The term "música tropical" has been used historically to refer to any music with a "tropical" flavor, that is, any music identified with the tropics, usually the Afro-Caribbean rim. In the present instance, it is not an entirely accurate label, since the ensemble that represents this type of music — the grupo tropical/moderno — is not necessarily "tropical" in character. Aside from the fact that one of its musical mainstays is the cumbia, a dance originally from the tropics of Colombia, the grupo tropical/moderno need not feature any of the percussion instruments normally associated with tropical, that is, Afro-Caribbean, music. And, in fact, the grupo tropical is known today as much for its emphasis on another popular genre, música moderna (or romántica), as it is for the cumbia.
The grupo tropical originated in Mexico in the 1960s and then spread to the United States via the heavy Mexican immigration that has occurred during the last 25 years or so. It originally featured instruments such as the conga drums and the güiro, or scrapergourd. As it has evolved in recent years, however, the grupo tropical/moderno often features four instruments — keyboard (originally an electric organ, later synthesizer), electric guitar and bass, and trap drums.
The grupo tropical's mainstay, the cumbia, was originally a Colombian folk dance that in the twentieth century became urbanized and diffused commercially throughout Latin America. Upon reaching Mexico in the mid-1960s, the cumbia was appropriated by the working-class masses at about the same time that the four-instrument ensemble was emerging as a favorite dance group among urban working-class Mexicans. This ensemble came to be associated with cumbia music (música tropical) in Mexico and the American Southwest. At about the same time, however, a slow-dance genre, influenced by American rhythm and blues, surged in popularity in Mexico — the balada (from the American pop "ballad," a lyrical love song). Popularized by such groups as Los Angeles Negros (The Black Angels), Los Terrícolas (The Earthlings), and others, the Mexican balada came to be known generally as "música romántica" (or "moderna" — the two terms are interchangeable), and in time most grupos tropicales/modernos began to alternate between the cumbia and the balada to fill out their repertories.
Besides Los Angeles Negros (who seldom performed the cumbia), the best-known exponents in the relatively short span of música tropical/moderna in Mexico and the United States have been Rigo Tovar (who is of Afro-Caribbean ancestry), Los Bukis (The Bukis), Los Sonics, Los Yonics, (The Ionics), and Los Temerarios (The Fearless). Besides their reliance on record sales for financial support, most of the commercially popular grupos tropicales/modernos also rely on personal appearances at large public dances. Colombian musicians like La Sonoro Dinamita and Joe Arroyo have avid followers throughout Latin America who want to dance to their lively cumbia. At these dances the cumbia reigns supreme, although, again, most groups depend to one extent or another on the balada, which, with its slow 4/4 or 6/8 meter, offers a contrastive alternative to the usually up-tempo, lighthearted spirit of the cumbia.
Little has been written about the Mexican grupo tropical/moderno, which for the past 25 years has been undisputed king among certain working-class segments of Mexican society. By musical standards, it is an unspectacular style, one that has been dwarfed by both salsa and La Onda Chicana. But it exerts a powerful influence on the millions of Mexican proletarians who subscribe to it. In the United States, one has only to attend certain ballrooms in cities such as Los Angeles, San Jose, Phoenix, or El Paso to observe the enormous drawing power that groups such as Los Bukis, Los Yonics, and others command, especially among the undocumented and recently documented immigrants from Mexico.
Source: Hispanic-American Almanac, Gale, 1997; DISCovering Multicultural America, Gale, 1999.