Is there anything more relaxing than sipping a cool Corona in the sun soundtracked by sunkissed horns and syncopated timbale beats? It’s an experience that us Brits aren’t entirely used to – not least because of the usually dour weather on these isles, but also because of the stark lack of Latin music in our Spotify libraries. But if the recent success of songs like ‘Despacito’ and Cardi B‘s ‘I Like It Like That’ remix are anything to go by, we are increasingly up for dipping our toes into one of the broadest, most emotional and most affecting musical genres around – and one that is perfectly suited for the summer ahead.
But where to start? The term “Latin music” casts a ridiculously wide net, encapsulating such disparate sub-genres as bachata and bolero, salsa and in many people’s eyes even more Hispanic genres like flamenco, so it can be difficult to know the best starting point – and don’t expect the following list to be comprehensive by any means. At risk of leading you down a more-Hispanic path, however, I can think of no better starting place than Rosalía’s seminal 2018 album El Mal Querer. This is mainly due to its recognizability; lead single ‘Malamente’ received significant radio airtime following her fifth-placed finish in BBC’s Sound 0f 2019 shortlist, and her feature on James Blake‘s ‘Barefoot in the Park’ produced one of the most beautiful moments of his already-beautiful Assume Form. Though far more flamenco than the later entrants in this list (especially so in her debut Los Ángeles) and far more pop-influenced, Rosalía can carry her emotions in her voice like the rest of them, creating utterly irresistible melodies along the way. With much greater pop influences than more traditional salsa or bolero artists, El Mal Querer is perhaps the most accessible Hispanic album to get started on before diving into the acoustic gems that Latin music proper has to offer.
Of these gems, the high-tempo salsa hits are likely to be what you’ll want to lose yourself to first. They’re fun, they’re danceable, and the upbeat melodies are practically crafted to get you up off your feet partying. When it comes to these, just look for anyone signed by the Fania record label: from Willie Colon to Ruben Blades, Hector Lavoe to Celia Cruz, those signed by Fania never failed to make a tune that couldn’t put a smile on your face. But if you’re looking for specific examples of works, there can be no greater demonstration of salsa than Willie Colon & Ruben Blades’ 1978 collaboration Siembra. Packed with exciting tropical melodies that keep you on your feet – not to mention the instantly-recognisable ‘Pedro Navaja’ – Siembra represents everything to be loved about salsa.
If you want to dive a little bit deeper into Latin music heritage, but don’t want to be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of music on offer, a modern refresher of classic tunes could be straight up your street. In this case, there are no easier recommendations than Natalia Lafourcade’s Musas Vol. 1 and Musas Vol. 2. Originally starting as a carefree Mexican popstar, Lafourcade gradually embraced her country’s roots, eventually culminating in 2017’s and 2018’s odes to Latin America’s musical history. Reworked to appeal to a modern audience, but with enough authenticity and heart to stand alongside the classics that inspired it, Musas is a rather wonderful collection of music that makes for essential listening.
But it’s when the music slows down and the heart and character shine through that Latin music is at its most beautiful. Here we find bolero and Latin folk. Buena Vista Social Club, a “super-album” written and performed by a collection of Cuba’s all-time greatest musicians at the twilights of their careers, packs enough feeling to practically transport you onto Havana’s cobbled streets with a rum martini in hand. But I can think of no more delicately affecting record than Silvio Rodriguez’s “Al Final de este Viaje…”. With just an acoustic guitar and his voice, Rodriguez enchants and enamors for 35 minutes, demonstrating in one album everything to be loved about Latin music, and music as a whole: the power to transport you away to places anew with sheer power of personality, and to make you fall in love with simple melodies and beats, constructed together to make something more, transcending language in the process.