Ch. 13: The “Latin Explosion”

The influence of Latin-American/Caribbean music in America has been present since the 19th century. The sounds of the Caribbean were one of the essential ingredients used in the recipe created in New Orleans that would eventually yield an important style called “jazz” at the beginning of the 20th century. The music of Cuba could be heard in the mid-1950s when Dizzy Gillespie and other musicians incorporated Latin sounds into jazz to form “Cubop,” an Afro-Cuban hybrid.

Easy-listening pop music in America had Cuban bandleader Desi Arnez in the ‘50s. Early rock ‘n’ roll had Ritchie Valens with “La Bamba”, and the 1960s saw Brazilian Sergio Mendes, Mexican-American Trini Lopez, and Puerto Rican José Feliciano. Even pop music in the late ‘70s had Menudo, a five-member boyband from Puerto Rico.

In the 1960s, rock ‘n’ roll felt the presence of Latin music when guitarist Santana and his band brought a blues-rock-Latin sound to San Francisco and eventually to Woodstock in 1969. His unique flavor of Latin-rock was “rediscovered” three decades later, when “Smooth,” the single from his album Supernatural, with Rob Thomas, lead singer of Matchbox Twenty, won three Grammy Awards and was the final #1 hit of 1999 and first #1 hit of 2000, remaining at the top of the charts for 12 weeks.

As early as the 1940s, a sub-genre of Latin music called Tejano was being formed in Texas and Mexico. Immigrants from Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland had introduced a dance called the polka and an instrument called the accordion to the South-central U.S./Mexico border area. By the 1950s and 1960s, country & western music and rock ‘n’ roll were incorporated into the Tejano sound with electric guitars and drums. When the Grammy Awards established the Mexican-American/Tejano Music Performance category in 1983, early winners in the decade included Los Lobos, Flaco Jimenez, Los Tigres del Norte, and the Texas Tornados.  

Gloria Estefan at the White HouseBut the roots for the current wave of Latin-pop music can be traced to the mid-1980s when Cuban-born Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine brought Latin dance-pop music to chart success and international awareness. Over a decade before the wave of Latin-pop artists hit in the 1990s, Estefan was creating a formula for success. With over three dozen #1 songs, dozens of awards, more than twenty-five gold, platinum, and multi-platinum records, and record sales exceeding 100 million, Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine could arguably be considered the most successful and influential musicians in the history of Latin-pop music.

With just a few exceptions, the primary core of the Latin-pop-rock sound is dance music – salsa, disco, pop – all fused with brass and rhythm sections. From their first non-Latin-language album, Eyes of Innocence, in 1984, the Sound Machine found chart success, with the dance hit “Dr. Beat.” The following year, the single “Conga” became the best representation of the driving dance force of Latin-pop dance music. The success of the Miami Sound Machine on the Anglo-pop crossover charts was almost constant in the albums to follow. Mixing infectious dance-beat songs like “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” (1987) and “1-2-3”, with the pulsing ballads “Can’t Stay Away from You” and “Anything for You” – all from 1988, Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine became the quintessential sound of American Latin-pop music.

The prototype for Latin pop at the end of the 20th century was built first on a clean, persistent rhythm line built from disco, funk, and salsa music. The foundation of rhythm was often a combination of live percussion instruments, such as congas or hand instruments and drum machine sounds. It was then layered with harmonies from a horn section and synthesizers. A funk-like bass line is added, then vocal harmonies, and an easily singable melody line with a catchy hook in the chorus. The heavily produced sound used whether the song was a dance-pop or ballad, the pattern became a successful model for Estefan’s group and dozens of others in the late ‘80s and into the ‘90s. This infectious, beat-filled sound with melodic hooks crossed over to mainstream pop-rock charts with English lyrics beginning in the middle of the 1980s.

Jon Secada 1996In the first part of the ‘90s, other Latin artists, often associated with Estefan, began to make their mark on the charts. Jon Secada wrote songs for Estefan, including her ballad “Coming Out of the Dark” and sang backup on her tour before launching his own career. With his debut album in 1992, Secada sold over six million units and immediately became one of the biggest artists on the adult contemporary charts.

The movement for Latin artists to cross over into the mainstream pop-rock in the mid-1990s had two important subscripts. In 1996, a three-year-old song that was popular in Spain was given a remix and released into American culture. “Macarena” became not only a hit song but a contagious dance that found its way into Western culture and was enthusiastically added to the list of “community dances” like the “Y.M.C.A.” and the “Chicken Dance.” Despite its worldwide popularity, the song, like the artists, Los del Rio, was a one-shot hit and disappeared within a couple of years.

Selena PerezThe second footnote to the popularity of Latin-pop music in the mid’90s is the tragedy of the Latin soloist Selena. After building a large following in the Spanish-language music industry, Selena was on the verge of crossing over from Tejano to the American pop mainstream movement. Tragically, she was murdered before she could make that transition. However, the English-language album she had been working on, Dreaming of You, was released posthumously. But for many, the death of Selena, who has been called the “Queen of Tejano” and the “Tejano Madonna,” was just as impactful as that of John Lennon or Michael Jackson. In 2021, the Grammys posthumously awarded Selena a Lifetime Achievement Award.

The success of Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine, together with the efforts of Jon Secada and others, prepared America for the phenomenal success that came for Latin-pop artists in 1999 and 2000. In one milestone of a year, at least five significant Latin-pop artists would breakthrough into the mainstream music culture in what has been called the “Latin Explosion.”

Singer-dancer-actor-songwriter-producer Marc Anthony crossed over from his successful career in Latin music to the English charts in 1999 with a self-titled album containing “I Need to Know”, which reached #3 on the charts. However, most of his work since has remained in the Latin side of the music industry.

Former member of Menudo, Ricky Martin had several Spanish-language solo albums in the early 1990s, but his explosion on the pop-rock charts happened in 1999 with an album and single titled “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” The album would sell over 15 million copies and yield a second hit song, “She’s All I Ever Had,” the same year. Though his success on the English charts did not remain, his impact on American culture in movies and television remained.

Just as Martin cut his performing teeth with the boy-band Menudo, an alumnus of Disney’s television show “The Mickey Mouse Club” would also graduate to the next level in music popularity. New York-born Puerto Rican Christina Aguilera hit the top of the charts in 1999 with two #1 hit songs: “Genie In A Bottle” and “What a Girl Wants.” In doing so, the 18-year-old singer won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist.

Jennifer Lopez 01Though Jennifer Lopez became known first as a dancer and actor (she was chosen to play Selena in the singer’s posthumous 1997 biopic), at age 30, the New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent released her debut album, On the 6, in 1999. The album included the artist’s first of four #1 hit songs in the next four years: “If You Had My Love.” The “triple-threat” entertainer has been a dominant presence in American culture in the subsequent decades, appearing in multiple movies, television shows and releasing eight studio albums. Her impact as fashion-icon, businesswoman, actor, dancer, and singer has made her one of the most influential Latin-American entertainers in history.

Son of Latin music icon Julio Iglesias, Spanish-born Enrique Iglesias would make his first recording at age 20, but after winning several Grammy and Billboard awards for his Spanish-language work, Enrique would cross over to the English pop charts in 1999 with the #1 song, “Bailamos,” which was featured in the movie Wild Wild West with Will Smith and achieved #1 status on charts throughout the world. Early the following year, he would also score a #1 with “Be With You.” With his early success on the English-speaking charts in the ‘00s and his Spanish-language recordings, Iglesias has sold over 150 million albums worldwide and had 25 #1 singles on Billboard’s Latin Songs chart.

Latin-pop-rock music in the early 1990s veered away from the Tropical Latin sounds of Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine and towards a softer ballad-like sound of artists such as Julio Iglesias and Luis Miguel. But by the end of the decade, the bridge from Estefan’s ‘80s Latin dance-pop-rock sound to the new Millenium was complete. The aftershocks of the “Latin Explosion” of 1999 would continue into the following decades, and Latin musicians such as Shakira, Selena Gomez, Zendaya, and Ariana Grande play a significant part in American popular music.

Scroll to Top
Watch and Learn

Audio/Video Room


Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

Study Units also have “Playdecks” – containing hundreds of chronologically organized audio examples of music in the study units, and “Study Qs” for unit chapters.

Study and Test

Testing Library

Contact Form