The list can be longer. Music runs through our veins, and rhythms are embedded in the Hispanic DNA, even for those of us with two left feet when it comes to dancing. Here are 10 essential latino artists who have contributed exceptionally to music in the United States over the years.
She was the “Queen of Tejano Music,” who catapulted the genre into the mainstream and became the eternal Latin Sweetheart of America. One of the few celebrities who enjoyed a single-name recognition. She can be seen in all her splendor in her last concert, recorded at the Houston Astrodome on February 26, 1995, and simultaneously televised live on Univision. The show was posthumously released as an album, Selena Live! The Last Concert (2021). Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was murdered just a month later, on March 31, 1995. There are still many question marks hanging over the 23-year-old Texas icon’s untimely departure, but thanks to technology, we can still enjoy her vibrant last performance.
They are the original Hispanic Americans and would be known as the epitome of romanticism. The internationally famous trio was formed in New York City in 1944 by Puerto Rican lead vocalist Hernando Avilés, Mexican singer Alfredo ‘El Güero’ Gil— creator of the requinto guitar, a smaller version of the acoustic classical guitar which would come to revolutionize the popular ballad—and Mexican singer ‘Chucho’ Navarro. In this video, the top bolero singers team up with American singer Eydie Gormé, who sings some of their hits in Spanish. Take the opportunity to take off your hat for the music with which our grandparents fell in love.
Get ready for a trip back in time through a portal to witness a piece of history (and the turbulent political history of the 20th century). The place is Kinshasa, the capital city of Congo—back then called Zaire— and the date is September 1974. Fania All-Stars artists were rehearsing to perform in the three-day music festival Zaire 74 at the 60,000-seat Stade du 20 Mai, today renamed as Stade Tata Raphaël. The concert was intended to promote solidarity between African Americans and African people through funk, soul, and salsa as a preamble of the most famous event that has taken place at the stadium: The Rumble in the Jungle boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman for the Undisputed WBC/WBA Heavyweight Championship on September 24. Here you can see part of the Parnassus of Latino artists in their youth—flutist and band leader Johnny Pacheco, singer Héctor Lavoe, Ray Barreto, Cheo Feliciano, ‘The marvelous Jew’ Larry Harlow, among others— along the “Queen of Salsa,” la “Guarachera de Cuba,” Celia Cruz with her contagious and torrential voice singing “Guantanamera,” arguably the most famous Cuban song.
Keep the player running when the video is finished to watch another piece of history. In the next one, New York City Mayor Ed Koch (1978-1989) introduces Celia’s live performance of “Bemba Colorá” at City Hall accompanied by Tito Puente and Johnny Pacheco, a decade later, in 1983.
To enjoy the epic complete performance of the Fania-All Stars Live in Africa, click below.
Multitalented Puente was a catalyst and alchemist of contemporary salsa and Latin-Jazz after the Afro-Cuban jazz created by Mario Bauzá and Francisco Gutierrez Grillo “Machito” in the early 1940s in New York with the band Machito and his Afro-Cuban, of which he was a member. Puente’s work was also crucial in the Mambo international success. Considered the “20th Century’s most influential American in Latin music,” Puente “carried on the traditions and the genius of people like Chano Pozo, Mario Bauzá, and Dizzy Gillespie. He was a real crossover,” Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, a member of the Afro-Cuban All-Stars band, is quoted saying in the obituary written by Achy Obejas for the Chicago Tribune, when the musician born in New York Spanish Harlem passed away on June 1, 2000.
Clarinet and alto saxophone virtuoso, regarded as a versatile musician who moves seamlessly between genres and musical styles from jazz to classical music, as a composer and instrumentalist, D’Rivera was a founding member—along with pianist ‘Chucho’ Valdés—of Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna (1967) and the iconic group Irakere (1973), Cuba’s best-known Latin jazz fusion band, before going into exile in the United States in 1980, where he has had an extraordinary musical career—receiving the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in Music Composition in 2007, the Living Jazz Legend Award from the Kennedy Center in Washington DC and a Doctorate Honoris Causa in Music from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. D’Rivera has won 11 Grammy and Latin Grammy Awards (5 Grammy and 9 Latin Grammys) and recorded over 30 solo albums. D’Rivera and Valdés reunited on a 2022 album, I Missed You Too! celebrating their six decades of friendship. Listen to this gem that gives the album its title.
Julio Iglesias is a legend. The original crossover artist, the record seller breaker, Julio Iglesias’ fame knows no languages or borders. And in a certain way, it has shadowed his children’s artistic career. Since his success in Spain and the Spanish-speaking region with his song “La vida sigue igual” (Life Goes On The Same), which was the soundtrack of the homonymous film, Julio Iglesias’ career had a meteoric takeoff. Miami’s Lifelong resident—he moved there in 1979 when Miami wasn’t yet cool—is undoubtedly second to no one. Enjoy this beautiful duet with Dolly Parton.
Estefan rose to international fame in the 1980s with “Conga” and “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” instant hits of Miami Sound Machine for her fresh contralto voice and fusion rhythm. Her music first became the soundtrack of Miami and then cascaded into that of an entire era. Her third studio album, Mi Tierra, spent fifty-eight weeks atop the Billboard Top Latin Albums chart, becoming the most extended-running #1 album ever, until it was displaced by Selena’s album Amor Prohibido on June 11, 1994. Estefan was the first Hispanic artist to sing on the most-watched stage in the U.S. when she performed at the halftime show during the Washington Redskins 37-24 victory over the Buffalo Bills at the Super Bowl XXVI on January 26, 1992. Watch below the historic performance by “the one and only Gloria Estefan!”
If that wasn’t enough, here goes her famous signature song, “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You.”
Dámaso Pérez Prado
You may not know who Dámaso Pérez Prado is, but the mambo’s fame continues today. Although the authorship of the popular genre has been disputed—the creation is attributed to Orestes López and his brother Cachao in 1937, following the innovation of “The Wonderful Blind Man” Arsenio Rodríguez—no one contributed so much to the mambo craze and its worldwide success than the “King of the Mambo.” The Cuban-born musician was also instrumental in the mid-century boom of Latin Music in the United States. He is the composer of contagious tunes like “Mambo No.5,” “Patricia,” “El Rico Mambo,” “Mambo No. 8,” and the one below “Pachuco Bailarín.” Those brass instruments would make a dead man dance.
Ronstadt recorded the album Canciones de mi padre (Songs of My Father) in 1989. Although her conversational Spanish is limited, she sings fluently with the power of her voice, accompanied by mariachis. The 77-year-old legendary singer is considered the “first true woman rock’n’roll superstar” and the most popular and successful woman singer of the 70s.
This all-Spanish album is a tribute to her father and her Mexican heritage, “for Mexico is the land of magic,” says Ronstadt in the video below, full of nostalgia and reminiscences of childhood. The award-winning singer and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee was already a household name.
The “King of Reggaeton” helped turn the urban Latino (and Puerto Rican) musicians into a global phenomenon. Considered one of the most influential Hispanic musicians worldwide, Raymond Ayala’s Barrio Fino (2004), with its single “Gasolina,” was the first reggaetón album to hit the Billboard’s Top Latin Album chart on July 31, 2004, debuting as #1. Yankee is credited for ushering reggaeton into the mainstream, and his success “triggered the explosion of urban Latin music worldwide,” Nestor Casonú, president of Kobalt Music Latin America, told Billboard. “The genre would revive sales of Latin music, usher in a new radio format in the US (Latin Rhythm) and establish the urban base responsible for many Latin radio hits today,” wrote Leila Cobo, analyzing the phenomenon for Billboard.
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