Introducing Latin American Hymnody
Many of us speak a bit of Spanish (¿Dónde está el baño?); it is the most prevalent non-English language in the United States. It is difficult to document the exact number of Spanish speakers, but the census bureau estimates it at roughly 10-30% of the population. In certain parts of the county, this percentage is much higher. As the Spanish language continues to flourish, many churches experiment with Latin American hymnody. However, singing songs of another culture requires a lot more than just learning how to pronounce new words, and it can be a daunting task.
We refer to music of Spanish-speaking regions as “Latin American” or “Hispanic,” or sometimes simply as “Latino.” We must bear in mind that this spans the gamut of flamenco to calypso, tango to mariachi. It is certainly a rich musical culture with myriad nuances of style; however, we can parse out various characteristics that will assist us in faithfully incorporating Latin American hymnody.
What do we expect to find in Latin American congregational song?
- The estribillo is the “refrain,” which is prevalent in Latin American communal song. A catchy tune that is repeated after each verse allows the congregation to quickly pick up the estribillo. It also encourages improvisation once the congregation has learned the refrain. For example, a typical Latin American sound can be generated by adding thirds either above or below the melody.
- Much Latin American music is based on dance forms (think salsa or tango), and many of these dances rely heavily on rhythm. Latin American hymnody can be greatly enhanced by layering rhythmic patterns on authentic instruments.
How do we go about playing/singing Latin American congregational song?
- Enlist a percussion section! There is a wealth of percussion instruments authentic to Spanish-speaking regions: claves, bongos, congas, maracas, guiros, castanets, and cowbells are just a few. Remember that not all percussion instruments need to play all the time during a song, and even a single instrument can add a great deal of rhythmic vitality. Seek local professionals who are familiar with Latin American percussion patterns and listen to authentic recordings to get a sense of the patterns. You can also consult a variety of print resources, such as those listed at the end of this article.
- Use appropriate accompanying styles for piano or guitar. Rather than playing in a homophonic 4-part chorale style, realize that most Latin American music is sung as a solo unison line. Accompany with broken chords and arpeggios, and experiment with a syncopated bass line in the piano. Guitarists can play with a variety of strumming techniques, alternating between rolled chords, upward and downward strums, picking the strings, and percussive hitting of the strings. Note that Latin Americans generally view the piano as a percussion instrument that is simply part of the ensemble—it doesn’t usually play the melody.
- Enlist a melody instrument to bring out the tune. An accordion, flute, trumpet, or stringed instrument fills this role nicely.
- Learn the language! If you are not fluent in Spanish (or at least Spanish pronunciation), someone else in you community is. Ask for a quick lesson or have someone phonetically spell out the Spanish words for you. Perhaps the choir can sing the verses in Spanish, and the congregation can handle the estribillo after a few repetitions.
Always remember that we simply attempt to honor the music of a foreign culture by performing the music as respectfully and authentically as we can. It will not be perfect! This essay provides just a few ideas for introducing Latin American music to your congregation. There are many resources that can give specific instructions on accompanying styles, percussion patterns, and pronunciation. Two fantastic texts are Leading the Church’s Song (Augsburg Fortress, 1998) and Libro de Liturgia y Cántico (Augsburg Fortress, 1998). It may be a daunting task, but it is well worth embracing this rich musical tradition. ¡Cantad al Señor un cántico nuevo!