photo of Antonio Garcia in his office
Antonio García has freelanced as a musician with over 70 nationally renowned artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, Doc Severinsen and Phil Collins. The key to appreciating the music of another culture, he says, is learning about the culture and language that influence the music. (File photo)

Rhythmic beats: Antonio García explains how culture and language strongly influence Latin music

Understanding cultural influences is different from just learning about the music, says García, director of jazz studies at the VCU School of the Arts.

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Antonio García believes the key to appreciating the music of another culture is learning about the culture and language that influence the music. 

“All music comes from people and all people have a culture and language,” said García, director of jazz studies and instructor of trombone, small jazz ensemble, jazz theory and music industry at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts.

García, who has freelanced as a trombonist, bass trombonist, or pianist with over 70 nationally renowned artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, Doc Severinsen and Phil Collins, bases his philosophy partly on his own experiences growing up with different cultural influences. The son of a mother from Iowa and father from Puerto Rico, García and his family lived in New Orleans where the sound of jazz and Latin-inspired music permeated every nook and cranny of the city.

Antonio GarcĂ­a

“I didn’t grow up knowing about music. But as I studied it formally and performed it professionally, I learned about the language and the culture through the music, which gave me more respect for the heritage,” García said. 

García is a longtime student of jazz and Latin music, a genre that represents various styles, cultures and geographical influences. It includes music from Latin America, Spain and the United States. 

“It’s difficult to define jazz now after over 100 years,” he said. “It’s like a vacuum cleaner. It sucks up influences from all music.

“There are the Afro-Cuban street beats of New Orleans,” he said. “Brazilian music is influenced by French and Afro-Cuban. In Brazil, aside from the indigenous population, the country had more enslaved individuals than the United States during the height of slavery. That’s just one way a country’s music is influenced.” 

Listen to the beat 

The rhythmic beats in Latin music are just as diverse and influence dance music such as the salsa.

“Brazilian music has countless rhythmic variations,” García said. “You have the bossa nova and the samba. There are easily eight varieties within those two categories. You have Colombia jazz or the rhythms of Venezuela or Salvadorian rhythms.” 

Puerto Rican bomba rhythms, which are rooted in Puerto Rico’s history of African slave trade and plena, a dance native to Puerto Rico, are very popular in New York, García said.

Latin rhythms are also found in the music of many singers such as Shakira, Santana and Beyonce.

“You can’t listen to 20 minutes of pop radio that isn’t hugely influenced by the grooves of Latin music or Latin jazz, which is becoming more and more a world music,” García said. “You’ll find great Afro-Cuban music being played in Japan.”

García, a research faculty member at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa), likes to get his students engaged and clued in to the different cultures.

He has hosted guest artists in class like musician Tito Puente and on occasion took students to South Africa, which is the “musical heart of everything,” he said. 

“We visit people in their homes and towns. We go on safaris. You can stand in the great plains of Africa and hear percussion instruments through the birds and animals. Everything from the food to the architecture to the rhythm of the language emerges in the music. That helps music make more sense,” he said. 

Understanding how the culture influences music is different from just learning about the music, he said.

“Music is rarely written to just be lovely. It’s written to express something and promote the language and culture,” García said. 

Music, he added, is a “lifelong journey.”