Open Your Ears to Latin Pop

From the hip-shaking Shakira to the romantic crooning of Enrique Iglesias, Latin pop music, or Pop Latino, infiltrates every stratum of our world: the World Cup, Zumba classes, movies, romantic dinners…

In our previous article, Open Your Ears to Traditional Latin Music, you learned about traditional Latin dances like salsa, tango, and samba, and the music that accompanies them. Latin pop music today brings a new spin to centuries of traditional music, adding in contemporary electronic dance music beats, synthesis, and a lively pop music sound.

Here’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca”, a late-nineties hit by the prince of Latin pop, Ricky Martin:

Global Influence

From New York to Mexico, Latin pop music exploded onto the scene in the 1990s, but its exciting dance rhythms and catchy hooks can be traced back to the smooth romantic ballads of forerunners like Julio Iglesias and Sergio Mendes. Latino millennials today can remember their abuelas swooning over the sexy Iglesias, who always made you feel as if he was personally addressing you when he spoke of sensual love and romance:

Earlier Latin love ballads incorporated the familiar musical sounds of the 1960s and 1970s, but added a unique Latin touch, with light Latin rhythms and percussion and Spanish lyrics that glorified eternal love and heartbreak. Some well-known artists are Julio Iglesias, Sergio Mendes, and Roberto Carlos.

Other more traditional singers, like Cuban legend Celia Cruz, attained almost god-like status during their lifetimes. Singer Jon Secada followed in his forerunners’ footsteps with pop ballads in the 1990s after working with legendary Cuban star Gloria Estefan, whose band Miami Sound Machine truly brought Latin pop into global popularity in the 1980s and 1990s.

Gloria Estefan

Born in Havana, Cuba, Gloria Estefan’s rise to worldwide fame mirrors the hopes and dreams of the Cuban exiles after Castro’s revolution left many fleeing their homeland because of political persecution. Many came to the United States hoping for freedom and a better life for their children and grandchildren.

Estefan’s journey from humble beginnings to pop diva showed that the United States was truly the land of opportunity. A bus accident severely injured Estefan’s back, preventing her from dancing to her own music, but the dance diva continued on. Estefan’s hit songs “Conga” and the “Rhythm is Gonna Get You” have become iconic in pop music. Her music often has playful lyrics accompanied by strong Latin rhythms and percussion. She paved the way for artists like Ricky Martin and Shakira, who took dance clubs by storm.


Another Latina, the talented Mexican-American singer simply known as Selena, had just begun to make waves in the United States when her life was cut tragically short by a former employee. Despite her early death, Selena had become a Latin icon with her albums Entre a Mi Mundo and Amor Prohibido. She is often credited for bringing Tejano music, a complex blend of Mexican traditional music found in southern Texas, to international fame.

Selena has posthumously sold tens of millions of albums, and her legacy is kept alive with the film Selena, showcasing the acting talents of Jennifer Lopez, a Latina music icon in her own right.

Heard Worldwide!

Latin pop music has been heard at the Olympics, FIFA World Cup, Hollywood films, and television from the Americas to Europe to Africa to Asia. Contemporary Latino artists include Romeo Santos, Juan Gabriel, Enrique Iglesias, Nicky Jam, Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, and Julión Alvarez y su Norteño Banda. Latin pop music today has spread into other genres like hip hop, R&B, and reggae, while still maintaining close ties to its traditional musical roots.

Musical Elements of Latin Pop Music

There are a few key musical elements that you will find in Latin pop music. While the genre spans artists from almost every corner of the world, Latin pop has several distinctive hallmarks that distinguish it from other popular musical styles.


Latin pop music stems from the rich musical histories of the artists. Whether the music is derived from salsa, bossa nova, tango, or Tejano, strains of centuries of music passed down from generation to generation are recognizable in the genre.

Listen to Cuban-American rapper Pitbull’s “We are One (Ole Ola)”, which was the 2014 FIFA World Cup Song, and see if you can spot his influences:


Latin pop music includes classic Latin percussion instruments like maracas, congas, and bongos. Other traditional instrumentation, for example, including a Mariachi band or Spanish guitar, helps give Latin pop music a distinct Latino flavor. Gloria Estefan’s “Turn the Beat Around” glorifies percussion, with an incredible mix of syncopated Latin rhythms and percussion solos accompanied by a familiar disco beat.


Even English-version Latin pop songs have a smattering of Spanglish (Spanish + English), Portuguese, or even African dialects. For example, Shakira’s famous song “Waka Waka (This Time For Africa)”, performed at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, can be found in several languages, and was adapted from a traditional military song from Cameroon.

This global approach to music has helped make Latin pop music more than a provincial genre. Many of the most popular songs are sung in Spanish or Portuguese but still maintain international popularity.


Latin pop music often meshes traditional Latin rhythms with American pop and dance music. Gloria Estefan often incorporated a disco beat in her tunes and Colombian singer Shakira, whose father was Lebanese, adds in Arabic music to her hip-shaking Latin music. These rhythms are often syncopated with a steady beat, to keep people dancing.

Listening Practice

In Puerto Rican Elvis Crespo’s “Suavemente” you can hear the many complex rhythms of the percussion following a catchy electronic dance beat in the NYC Remix version. The original “Suavemente” has a Dominican merengue beat.

Compare the traditional version to the NYC Remix version. While you listen, think of the following:

  1. What are the differences in instrumentation?
  2. What are the primary differences between the NYC Remix and the original version?
  3. Why do you think an artist like Elvis Crespo would create an “Americanized” version?
  4. How does the NYC Remix keep true to its Latin roots?

Elvis Crespo Suavemente (Original):

Elvis Crespo Suavemente (NYC Remix):

A Contemporary Celebration of the Past

Latin pop music has grown to become an international phenomenon, blending the rich traditions of Latin music with contemporary pop to create tunes that recall the past while embracing modernity.

Take the time to listen to genre superstars like Shakira, Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Pitbull, Jennifer Lopez, and Gloria Estefan, seeing if you can hear which Latin music traditions influenced their sound. Invite a friend or two or three over and enjoy shaking to the rhythm of Latin pop!

The post Open Your Ears to Latin Pop appeared first on Musical U.