Build Your Basic Latin Music Library

Latin Music

By Dave Austin, “The Music Professor”

Over that past couple of years, I’ve noted an increasing number of requests for Latin music at my events.  With a growing Hispanic population and culture in America, it’s prudent for working DJs to be familiar with this gigantic genre of one of the most popular music forms in the world. Encompassing a huge universe of sounds, let’s begin this primer with an introduction to the most popular Latin music styles.

Number one is Salsa – the most popular Latin music genre.  It’s addictive rhythm is the blending of several styles and influences, which include traditional beats from Cuba and Puerto Rico as well as other styles like mambo and Latin boogaloo.  Although hotly debated, New York claims to be the birthplace of Salsa.  Listen to Celia Cruz, Fania All Stars, Ruben Blades, Hector Lavoe, Marc Anthony.

Originally from the Dominican Republic, Bachata is high on the list of the most popular Latin music.  Beginning in the 1960s with songs produced by Jose’ Manual Calderon, the rhythm was not able to compete with the then-popular Merengue.  However, that all changed in the 1980s when Blas Duran reshaped the Bachata with more appealing lyrics and the electric guitar.  In the 1990s, the sound took off when romanticism was woven into the music.  Because of artists such as Hector Acosta, Aventura and Prince Royce, Bachata has become a mainstream world-wide audience-pleaser.

A gumbo of music styles, Regional Mexican Music is one of the most generic forms of Latin music.  In it, you’ll find all kinds of popular and traditional expressions.  In the U.S., Regional Mexican is one of the best-selling genres of Latin music.  Important artist include Vicente Fernandez, Los Tigres del Norte, Banda El Limon and Banda El Recodo.

Known for its intensity and sensuality, the Tango has long been a favorite the world over.  Originally from Argentina and Uruguay, the Tango evolved during the 1800s in the immigrant communities of Buenos Aires.  In the 20th century, it moved into the mainstream thanks to the music of the King of Tango, Carlos Gardel.  Later, a talented bandoneon player, Astor Piazzolla added elements of jazz and blues to the Tango, and today, the style remains one of the mainstays of Latin music.

Merengue is another of the musical gifts from the Dominican Republic.  A favorite for any Latin music party, it is among the most exciting Latin dance music.  Throughout its history, the form has been modified with the incorporation of a variety of instruments, and in the 1980s, Wilfrido Vargas changed the tempo of the traditional rhythm, creating the distinctive sound that has characterized Merengue since.  (Juan Luis Guerra, Eddy Herrera, Elvis Crespo, Los Vecinos, etc.)

In my experience, Latin Pop gets the most requests, mainly due to the younger audience.  Some of the biggest Latin music stars in the world belong to this category.  However, before the arrival of such artists as Shakira and Ricky Martin, it was defined by the romantic 1970s music of legendary artists such as Julio Iglesias and Roberto Carlos.

Latin Urban and Reggaeton borrows from hip-hop, rap and reggae and continues to evolve from the original sounds of the Reggae fusion of the late 1990s.  It has continued to become a complex genre that includes all kinds of tropical rhythms, pop and dance music.  Some of the current best Latin urban acts are the most popular artists in the world.  Listen to Daddy Yankee, Calle 13, Don Omar, Wisin y Yandel and Pitbull.

Brazilian Music – Earlier I said that Regional Mexican music was a generic term. However, Brazilian music is probably the MOST generic term in Latin music.  The music is as big as the country itself.  From Samba to Bossa Nova to Sertaneja and Brazilian pop, the category has delivered some of the most popular Latin music songs in the world.  There are legendary Brazilian stars like Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joao Gilberto and Marisa Monte.

In general terms, the development of Latin Rock has coincided with pop rock, but it was not until the 1980s that Latin America came up with a defined musical expression associated with their rock music: Rock en EspanolSince then, Latin artist have incorporated all kinds of traditional Latin rhythms into their music, making it the force behind the development of today’s Latin Alternative Music.  Now, Latin Alternative is the most interesting non-mainstream music in the Latin world.  Listen to Mana, Calle 13, Soda Stereo, Andres Calamaro, etc.

As with any list, there’s always room for disagreement, but to assist with getting started building your essential Latin music library, here are what many consider to be the Top 10 Latin songs of all time:

10.       La Bamba – Derived from a traditional dance from Veracruz, it was a world-wide hit in 1958 by Ritchie Valens.  A 1987 remake by Los Lobos became the most memorable version due to its association with the movie La Bamba.

9.         El Condor Pasa – An example of South American Andean Music, the Peruvian version by Daniel Alomia Robles is the most famous.

8.         Guantanamera – Perhaps the most famous Cuban song.  Although the song’s authorship has never been resolved, the most well-known version is by the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz.

7.         Libertango – This song by Astor Piazzolla introduced the world to the so-called Nuevo Tango, and his instrumental track offers some of the most suggestive notes ever written in Latin Music.

6.         Historia De Un Amor – This Bolero track is often regarded as the most romantic Latin song ever recorded.  Probably sung by every Latin artist at some time, it is definitely an all-time hit.

5.         El Manisero by Moises Simons – You may know it better as “The Peanut Vendor,” it is another musical jewel from Cuba.  This Afro-Cuban Rumba has long been a favorite of jazz musicians.

4.         The Girl from Ipanema – Antonio Carlos Jobim & Vinicius de Moraes  –  The most famous Bossa Nova tune from these two Brazilian artists, the song became a world-wide hit in 1963 when recorded by Stan Getz, Joao Gilberto and Astrud Gilberto.

3.        La Cucaracha – Who has not heard this one?  One of the most iconic melodies of Latin music, its true origins are unknown.

2.         Besame Mucho – Consuelo Velazquez  –  Written way back in 1940, it is widely considered one of the most romantic Latin songs.

1.         Oye Como Va – Another iconic Latin song, originally recorded in 1963 by Mambo and Latin Jazz musician Tito Puente.  However, it worldwide appeal with the 1970 version by Carlos Santana.



  • Dave Austin began his career at age 13 at a small, hometown radio station. He went on to graduate from the University of Southern Mississippi with a Bachelor’s degree in broadcasting. Since that time, Dave has been a mobile and radio DJ, radio station Program Director, and a TV news reporter and anchorman. He has also done voiceover work for documentaries and commercials. In 1986 Dave’s longtime passion for music prompted him to start “Southern Celebrations DJs,” a multi-system mobile entertainment company serving clients in Tennessee, Northern Georgia and Northern Alabama. You can email him c/o

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