• Samuel Igbo

Origins of Latin Music and Rhythm

“The rise of salsa was such an important time in musical history, not just in Latin music but music in general, because these guys created a new sound.”

Jennifer Lopez

Latin music, as well as its rhythm, style, and presence, has continued to dominate the retrospective field of art and music. From, it’s influences on classical music to powerful effect on many styles of music such as salsa, cumbia, reggaeton, and so much more. Though it’s rhythmic complexion may be quite tricky for its many appearances in orchestral and solo pieces for instrumentalists, it offers such a unique sound and flavor to any work being performed. But where exactly did these rhythms originate? Here, we’ll take a closer work into the early forms of Latin music, rhythm, and dance, and how they progressed to our current forms.

Latin rhythm and it’s origins all stem back to Carribean, Puerto Rican, and Cuban influences of drumming that incited dancing to its listeners. Bomba and Plena are the two main forms of drumming that are used so frequently in Latin rhythm today. The two main differences, however, are it’s rhythmic placements. Plena, a Puerto Rican percussive style of music, is usually syncopated, while bomba, also originating from Puerto Rico, is a more on-the beat, style of drumming.

Then, as Latin rhythm developed throughout the years, four main percussion instruments that influenced its development included the quinto, a small drum with the highest sound, middle drum, a medium sized drum with a sound lower than the quinto, and the tumbao, a drum with the lowest sound. However, the instrument that really made quite an impression was the clave, an Afro-Cuban percussive tool. They are two sticks about 1 inch in diameter and six inches long that when hit together make a high-pitched musical clicking noise. Clave means”key” or “keystone” in Spanish and can apply also to the basic rhythm being played in a musical piece by any instrument. Clave rhythms are the essential element of all Latin music, the most well-known of which are Salsa, ChaCha, Mambo, among others. Most commonly, clave rhythm is either in a 3/2 or a 2/3 pattern. If you hear three beats in the first four beats in a series of eight, then two beats in the last four, that would be a 3/2 clave rhythm. On the contrary, if you hear two beats in the first four, and three beats in beats five to eight, that would be a 2/3 rhythm. Salsa evolved as a more urban dance sound and is a faster rhythm using both 3/2 and 2/3 clave rhythms.

Latin rhythm has completely impacted all forms of music, from classical to modern styles. Essentially, it’s rhythm was created by drumming, which created a dance feel to Latin music, and is why we have so many unique styles of Latin music. So next time you hear salsa on the radio, try to think about the rhythm presented in the music and its origins, because that is what makes music, music.


Campbell, Loree V. “Exploring Latin Rhythms.” ScholarWorks, University of Montana, Dec. 2014, scholarworks.umt.edu.