The cultural and musical history of South America, in its broadest outlines, is the same story repeated all over the Americas: the collision and collusion of European, African and indigenous peoples to form a new, hybrid society. But if the story is a familiar one, its details are very different, giving South America a unique and rich cultural flavor all its own. The continent's best-known musical exports-tango, samba, bossa nova-are all products of this hybrid experience.
Unlike North America and the Caribbean, where various European colonial powers vied for supremacy, South America remained amicably split between the Portuguese and Spanish crowns by a 1493 decree of Pope Alexander VI-who failed to consult with the indigenous peoples already living there. This opened the door for the bloody conquest of the continent by European armies: most notably Francisco Pissaro's successful assault on the Incan empire on the Pacific coast. First contact was invariably a one-sided affair, with European military technology and microbes decimating native populations wholesale. There are no records of the number of people living in the Americas before 1491-and estimates vary wildly-but it's broadly accepted that populations fell sharply and sophisticated cultures faltered in the wake of European encroachment.
Wholesale colonization followed, and many of the remaining native peoples were forced into indentured servitude or enslaved outright. But in the 16th century, the cultivation of sugar soon proved more profitable than gold in Northern Brazil and other parts of the Caribbean basin, and African slaves began arriving by the boatload to provide the labor force. Brazil would continue to import hundreds of thousands of slaves-particularly from Angola-until 1888, when it was the last nation in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery. Today in Brazil, people of African ancestry outnumber those of European and indigenous ancestry combined.
The Spanish/Portuguese linguistic division persisted long after Portugal and Spain gave up their colonies, and their languages lent a unique cohesion to the mosaic of cultures and peoples of South America. Even the relatively recent immigrants of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries-Germans, Italians and even Japanese-have assimilated linguistically. For more than 500 years, these disparate cultures recombined to form vigorous new hybrid cultures, known variously as Creole, criollo, crioulo or mestizo. In most of South America, this hybrid has long been the dominant culture-whether a realization of the Bolivarian dream of an independent continent or simply reflective of demographic realities. And because of the constant cross-fertilization of musical know-how, South America is a treasure trove of Creole musical styles.
Brazil alone is one of the world's great musical powerhouses, boasting everything from samba, bossa nova and the world famous Carnival troupes, to lesser-known styles such as forro, choro and the myriad pop sounds of MPB, or Música Popular Brasileira. While Argentina is the home of not only tango but also zamba, milonga and chamamé. Colombia and Venezuela are musical universes of their own, where the joropos and llaneros of the high-plains cowboys gives way to the simmering coastal sounds of vallenato, cumbia and currulao. Even tiny Uruguay boasts a unique national style called candomble. While on the other side of the Andes, the music of Boliva, Chile, Peru and Ecuador reflects their larger indigenous populations, and such styles as huayno, yaraví and cueca all retain strong precontact musical elements. At the same time, these countries, along with Argentina, were the crucible of the nueva cancion movement of the 1970s, which mixed Andean themes and sounds with very contemporary calls for social justice.
Of course pop music is important across the continent, and international pop, R&B, hip-hop and dance music are all immensely popular thanks to MTV's Latin American division. But homegrown pop-especially rock en Espanol-has been equally important in recent years, and bands such as Argentina's Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and Colombia's Los Aterciopelados have won worldwide followings. -Tom Pryor