Music and dance in Colombia

No South American country has a greater variety of music than Colombia, strategically placed where the Andes meet the Caribbean. The four major musical areas are: the mountain heartland; the Pacific coast; the Caribbean coast; and the Llanos or eastern plains.

Mountain heartland

The heartland covers the Andean highlands and intervening valleys of the Cauca and Magdalena and includes the country's three largest cities, Bogotá, Cali and Medellín. It is relatively gentle and sentimental music, accompanied largely by string instruments, with an occasional flute and a
shaker to lay down the rhythm. The preferred instrument of the highlands and by extension Colombia's national instrument, is the
, a small 12-stringed guitar, most of which are manufactured at Chiquinquirá in Boyacá. The national dance is the
, whose lilting sounds are said to have inspired Colombian troops at the Battle of Ayacucho in 1824. It is to be found throughout the country's heartland for dancing, singing and instrumentalizing and has long transcended its folk origins. The choreography is complex, including many figures, such as Los Ochos, La Invitación, Los Codos, Los Coqueteos, La Perseguida and La Arrodilla. Other related dances are the
, where the woman whirls like a top, the more stately Guabina, the Pasillo, Bunde, Sanjuanero and the picaresque
. Particularly celebrated melodies are the
Guabina Chiquinquireña
and the
Bunde Tolimense
. The following fiestas, among others, provide a good opportunity of seeing the music and dance:
La Fiesta del Campesino
, ubiquitous on the first Sunday in June, the
Fiesta del Bambuco
in Neiva and
Festival Folklórico Colombiano
in Ibagué later in the month, the
Fiesta Nacional de la Guabina y el Tiple
, held in Velez in early August, the
Desfile de Silleteros
in Medellín in the same month and
Las Fiestas de Pubenza
in Popayán just after the New Year, where the Conjuntos de Chirimía process through the streets.

Pacific coast

On Colombia's tropical Pacific coast (and extending down into Esmeraldas in Ecuador) is to be found some of the most African sounding black music in all South America. The
and its variants, the
, are extremely energetic recreational dances and the vocals are typically African-style call-and-response. This is the home of the
and the music is very percussion driven, including the upright
drum plus
. Wakes are important in this region and at these the
are sung. Best known is the 'Bunde de San Antonio'. The
jota chocoana
is a fine example of a Spanish dance taken by black people and turned into a satirical weapon against their masters. The regional fiestas are the
Festival Folklórico del Litoral
at Buenaventura in July and
San Francisco de Asís
at Quibdó on 4 August. Quibdó also features a
Fiesta de los Indios
at Easter.

Caribbean coast

The music of Colombia's Caribbean lowlands became popular for dancing throughout Latin America more than 30 years ago under the name of
Música Tropical
and has much more recently become an integral part of the Salsa repertory. It can be very roughly divided into cumbia and vallenato. The
is a heavily black influenced dance form for several couples, the men forming an outer circle and the women an inner one. The men hold aloft a bottle of rum and the women a bundle of slim candles called
. The dance probably originated in what is now Panama, moved east into Cartagena, where it is now centred and quite recently further east to Barranquilla and Santa Marta. The most celebrated cumbias are those of Ciénaga, Mompós, Sampués, San Jacinto and Sincelejo. The instrumental accompaniment consists of
flautas de caña de millo
, backed by drums. The
('male' and 'female') are vertical cactus flutes with beeswax heads, while the
cañas de millo
are smaller transverse flutes. The most famous conjuntos are the Gaiteros de San Jacinto, the Cumbia Soledeña and the Indios Selectos. Variants of the cumbia are the
, these last two being much faster and more energetic. Lately cumbia has also become very much part of the vallenato repertoire and is therefore often played on the accordion. Cumbia has been superseded by vallenato in Colombia and today is probably heard more outside the country than in it, with Colombian migrants taking it with them to cities like Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Los Angeles - even London. While it has travelled, it has picked up influences to create new sub-genres such as
cumbia villera
, both popular in Peru and Argentina.
music comes from Valledupar in the department of César and is of relatively recent origin. It is built around one instrument, the accordion, albeit backed by
rasps and
drums. The most popular rhythms are the paseo and the merengue, the latter having arrived from the Dominican Republic, where it is the national dance. Perhaps the first virtuoso accordionist was the legendary 'Francisco El Hombre', playing around the turn of the century. Today's best known names are those of Rafael Escalona, Alejandro Durán and Calixto Ochoa. In April the
Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata
is held in Valledupar and attended by thousands.

Barranquilla is the scene of South America's second most celebrated
, after that of Rio de Janeiro, with innumerable traditional masked groups, such as the
. The
is a dance in which death is defeated. Barranquilla's carnival is less commercialized and more traditional than that of Rio and should be a 'must' for anyone with the opportunity to attend. Other important festivals in the region are the
Corralejas de Sincelejo
with its bullfights in January,
La Candelaria
in Cartagena on 2 February, the
Festival de la Cumbia
in El Banco in June,
Fiesta del Caimán
in Ciénaga in January and
Festival del Porro
in San Pelayo (Córdoba). To complete the music of the Caribbean region, the Colombian islands of San Andrés and Providencia, off the coast of Nicaragua, have a fascinating mix of mainland Colombian and Jamaican island music, with the calypso naturally a prominent feature. More recently two other genres have gained increasing popularity.
originates in Cartagena and has roots in soukous, compas and reggae. It is characterized by very provocative dancing.
has become a phenomenon throughout Latin America. Believed to have originated in Panama, it blends a merengue beat with rapping and influences from reggae and ragga.


The fourth musical region is that of the great eastern plains, the so-called Llanos Orientales between the Ríos Arauca and Guaviare, a region where there is really no musical frontier between the two republics of Colombia and Venezuela. Here the
reigns supreme as a dance, with its close relatives the
, the slower and more romantic
and the breathlessly fast
zumba que zumba
. These are dances for couples, with a lot of heel tapping, the arms hanging down loosely to the sides. Arnulfo Briceño and Pentagrama Llanera are the big names and the harp is the only instrument that matters, although normally backed by
, guitar,
. Where to see and hear it all is at the
Festival Nacional del Joropo
at Villavicencio in December.

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
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