America’s “Living Baroque” in the Cultural Melting Pot
If one examines the numerous types of plucked instruments found in South
America today, it is immediately obvious that they differ very little from
their European Baroque equivalents.
Before the Spanish colonization of South
America, there were no plucked
instruments in the indigenous culture.
The South American arpa llanera, cuatro, bandolin, charango, jarana, and requinto as we know them today are direct descendants of
instruments introduced from Spain,
among them the lute, Baroque guitar,
and Renaissance harp. The instruments used in South America today and their
playing techniques have developed locally over the centuries and adapted to the
indigenous songs, dances, and rhythms, but their ultimate ancestry remains
If we now turn our attention to the
origins and harmonic structure of South American dances and songs, it may
generally be stated that their melodies and harmonies are close to Baroque
models. There are also rhythmic features from Europe, such as the Baroque
hemiola (when there are two measures in triple meter that are redistributed to
sound like three measures in duple meter) and elements of flamenco music.
Almost all the musical forms in South America have developed a polyrhythmic
dimension that can be traced back to hybridizations of three cultures: Indian,
Spanish, and African. Dance and song, originally considered a unit, only
crystallized into separate art forms in the 20th century. From the harmonic
point of view, Argentina has deviated the furthest from Baroque models,
although traditional rhythmic patterns may still be observed in modern
Argentinian musical forms.
llanera is a diatonic harp that is derived from the Renaissance harp, which
was imported into South America by the Spaniards in the 16th century. Its
design has not fundamentally altered since that time, but the way it is played
has been influenced by African and Indian elements that irrigated the music of
Venezuela. The playing technique employs rhythmic and percussive elements, and
is astonishingly virtuosic. Some of these techniques are now a fixed feature of
the joropo, forming its rhythmic and
is a rhythmic improvisation on the bass strings of the arpa llanera,
normally accompanied by chords in the treble of the harp, cuatro, percussion, and maracas. The bandoleo section of this improvisation is played in the tenor
register of the harp and is supposed to imitate the sound of a bandola instrument. Here, the strings
are plucked high up near the tuning pegs and immediately dampened with the ball
of the hand, producing a nasal sound and generating rhythmic impulses. This
intense improvisatory section is usually the highpoint of the piece, and is
commented on by rhythmic responses on the maracas
and the cuatro.
Preludios are short, improvisatory
introductions that generally quote in freer rhythm the harmonic sequence of the
ensuing strummed golpe pattern.
The cuatro is a type of small, four-stringed
guitar deriving from the
Spanish Renaissance guitar and the Portuguese cavaquinho. It is
of immense importance in the execution of joropo style, as it provides both the
harmonic and rhythmic structural basis of this music. The tuning is the same as
that of the Spanish Renaissance guitar except that the first string is tuned an
octave lower. The principal technique of the cuatro is called rasgueo,
in which all four strings are struck simultaneously, with the right hand
playing a continuous 6/8 rhythm in various combinations. The punteado technique is also used from
time to time for melodic improvisation.
Rasgueo features two styles: Abierto, where strings are allowed to
resonate after they have been struck; and trancado,
where strings are dampened with the ball of the hand immediately after they
have been struck, producing a percussive effect. The combination of these two
techniques with varying accents characterizes the different musical styles.
In the golpe corrido, the accented trancado strokes arrive on the third and
sixth eight notes and, along with the maracas
and the right hand of the harp, form the clave
The golpe de seis accentuation is
completely different, even if the basic rhythm is the same. The change of
harmony does not occur at the beginning of the bar. Maracas and trancado
accents emphasize the first and fourth eight notes. The first stroke is often
played as a trancado mudo—a rhythmic
impulse is produced and the strings do not vibrate so that the change of
harmony is delayed.
These variations in technique and rhythm are of decisive importance in
performing the different golpes llaneros.
is a very small plucked instrument from the Andes. Its roots are thought to lie
in the silver-mining city of Potosí in southern central Bolivia in the 16th
century. During this time, people from all over the world gathered in the town,
some of them bringing musical instruments from Spain, including the charango. Today,
the charango is played not only in Bolivia, but also in Argentina and
Originally, the sound box was formed
from the dried shell of an armadillo.
Nowadays, it is generally made of wood.
The basic technique used for this instrument is rhythmic strumming: All strings are played together, but there is also a
virtuoso plucking technique.
is a musical style that originated in the foothills of the Andes between Colombia
and Venezuela in the central Orinoco
basin. Musically, the joropo is a
mixture of Spanish and African influences.
The joropo is founded on firm musical structures over which soloists
can deploy free rhythmic and melodic improvisations. It may be either sung or
performed by instruments alone. It derives its energy from a constant shift
between duple and triple meters, which may be heard either as simultaneous
polyrhythmic combinations or in alternation.
The instruments generally used are
the arpa llanera or bandola, cuatro, and maracas.
While the cuatro strums the harmony
in 6/8 time, the maracas and the
treble register of the harp play in 3/4; the bass register of the harp adds
counter-accents in a hemiola 3/2 meter. This polyrhythmic contradiction results
in a vitality that permits the other instruments and the singer to improvise.
In the rhythmically syncopated melody, one may detect the influence of
African slaves, while the imprint of the Indian population is evident in the
use of maracas.
The joropo is not only a musical
style, but also a dance that is founded on three basic steps; however, it takes
its own specific form in each region. The three most important dance figures
are the valsiao, escobillao, and zapatiao.
During the valsiao, the dancing couples
embrace lightly while traversing the dance floor and moving around it in
spirals. In the escobillao, the woman
adopts a frontal position and moves her feet in rhythm from heel to toe. The zapatiao is a male dance in which the
fiery steps of the man—unlike those of the woman—are intended to be heard loud
It is customary to distinguish three
principal regional variants of the joropo.
In Guyana, one finds the joropo llanero, which is accompanied by the arpa llanera strung with nylon strings,
the cuatro, and maracas. The joropo central
is performed with the arpa central
(or arpa mirandina), a harp strung
with metal strings, and the maracas.
The cuatro, crucially important in
the joropo llanero, is replaced in
the joropo central by vocalization. The joropo
oriental also involves the participation of other instruments, such as the
guitar, mandolin, or cuerata—an
accordion of European origin.
The constant development and improvisation
of rhythmic and melodic figures is a feature of the joropo. The singers ceaselessly improvise new verses on the
existing models, while the instrumentalists express their creativity and
virtuosity in complicated rhythmic improvisations.
The joropo has been the
Venezuelan national dance since 1882. The well-known song “Alma llanera” is
also a joropo and is regarded as the
unofficial national anthem of Venezuela.
is one of the most refined musical forms of Colombian-Venezuelan folklore, and
the one in which the performers’ virtuosity is most apparent because of the
The pajarillo is founded on a
harmonic structure that does not modulate. The singer begins his song like a
cry, with a sustained note called the tañío
(the Llaneros also call it leco). The
purity, length, and volume of this first note indicate the quality of the
soloist to the listeners; it opens the rhetorical discourse and must draw the audience
in. The melodic improvisation of the singer is in the Mixolydian mode, and the text is sung in syncopation with the polyrhythmic accompanying structure.
The Colombian-Venezuelan Joropo and the Mexican Fandango
an old Colombian-Venezuelan tradition from the Orinoco Basin, and the fandango jarocho, which comes from the
coastal plains of southern Mexico, share deep common roots. Both these Latin
American traditions can be traced back to Spanish Baroque fandangos, follias, malagueñas, and peteneras. The son jorocho
and the fandango are hybridizations
of three cultures that came together in the cultural melting pot of the
Caribbean: Indian, Spanish, and African.
Until the 18th century, the joropo
was designated as a fandango in
Venezuela. The word jarocho
originally denoted a child of an African man and a Mexican-Indian woman; it
later became a term for a musical form in southern Mexico that combined these
The Venezuelan-Colombian term joropo
describes not only a musical form, but also a folk festival with music, dance, poetry contests, and singing.
Similarly, the Mexican fandangojarocho is celebrated in festivals
lasting for days on end that embrace poetry contests, songs, and zapateado dancing.
In the rural communities of the Orinoco Basin, the joropo is still regarded as a village celebration. However, in the
towns nowadays what counts is more the musical content, which over the last 50
years has risen above its rural character to a level of extreme virtuosity,
thanks to numerous festivals, radio broadcasts, commercial recordings, and
Both the joropo and the fandango jarocho include a singing
contest between two soloists who not only improvise musically, but also invent
impromptu strophic verses.
The fandango jarocho has its roots in
the European fandango and was
exported from Spain to Mexico in the 18th century. It is still based today on
the same harmonic pattern as the Baroque fandango,
which has survived in Europe only in instrumental form. The Mexican fandango jarocho is sung and possesses a
ritual character. Its simple harmonic form serves the singer as a basis for
endlessly renewed improvisation.
The instruments of both these cultures are related to one another, and all of
them may be traced back to Spanish Baroque instruments. The Venezuelan cuatro has almost the same form,
dimensions, and musical role as the Mexican jarana,
which is only a couple of centimeters
bigger. Both instruments are played with rasgueo technique. The harp is extremely
important in both traditions: The Venezuelan harp is lighter and
somewhat sharper in tone, but the Mexican harp is nonetheless identical to its
cousin in form and musical significance. They play both similar rhythmic patterns and harmonic sequences.
The difference lies in the tempo and character: The Mexican jarocho is more relaxed and its sung
texts are reminiscent of the Spanish Golden Age. The instruments serve to
accompany the singer and the narratives
he presents. In the joropo, on the
other hand, the emphasis is laid on the instrumentalists’ virtuosity, while the sung texts often relate local events.
Despite the obvious differences between these two traditions, they still
have a great many elements in common, and their roots in the Renaissance and
Baroque eras in Europe cannot be overlooked. Although both traditions have been
brewed to perfection locally in the cultural melting pot of the Caribbean, they
can still be described as “living Baroque.”
is a majestic partner dance in which the couples circle each other waving
handkerchiefs. It was traditionally accompanied by a guitar and the animal
hide–covered percussion instrument called a bombo
legüero, developed from the European military drum of the 18th century.
The word zamba was originally the
term for the child of an American Indian mother and a European father. The
dance originated in Peru; when Peru gained its independence in 1824, the form
spread to Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. Today, the zamba is Argentina’s national dance.