How Latin and Afro Sounds Conquered House Music
How Latin and Afro Sounds Conquered House MusicFebruary 17, 2021
The story of Latin music is a long and complex one that takes place over many centuries. It involves the music of West Africa and the indigenous populations of the Americas, the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of America, the transatlantic slave trade, and much more besides.
Generally, “Latin music” refers to music created by people from the Spanish and Portuguese speaking areas of the world: Ibero-America and the Iberian Peninsula. As New York producer and recording artist Doug Gomez, a New Yorker with Colombian roots with a back catalogue containing many huge Afro-House records says “The roots of Latin music are a combination of African, European and indigenous music within Latin America. From Cumbia to Salsa to Merengue and everything in between.” So Latin music encompasses Bossa Nova, Samba, Rumba, Beguine, Mambo, Merengue, Tango, and Reggaeton, yet has also had an indelible influence on house.
What unites all these genres is rhythmic complexity — a defining characteristic of Latin music. Layers of interlocking, syncopated percussion played on instruments like the bongos, timbales, congas, claves, cowbells, shakers, maracas, and the Güiro make Latin rhythms so devastatingly effective on the dance floor. Which didn’t go unnoticed by dance music producers, starting in the early ‘70s.
The disco records that were foundational to the development of House were full of Latin rhythmic fire, so Latin rhythms and percussive influences were woven into the fabric of house music right from the very beginning. In fact, looking back at soul, funk and R&B records from the early ‘70s just prior to disco, influential African American artists and producers like Norman Whitfield, Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Donnie Hathaway, and Stevie Wonder were all introducing the audio language of the Latin tradition — cowbells, shakers, bongos and so on — to add polyrhythms to their music. In the early/mid-1970s, pioneering soul label Philadelphia International Records (PIR), whose house band MFSB innovated many of the central elements in the emerging disco sound, always used a Latin rhythm section on their records to create rhythmic drive on top of drummer Earl Young’s 4/4 disco beat.
A crucial moment came with Joe Bataan’s 1973 SalSoul album, the title of which came from combining Salsa and Soul. SalSoul was an irresistible blend of Latin rhythms and US R&B and soul. Each track featured layers of Latin percussion, and the album was hugely influential in bringing those unashamedly Latin rhythmic elements into the lexicon of soul and R&B
SalSoul was successful enough to fund Bataan’s business venture with Kenneth Stanley and Joseph Cayre to launch Salsoul Records. The sound of the label was described by co-founder Kenny Cayre in Tim Lawrence’s book Love Saves The Day as “R&B rhythm and Latin percussion with a pretty melody on top.” They signed up MFSB’s vibraphonist Vince Montana to deliver the sound, who recalled, “I emphasised the Latino rhythm sections. MFSB only used one conga player, Larry Washington and he would play timbales once in a while, but they never went too Latin, whereas I went very Latin.” You can clearly hear this approach in “Salsoul Hustle” by The Salsoul Orchestra from 1975 when at just over a minute in the listener is treated to a percussion-heavy, Latin-esque breakdown.
Montana and the Cayre’s combined the lush, melodic PIR sound — they secured the services of several MFSB members to play in the Salsoul Orchestra — with precisely engineered Latin percussion, pushing the low end to the foreground of the mix for maximum dance floor impact. In the process they created a back catalogue of pivotal and prescient musical moments, producing many records that were either re-played, copied, sampled, or referred to as the basis of early house records.
Another Latin element in the pre-house early/mid-80s was the Latin Freestyle genre. As Def Mix Music A&R and New York house ambassador/DJ Hector Romero said, “I’m born and raised in the Bronx in New York, so the whole music culture was part of my upbringing. For me in the ‘80s when I was starting to go out, I grew up as a hip hop DJ first, that was the first music that I started with, then as I grew up in my early teens I started getting into the Latin sounds of what we call Latin Freestyle.”
Latin Freestyle was epitomised by records like Shannon’s epic 808 heartbreaker “Let The Music Play” or Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s “I Wonder If I Take You Home.” It can be thought of as the soulful side of electro, and tended to match songs and vocalists with Latin influenced electronic drums and bass. It was a huge sound in mid-’80s New York, with artists like The Cover Girls, The Latin Rascals, Denise Lopez, and Judy Torres releasing records characterised by futuristic drum programming à la Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” but built around soulful vocals.
As Doug Gomez recalls, the Latin Freestyle scene in the mid/late ‘80s began incorporating house music — which was just beginning to bubble up from Chicago at that point — into the mix. Soon Latin house tracks began appearing. There was Jesse Velez’s 1985 vocal “Girls Out On The Floor”; Raz’s 1986 steamy house bomb, “Amour Puerto Riqueno”; Jose Cheena’s “Loco Pinga”; and the 1988 tracks “Can’t Get Enough” by Liz Torres (featuring Master C&J) and “The Breeze” by Two Without Hats.
So there is a very clear, Latin-flavoured musical thread stretching back to the roots of house music, from disco and through to post-disco, freestyle and early house. Frankie Knuckles famously called house music “disco’s revenge,” and embedded within that revenge were the essential building blocks of house, including those layers of syncopated percussion, congas, timbales, woodblocks, cowbells and bongos that characterised the Latin musical tradition. Latin rhythms and beats became part of the international language of house music, and countless conga and cowbell loops would go on to be used in all sorts of dance music genres and subgenres over the next thirty years.
For Louie Vega, who was already DJing and producing by the mid-’80s, Latin house has been around since there was house music. “The Latin house story started at the beginning of house; there were artists like Liz Torres and Master C&J, Armando, El Barrio, Two Without Hats, Todd Terry and others who were all inserting Latin influences in House music — we’re talking mid to late ‘80s,” Vega says.
Hector Romero also mentions that Todd Terry, “who’s obviously not Latin, was producing some of the biggest Latin influenced tracks at the time and he made some of the biggest Freestyle records as well.” Romero credits “Little” Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez (known together as Masters At Work) with kick-starting the first “golden age” of Latin house in the early ‘90s. “As far as how Latin House started, it was that Latin sound that Masters at Work incorporated into their productions and remixes in the ‘90s,” Romero says. “Guys like myself, that have grown up in New York and were Hispanic, Puerto-Rican, Latin American or whatever, we’ve grown up in this culture, listening to Salsa music and Latin music. Then we incorporated those sounds into the music we produced. The Louie Vegas and David Morales’s were integral in giving that Latin feel to House music, the percussion and the Latin rhythm.”
Louie Vega is a figure whose influence is difficult to over-play; he’s an ever-present creative force both in partnership with Kenny Gonzales and solo. For him, the blending of Latin and House were completely natural. “For me, it happened organically. I’ve DJed in New York City since 1986, and before that in the Bronx, so I was already playing Latin influences within my music. I combined Black music with Latin music so I feel that’s what gave our sound a more universal appeal. It is a Latin soul. My good friend and mentor Tony Humphries always told me I was the bridge between the Latins and African Americans. I have a heavy upbringing with the Latin and African American communities and always heard Latin music because of my parents, so the music of Fania Records and jazz were always played at home. And subliminally, those beats and rhythms were in my head for years.”
Photo: Louie Vega
The early to mid-’90s were something of a golden age for Latin house. There were artists like Masters at Work, Armand Van Helden, Antonio Ocasio, Louie “Lou” Gorbea, Davidson Ospina, Frankie Feliciano, Norty Cotto, Louie Balo, Erick Morillo, and Danny & Victor Vargas. And labels like Cutting Records, Strictly Rhythm, Tribal Winds, Nervous Records, Aquaboogie, Eightball, and Digital Dungeon released a steady stream of quality Latin-inspired house tracks. For Doug Gomez, the Latin-Afro fusion journey really started here, with the early ‘90s house sound of New York when US producers began using “tribal” percussive elements in their tracks. But it would be a few years before the particular African sound palette and the potent, serene rhythmic complexity of Afro house would be fully adopted and reinterpreted by US house producers.
Aside from club records, the early ‘90s saw Latin artists like C&C Music Factory (David Bryon Cole and Robert Manuel Clivillés) and Louie Vega release huge crossover records, like “Gonna Make You Sweat” and “Love & Happiness,” respectively. 1996 was a key year, as MAW launched their era-defining Nuyorican Soul project, bringing Latin music in a club format to the masses on an album regularly listed as one of house music’s finest moments. Nuyorican Soul was SalSoul for the house generation. “That album and subsequent releases took house music to another level,” Doug Gomez says.
The popularity of every genre waxes and wanes over time and by the end of the 90s and into the 2000s, dance music fragmented as genres like Drum & Bass, UK Garage, Electroclash, Minimal Techno, and Dubstep splintered off, inevitably taking some of the spotlight away from US house. Meanwhile, a movement was developing across the Atlantic.
With 54 countries and around 1.2 billion citizens, it is somewhat problematic to generalise about African house music, but very broadly speaking, when we talk about Afro house, we mean electronic music that is created using polyrhythmic African music traditions, often featuring African vocals and drawing on African non-electronic musical styles to produce a distinct new genre of house. German-Nigerian DJ & producer JAMIIE defines Afro House as a former subgenre of house that developed into a genre of its own with roots in South Africa, consisting of “tribal and ancestral vocals and elements, polyrhythmic percussion and drums.” She also notes that the Afro house movement has included influential female artists like Anané, Lizwi, Jackie Queens, Ohlule, Toshi, Mikki Afflick, Emeli Sandé, Hanna Hais and many more.
House music has been popular in South Africa for years, with DJs like Vinny Da Vinci and DJ Christos playing house before the end of apartheid (1994). Influential South Africa house label House Afrika was also launched in ’94. South Africa embraced house music in the late ‘90s, post-apartheid period when international sanctions were lifted, so much so that house became the de facto music of South Africa, heard on the radio, the TV, in taxis, supermarkets, barbers and clubs and parties.
In terms of global popularity, Afro house began finding its place in the mid 2000s. And Black Coffee and his Soulistic label, launched in 2005, were at the vanguard of developing and spreading the sound. Producers like Culoe de Song and Da Capo also put out superb music on Soulistic, bringing their own rhythms and sensibility to the established house sound, pushing the sonic boundaries of what house music could be. Black Coffee’s 2005 debut release (his interpretation of Hugh Masekela’s hit “Stimela”) placed him firmly within the South African musical tradition, yet right at the cutting edge of electronic music, deftly bestriding genre boundaries with ease. His journey from unknown DJ at the start of the 2000s to his appointment as Hï Ibiza resident in 2017 neatly mirrors the rise of the global Afro house sound.
Boddhi Satva is a producer from the Central African Republic who records with vocalists from Africa and beyond. His productions revel in their broad sonic palette, with African and European instruments like the kora, piano, sax, flute, congas, cello, and balafon happily rubbing elbows. He cites African American producer Osunlade as a key influence. ”The [Afro House] sound evolved greatly with the productions of Osunlade as he integrated more Afro-Centric elements, and this influence birthed the producers that now make Afro house and its many sonic facets.” Osunlade founded his influential Yoruba imprint in 1999, naming his label after the West African Yoruba culture. He introduced a spiritual element to his work as well as incorporating Yoruba vocals in some releases. From his 2000 “El Primer Ano” collection to Afefe Iku’s huge “Mirror Dance: on Yoruba in 2008; or the subtle, deft Afro-tinged percussion on his remix of Cassy’s “Feel” on Aus Music (2016), he’s been a constant inspirational and influential presence in the scene.
Afro house steadily rose in popularity over the course of the first two decades of the 21st century. And the graceful, detailed, multifaceted percussion and cool sensibility and warm production of Afro house beguiled American and European deep house artists like Fred Everything, Atjazz, and Charles Webster — all of whom worked regularly with artists and producers from South Africa. Boddhi Satva also notes a strong Spanish contingent pursuing Afro house in the 2000s including artists like Pablo Fierro, Chus & Ceballos, Kiko Navarro, and Danny Marquez.
And of course, there were plenty of US producers who couldn’t help but notice these often jazz-tinged, pristine, poly-rhythmic, percussive jams, perhaps recognising the common musical roots that straddle the Atlantic. “The fusion and influence of Latin and African music goes way back when slaves were brought to Latin American and Spanish countries,” JAMIIE says. “The music of West Africa, where a majority of those enslaved in the Americas came from, was diffused through both an indigenous and Spanish filter to become the distinct sounds and rhythms that we know today.” Perhaps it was inevitable that the rhythms of the two continents would find each other again.
“I hear the fusion in Afro House within the percussion and rhythmic patterns,” Louie Vega says. “From the snare sounds of Gqom (from Durban, South Africa) to Afro-deep house percussion and synth stabs. In the end it derives from Africa, these sounds of Latin music.”
Osunlade too sees the connection between the African roots of Latin music. “From my observation it seems to be a natural thing,” he says. “Latin music is African in root, however, and again the addition of percussion changes the game and heightens the field, meaning more excitement, more energy… When you hear Latin, Caribbean, or Brazilian music, it’s more dance, more life, more joy — the celebration of the sound comes through, and this to me is due to the addition of the percussive rhythms.”
After decades of Latin-based grooves in house music, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a new rhythmic vocabulary would prove so popular. The happy marriage of the percolating, interlocking rhythms of the two continents has provided producers around the world with a supremely effective, dance floor-friendly base from which to work on, and in the process created a dance music genre with enduring global appeal.
“African music was such an influence in Latin music, then Latin producers like Doug Gomez, Peppe Citarella, they started incorporating it into their productions, creating Latin, current, contemporary House sounds with Afro and Latin rhythms,” Hector Romero says. “So this kind of mash-up of Afro/Latin house starts to become popular, and one of the big labels is MoBlack, but Doug Gomez’s label Merecumbe Recordings is really big on that too, fusing the Latin Afro sounds together.”
Citarella describes the output of his Union Records label as “…the right mix between Afro and Latin music — Afro rhythm with the contamination of Latin voices and instruments” and it’s a recipe that has proved hugely successful. Likewise, the success of Mimmo Falcone’s MoBlack label and of productions like Citarella’s “Mamafrica” with India and Paki Palmieri, his 2015 hit “Yangui ci Birr” or tracks from Gomez like “Collares” on MoBlack, “Disruptive” with Ayaba on Tambor Music and his 2018 HyperSOUL-X’s “Happiness” remix are all clear demonstrations of the quality and popularity of the Afro/Latin House sound.
Now, in 2021, the Beatport Afro house chart contains New York Latino producers like Joeski and Spanish artists like Pablo Fierro, who stand alongside African artists like Saint Evo, Enoo Napa, or Themba. Afro/Latin house is a truly international genre, a 21st-century cosmopolitan blend of some of the finest rhythms the world has ever produced. That two distinct musical traditions which share a common root have come back together is a triumph of the internationalist spirit of music and demonstrates the enduring nature of certain rhythmic constructions, and the quality inherent in the groove.
“Latin House and its fusion with Afro house — it’s all connected,” Louie Vega says. “One influences the other, and vice versa. Whether it’s just a snare pattern, bassline or synth stab with a Latin feel, when it’s combined with the African rhythm it takes you to another whole dimension of sounds!”
Harold Heath is a freelance journalist and DJ living in Brighton. His new book, Long Relationships: My Incredible Journey From Unknown DJ to Smalltime DJ, will be published by Velocity Press in Spring 2021. Follow him on Twitter.