When people talk of Bolivian music they are almost certainly referring to the music of the Quechua- and Aymara-speaking people of the high Altiplano which provides the most distinctive Bolivian sound. The music of the Andes has become very well known throughout Europe and North America ever since the Bolivian song
El Cóndor Pasa
was recorded with English lyrics by Simon and Garfunkel and became an international hit. Now the distinctive sound of the Andes can be heard echoing around shopping malls and pedestrian precincts from London to Los Angeles.

The origins

The music of Bolivia can be described as the very heartbeat of the country. Each region has its own distinctive music that reflects its particular lifestyle, its mood and its physical surroundings. The music of the Altiplano, for example, is played in a minor key and tends to be sad and mournful, while the music of the lowlands is more up-tempo and generally happier.

Pre-Columbian music, which is still played today in towns and villages throughout the Andes, sounds very different from the music normally associated with that region now. The original uninfluenced music can sound unusual and even unpleasant to Western ears with its shrillness and use of scales and notes to which we are unaccustomed. Pre-Columbian music consisted of a five-note (pentatonic) scale, supposedly based on the five notes ancient people discovered in the wind. With the arrival of the Spaniards Andean music changed and took on Western forms, notably the seven-note scale. As more notes became available, so more varied themes could be played and the music we understand today as being Andean began to evolve.

Musical instruments

Before the arrival of the Spaniards in Latin America, the only instruments were wind and percussion. Although it is a popular misconception that Andean music is based on the panpipes, guitar and
, anyone who travels through the Andes will realize that these instruments only represent a small aspect of Andean music. Bolivian music itself has more Amerindian style and content than that of any other country in South America. It is rare to find an indigenous Bolivian who cannot play an instrument and it is these instruments, both wind and percussion, that are quintessentially Bolivian.

is a flute, usually made of reed, characterized by not having a mouthpiece to blow through. As with all Andean instruments, there is a family of
varying in length from around 15 to 50 cm. The
is the Aymara name for the
, or panpipes. It is the most important pre-Hispanic Andean instrument, formed by several reed tubes of different sizes held together by knotted string. Traditionally they are played singly, one person having one row of pipes.
are a type of flute made from the wood of the taco tree, from which their name derives. They are used a lot in festivals and have a
shrill sound.
are bamboo flutes with three octaves manufactured in Patacamaya, between Oruro and La Paz, and
are long, thick bamboo instruments
played from the side.

were pre-Hispanic trumpets originally made from seashells, wood or ceramics. Now the horn of a bull is used to produce the deep sound used by rural communities to call meetings. In Tarija, bulls' horns are also used to make
, which are very similar to
but are tied to long reeds and played collectively.

Amongst the percussion instruments are the
, a drum of various sizes, originally made from a hollowed-out tree trunk with the skins of llama or goat.
are made from sheep's hooves, dried in the sun, oiled and sewn onto a wrist cloth. Virtually the only instrument of European origin is the
, which is traditionally made in the village of Aiquile, near Cochabamba. When stringed instruments were first introduced by the Spanish, the indigenous people liked them but wanted something that was their own and so the
was born. Originally, they were made of clay, condor skeletons and armadillo or tortoise shells. Now, though, they are almost always made from wood. One of the main production centres is Oruro. In the Chuquisaca region it's traditional to have groups playing three or even four sizes of
with different voices.

Where to hear music

During periods of military dictatorship many folk musicians used their performances in
to register their opposition to repression and censorship in protest songs.
became a focus of resistance to military rule. In recent years, though, with the return to democracy and the rise of more contemporary varieties of youth culture,
have been losing their attraction. Every town in Bolivia has its own
, where you can hear popular Bolivian folk music, but today
are more likely to attract tourists than native young Bolivians.

Bolivia's many festivals are also good places to hear traditional music. For example, La Fiesta del Gran Poder in La Paz, the carnival in Oruro, or the Luzmilla Patiño festival in Cochabamba. The Fiesta de la Cruz takes place all over the Andes on 3 May, when thousands of musicians come together to play all shapes and sizes of instruments, including the
, which are huge panpipes over one metre long and hail from the Titicaca region.

The region of Tarija near the Argentine border has a musical tradition of its own, based on religious processions that culminate with that of San Roque on the first Sunday in September. The influence is Spanish and the musical instruments are the
and violin
. The
is a long bamboo tube with a horn at the end.

There are many professional folk groups on record. The most popular,
Los Kjarkas
(also known for a time as
), wrote the original song
Llorando se fue
, but the hit version was recorded by a French group under the famous title
. Other well-known folk groups are
Los Masis
Los Quipus
who have built up a considerable following in Europe. The greatest exponent of the
is the legendary
Ernesto Cavour
, who can be heard at some of the best-known
in La Paz .

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
Products in this Region

Peru, Bolivia & Ecuador Handbook

Tracing the range of the Andes - the geographical and cultural spine of South America - Peru,...

South American Handbook 2016

South America is epic. Home to the world's highest waterfall, the longest mountain range and the...

Bolivia Handbook

Bolivia is home to enormous biodiversity: surreal volcanic landscapes, lush valleys, enormous salt...
PDF Downloads

  No PDFs currently available

Digital Products

Available NOW!