Ten Songs that Shaped My Life in Central America

Disclaimer: Not all the music here is FROM Central America. In fact, none of it is. What we’re talking about is the music you’ll hear in Central America, just about everywhere you go… which granted, at this moment, is pretty much nowhere.

I’ve been wanting to put together a list like this since lockdown started. Since before lockdown, actually. But walking past a neighbor’s house today with the dogs inspired me.

Rather than call 9-1-1 and snitch on them for having a suspect party like the government asks us to do nowadays, I stood out in the street and let the sounds of Santana’s Smooth (featuring Rob Thomas) wash all over me. It felt good to hear music in the street again. Street music is something you take for granted in Latin America, and it struck me today how I hadn’t heard any for ages.

As Smooth segued into something else, I moved on to avoid looking like a weirdo or a narc.                                      

As I walked away, I felt lifted and reminded for the first time in ages how powerful music is.

I’d call myself a music maven if it didn’t sound so arrogant. I’m a British 90s kid and proud of it. Coming from the country that invented the Beatles, the Stones, Bowie, Led Zep, the Pistols, the Clash, the Jam, the Stone Roses, the Verve, Radiohead, and a million other bands, it’s hard not to be proud. We invented punk and acid house. Northern soul. Heavy metal. Cool Britannia was real. I’m pretentious bordering on Argentinian when it comes to my country’s music (no offense to Argentina – you guys have a stereotype of arrogance that matches the British, and I love y’all for it. As nations, we’re very much alike).

And then I came to Central America and realized what a small musical world I’d lived in before.                          

Before I came here, I knew nothing about music in Latin America. Sure, I’d heard of salsa, meringue, and all that. I’d heard of Carlos Santana, although I doubt I’d have thought of him as Latin back then. But that’s about it.                                                                                                                                                                              

No-one listened to Latin music in the UK when I lived there. You had some guys doing salsa classes and all that, but my suspicion was they were only doing it to try to pick up girls rather than for the love of the music. They always seemed a little slimy, a little creepy. It’s different now, with people like Shakira being global stars, but not too different.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that Latin America – Central America – opened my eyes again to new music.                                                                                                                                                                            

When I arrived in Costa Rica, I lived in some of the… let’s say… less salubrious parts of San Jose. Alajuelita, Desamparados, places like that. Working-class hoods where people live cheek-by-jowl. The music in these neighborhoods was none stop. Anyone who knows Latin America knows neighborhood like these. I loved it.

So here I wanted to play tribute to ten songs that have influenced me since I’ve been living in this part of the world. There’s no order to these songs, and none of them are from Central America. But if you spend enough time in Central America, you’ll hear them all at some point. Or at least other songs from the same artists. 

You may hate them – I’m not going to say these are the best or coolest tunes. They’re just ten songs that have shaped my life in Central America. They’re my songs.

Si No Te Hubieras Ido by Marco Antonio Solis

Marco Antonio Solis for me is the king. I love this man. The white suit and long hair gets women of a certain age all hot and bothered in all sorts of ways. He’s a Latino Neil Diamond.

I first heard Si No Te Hubieras on a chicken bus in Guatemala in about 2001. Anyone who’s traveled on Guatemalan chicken buses knows the drill. These things are chaotic. Anyway, on this day, crammed onto this sweltering bus surrounded by all of humanity, something beautiful happened. The driver stuck on Si No Te Huberias Ido and everyone started singing together. The whole bus in harmony. It was what you would call A Moment.

Since then, I’ve unabashedly loved this song, no matter who makes fun of me for it. Si No Te Hubieras Ido is hands down my favorite Latin tune and always will be.

Fun fact: I once sung this song in a super-sketchy karaoke bar in the Costa Rican port of Puntarenas, while a heavily-pregnant prostitute tried to seduce my friend on the dance floor.

La Vida Tombola by Manu Chau

This song isn’t Manu Chau’s most famous, and although you’ll hear this guy in Central America, it’ll probably be something else first, like Clandestino (another great tune). But for me, La Vida Tombola trumps everything. Football and music have always gone hand in hand, and this tribute to Diego Maradona is sublime. It’s about getting inside the head of Maradona and imagining you were him. The best football song of all time? In my eyes, yes.

La Reina del Sur by Tigres del Norte

There are two words that best describe Tigres del Norte. Drinking music. The BEST drinking music. You know, like a tropical Pogues. There’s nothing like this stuff for tying one on to. Try it sometime.

Frijolero by Molotov

Oh man I love this tune. Frijolero should be required listening for every gringo who sets foot south of the Rio Grande. That’s all there is to say about this song. Required listening. Get on it.

Andar Conmigo by Julieta Venegas

Julieta Venegas is now one of my favorite singers in the world and I had never heard of her until I came here. I could have picked any tune from hers, and Andar Conmigo isn’t any less great than anything else she’s done. Think of her as a kind of Latina Beth Orton or Alanis Morissette. She’s utterly unique. Time Magazine one called Julieta Venegas “the Frida Kahlo of rock’n’roll.” Brilliant description.

La Paga by Juanes

One of my early favorites when I moved here. And perhaps my favorite video of all time, too. Is this the best woman-breaking-up-with-mouse song ever? I believe it is.

En el Muelle de San Blas by Mana

Like Julieta Venegas earlier, I could have picked any song by Mana. This Mexican band has been part of the soundtrack of my Latin American life. But En el Muelle de San Blas is special, straight out of the band’s golden era of the late 90s. To me, this song is about chilling in a hammock on a Costa Rican beach with a cold beer in hand and a sunset in front of me. For the second (and last) time in this article, I’m going to use the word sublime. Heartbreaking lyrics, too.

Oh – and Mana also do a brilliant cover of Marco Antonio Solis’s Si No Te Hubieras Ido.

Atravete-Te-Te by Calle 13

I’ll get some stick for this one, as many people look down on reggaeton as kinda like music for scumbags. And it’s true – lots of scumbags like reggaeton. But you know what? Reggaeton when it’s good is great. The genre is definitely, without doubt, a huge part of life in Central America, so get used to hearing it. In any case, Calle 13 were always more interesting and intelligent than most of the other guys. Worth checking out.

La Flaca by Jarabe de Palo

Jarabe de Palo were a Spanish band, but I got introduced to them in Latin America, so for me they’re a valid part of this list. For a while, back in the day, there wasn’t a party I went to that didn’t play this tune. I’m thinking all those U Latina parties in San Pedro. We all loved it then and I still love it now.

Por Ti by Belanova

Another band I heard a lot during my younger party days in Costa Rica. There was a while back in the noughties where you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing this song. Lovers of great pop music will find a home with Belanova. And I am a lover of great pop music.

So that’s my list. I’ll say again that none of these songs are actually from Central America. Sorry about that. 

But I’m not going to pull out Central American songs and artists I hardly know to make up the numbers.

Each of the songs and the artists I’ve listed have contributed to my life in Central America. More importantly, before I came to Central America, I had not heard of a single one of them, except for Manu Chau.

You’ll also hear a lot of English-language music in Central America. I always joke that Costa Rican radio is where the 80s came to die. Once upon a time I remember watching a TV show in Panama City, a Saturday-night variety kind of show. They wheeled out the band Starship. You know… We Built This City. They were hilarious.

Before COVID-19 killed the concept of gigs, we were getting some big name acts down here, too. Roger Waters, Paul McCartney, Foo Fighters, and other bands have played Costa Rica in recent years. Iron Maiden used to come to Costa Rica all the time, flying their own plane themselves. Massive metal scene here, which surprised the hell out of me when I first arrived.

And over on the Caribbean side of Central America, from Belize down to the Colombian border with Panama, reggae is king. And also, bizarrely, country music. 

Anyway, I hope you like some of my tunes. The music I discovered in this part of the world. I hope they give you at least some idea of what you’ll hear when you turn on the radio or walk down the street in Central America.

James Dyde is the editor of centralamerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.