Music, like food and drink, provides a very instinctual, pre-verbal, window into a culture. And just as food will give you a “gut feeling” for a culture, music seeps into your limbic system and delivers a form of body-level cultural understanding that you just can’t get from reading, guided tours, or museums.
So that you can really melt into the moment on Isla Palenque, we’ve made sure that the music you hear at our Panama resort reflects both our island and Panamanian culture.
Panama, being a small country, doesn’t create enough music to make it our sole source of playlist material at Isla Palenque. Of course, salsa great Rubén Blades has had a storied career spanning five decades now, and the entire musical genre of reggaeton arguably got its start in Panama. But still, to truly understand Panamanian music you need to go wider, and survey all of Latin American music — especially the sounds of Colombia and Cuba, two countries that have influenced the music that is listened to and created in Panama in a big way.
Traditional Latin American music, like most traditional music, is essentially dance music. Some of the dances that have evolved in Latin America are based on European ballroom styles, and the musical accompaniment likewise features imported Iberian elements. Other dances rose up from among the indigenous tribes and retain much of their communal character – these dances are performed in groups and represent a key component of celebrations and rituals.
Additionally, unlike most other parts of the world, Latin America has always been a mélange, the crossroads of three distinct cultures whose music synthesized into something new and unique. (Mostly) Spanish Europeans brought their musical traditions with them, the indigenous groups already had theirs, and the diaspora of Africans who came the Americas in the slave trade provided a third, distinct set of sounds and styles. This last group especially, with their heavily rhythmic traditions, did much to inform the styles of music that we now think of as Latin American, and so it’s not uncommon to hear of “Afro-Cuban” or “Afro-Peruvian” or “Afro-insert-country” when speaking of Latin American bands and music.
Traditional music and dances from this combination of cultures, such as sons, cumbias, and huayños, evolved as well into salsa, rumba, and merengue, all of which are known and practiced worldwide. Throw in the tango from Argentina, Brazilian sambas and bossa novas, as well as newer styles such as reggaeton and nueva canción, and you’ve got a deep world of music to explore – all of which has influenced Panama’s culture, and to which Panama has in turn contributed.
At Isla Palenque, we play music at both of our restaurants and surrounding areas, and also provide some music, along with books and movies, on your resort-provided iPad, to enjoy in your room. I take my music listening more seriously than I take my cocktails, so I’ve curated all of the hotel’s playlists. We’ve taken pains to make sure the music won’t bore you: over 150 hours of music spread over more than two dozen playlists means you won’t hear the same music over and over, which happens all too often at small hotels, especially when you stay a week.
Many kinds of Latin American music also work really well with my philosophy for background music. In the words of Eric Satie, as relayed by godfather of ambient music Brian Eno, good background music should “mingle with the sounds of knives and forks at dinner”. Unlike flaccid “elevator music”, good background music rewards listening should you choose to pay attention to it, but is capable of melting into the atmosphere to form part of the overall ambience, along with the architecture, furniture, and – yes – silverware.
Traditional Latin American music often does this: firmly rooted in dance music, by its nature it doesn’t “move forward” and utilize large dynamic ranges the way that, for example, European classical music does, and so you can choose to listen for a little while, then pay attention to your food or travel companion, then go back to the music. The rhythms are typically layered such that you don’t feel pounded over the head by a simplistic beat crying out to be recognized, but this complexity also means that the music can hold your attention and not bore you.
If you are familiar with the food, ambience, and drinks served at our two restaurants, you can probably guess the kinds of music we feature at each.
Edén focuses on Latin American music almost exclusively, with a bent towards more traditional Latin American music, or contemporary music that draws from traditional sources.
At Las Rocas, we are more free-ranging in our musical curation, playing music from all over the world, but always choosing music that composes a fitting backdrop to a range of beachy, desert island fantasies, with many nods towards more modern Latin American and Spanish music.
Over the course of the next few months, we will be releasing a series of blog posts that each feature a playlist of music from Isla Palenque. To start you off, I’ve provided a sample from each restaurant below — stay tuned for full playlists from both Edén and Las Rocas in the coming weeks. I encourage you to get in the tropical mood with our Island Music series, whether as a fitting soundtrack for planning your Panama adventure, or just because you like listening to good Latin American music.