Until fairly recently, there had been a tendency to see the cultural traditions of the massive South American continent as monolithic. However, in the 1960s scholars began to unravel the area’s rich tapestry of musical cultures and practices, and with the increase in recordings, the public is better able to appreciate the variety of musical traditions found here.
As many as 117 languages are spoken in the continent, in perhaps 2000 different dialects. Until the 16th century, South America boasted some of the world’s most sophisticated cultures (the most famous being, perhaps, the Incas of the Andean regions). In the 1530s, the Spanish conquistadors arrived, followed by the Portuguese. They brought with them elements of European culture, as well as Catholicism, but a variety of diseases as well that devastated parts of the indigenous population.
Some indigenous traditions have remained nearly untouched until quite recently, because of the geographical remoteness of the cultures that created them (vast areas of rainforest and mountain terrain had remained unexplored until quite recently). But for the most part, South American music is a fascinating mix of Spanish, Portuguese, and indigenous art forms, as well as the music of Africans who were brought to the continent as slaves. Repertories can be as diverse as the romanzas found throughout South America (historically linked to folk songs of the Spanish renaissance) and the music of the Brazilian capoeira tradition, an art form strongly influenced by African music that is accompanied by physical movements resembling martial arts.