evolution of the habanera (a European dance craze created by Maurice Mouvet in 1912 on the basis of the Cuban habanera) and of the polka, and soon became a musical genre in its own. The samba was probably invented by African-Brazilians in the working-class slums of Rio de Janeiro. The rhythm of the samba was designed as as to fulfill three roles: to sing, to dance and to parade (at the carnival). The first record to be advertised as "samba" was a song by a black musician, Ernesto "Donga" dos Santos: Pelo Telefone (1916). Manuel "Duque" Diniz, a white Brazilian who had opened a maxixe academy in Paris, spread the samba dance craze to Europe in 1921, when he invited Os Oito Batutas, a black choro ensemble led by flutist and composer Pixinguinha ("the Bach of choro") which included Donga on guitar, on a tour to Paris. The combo brought the samba to Paris, but also brought something back to Brazil: trumpet, trombone, saxophone and banjo were added to the line-up, and the sound became more "Americanized", adapting to the sound of big-band jazz. Pixinguinha's Carinhoso (1928) was emblematic of the new style. A young white musician from the Rio middle class, Noel Rosa, became famous with the samba song Com que Roupa? (1930) and started a less "African" and more song-oriented form of samba. Vincent Youmans' film Flying Down to Rio (1933) popularized the samba dance in the USA. The first samba school was founded in 1928 in Rio, and samba schools proliferated in the 1930s. Samba was the generic name of the music employing a kind of rhythm, but there were different kinds of samba. Perhaps the most adventurous and extreme was the batucada. "Batucada" is both the name for a large samba percussion group, for a samba jam session, and for an intensely polyrhythmic style of drumming. A batucada can be played by ensembles with hundreds of percussionists. In Bahia, bloco afro and afoxe (two mainly percussive styles) combined to form samba-reggae. The choro was not dead: in fact, composers of the 1940s such as Benedito "Canhoto" Lacerda created most of the choro repertory.

Cuba: the Son

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In the 20th century, Latin America produced a variety of genres born at the crossroads of European folk music, African music and native traditions. While not as popular as the popular music of the USA (also born out of the integration of European music and African music), Latin American genres shares the same characters that made it a universal koine'.

Cuba was the starting point for many of the Latin dances. At the beginning of the 20th century, Cuba's main music was the "son", a fusion of Spanish popular music and the African rhythm rumba (first mentioned in 1928 and probably related to the Santeria religion). Traditionally played with tres (guitar), contrabass, bongos and claves (wooden sticks that set the circular rhythm) the son of Cuba was popularized by the likes of Ignacio Pineiro, who had an hit with Echale Salsita (1929), and Miguel Matamores. The danzon, first documented by Miguel Failde Perez's Las Alturas de Simpson (1879), was a descendant of the French "contredanse" or contradanza, and in Cuba's 1920s the danzon became a version of the son for the upper classes, performed by "charangas" (flute and violin orchestras, in which the violin provided the main riff while the flute improvised). Charangas of the golden age include: Orquesta Neno Gonzalez (1926), Orquesta Belisario Lopez (1928), Orquesta de Cheo Belen Puig (1934), Orquesta Aragon (1939), Orquesta America (1942). In the 1930s, Spanish-Cuban bandleader Xavier Cugat (who formed the Waldorf-Astoria Orchestra in 1935) was for Latin music what the Beatles were for rock music: his orchestra created the commercial version of Latin music (largely devoid of artistic value but hugely popular) for the western masses. Also during the 1930s, the dance academia of Pierre and Doris Lavelle popularized Latin dancing in Britain (it was Pierre Lavelle who codified the moves of the rumba in 1955 and the moves of the samba in 1956). In the 1940s, Arsenio Rodriguez, a virtuoso of the tres (Cuban guitar), set the standard for the Cuban conjunto (adding congas, piano and trumpets to the traditional guitar-based sexteto) and thus spearheaded a kind of son based on the piano and the congas. For example, Rene' Alvarez, Arsenio's former singer, formed Conjunto Los Astros in 1948, with multiple trumpets and piano.

Cuba's mambo, "invented" (or, better, imported from Congo) by bassist Israel "Cachao" Lopez and by his brother pianist Orestes of the Antonio Arcano's Orquesta Radiofonica with El Danzon Mambo (1937), fused rumba rhythms with big-band jazz, and was epitomized by Damazo Perez Prado's Mambo Jumbo (1948). Basically, the mambo was a danzon for the working class. The chachacha was a midtempo mambo figure that, after the 1953 recording of Enrique Jorrin's La Enganadora (1948) and especially Perez Prado's Cherry Pink And Apple Blossom White (1955), became a genre of its own, still performed by charangas (unlike the mambo, that was performed by smaller combos). The mambo became a USA craze in 1954.

"Salseros" were the conjunto groups (brass-driven dance bands) of the 1940s that played a bit of everything. The most celebrated Cuban vocalist of the era was Beny More, from Yiri Yiri Bom (1946) to Maracaibo Oriental (1954).

A fusion of Cuban music and jazz music (or "cubop") became popular after World War II, influencing some of the most important jazz musicians (e.g., Dizzy Gillespie). Puerto Rico pianist Noro Morales was the main practitioner of the quintet for piano and percussion (Bim Bam Bum, 1942; Oye Negra). Frank "Machito" Grillo's Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite (1950) was typical of the genre.

The foundations of post-war Latin music were laid by this generation. Cuban pianist Jose Curbelo played with Cugat and raised Ernesto "Tito" Puente, Ray Barretto and Pablo "Tito" Rodriguez, who raised Eddie Palmieri. American singer Frank "Machito" Grillo played with Cugat and Norales, and then raised Puente.

Trinidad: the Calypso

Trinidad's calypso, first documented by an instrumental recorded in 1912 by by George "Lovey" Bailey's orchestra, was another Latin dance to reach beyond Latin America. Calypso was originally sung in French, but the first recorded calypso song, Julian Whiterose's Iron Duke in the Land (1914), was already in English. Starting with the "Railway Douglas Tent" of Port-of-Spain in 1921, calypso was originally performed in "tents" (temporary dancehalls) during the period before carnival: the term stuck, and came to denote any club playing calypso. Most calypso records are still released just before or during carnival season. Hubert "Roaring Lion" Charles (who also called himself Rafael de Leon) was perhaps the first star, producing the standards Send Your Children to The Orphan's Home (1927), Marry An Ugly Woman (1934), Three Cheers For The Red, White and Blue (1936), Netty Netty (1937) Mary Ann (1945). Other classics of the early era were Raymond "Attila The Hun" Quevedo's West Indian Federation (1933), Women Will Rule the World (1935) and Calypso Behind The Wall, later covered by Belafonte as Jump In The Line, Frederick "Wilmoth Houdini" Hendricks' War Declaration (1934) and He Had It Coming (1939), covered by Louis Jordan as Stone Cold Dead in the Market (1946), Neville "Growling Tiger" Marcano's Money is King (1935), Norman "King Radio" Span's Matilda (1938), Rupert "Lord Invader" Grant's Don't Stop the Carnival (1939) and Rum and Coca Cola (1944), Aldwyn "Lord Kitchener" Roberts' Tie Tongue Mopsy (1946), Irvin Burgie's Day O and Island in the Sun, both covered by Belafonte. They all had to travel to New York in order to record their songs. During the 1940s, Trinidad's musicians developed the concept of the steel band, which dramatically changed the sound of calypso. A 1946 concert in New York, "Calypso at Midnight", organized by Alan Lomax, and Sam Manning's revue Caribbean Carnival (1947), the first calypso show on Broadway, helped establish the genre. But it was in the 1950s that calypso became a "craze" in the USA, thanks mainly to Harry Belafonte's Calypso (1956), one of the first albums to sell over one million copies, that contained the Banana Boat Song (1956), originally composed by the New York folk group the Tarriers by fusing two Jamaican traditionals. Back in Trinidad, Francisco "Mighty Sparrow" Slinger released the first calypso album, Calypso Carnival (1958). Other Trinidad hits of the 1950s included Carlton "Lord Blakie" Joseph's Steelband Clash (1954), Slinger "Mighty Sparrow" Francisco's Jean and Dinah (1956), Fitzroy "Lord Melody" Alexander's Mama Look A Boo Boo (1956). Mighty Sparrow (Ten To One Is Murder, 1960; Dan Is The Man, 1963; Melda, 1966) and, to some extent, Lord Kitchener (The Road, 1963; Rainorama, 1973) continued to dominate during the 1960s. Songs by new artists included Mervyn "Mighty Sniper" Hodge's Portrait of Trinidad (1965) and McCartha "Calypso Rose" Lewis' Fire In Your Wire (1967), the first major hit by a female calypso artist.


  • History of Pop Music
  • European beginnings
  • The USA up to World War II
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