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 unmistakable.

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.

Arpa llanera 

The arpa 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 structural basis.

The bordoneo 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 rítmica.

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.


The charango 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 Peru.

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.


The joropo 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 and clear.

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 vocalisation. 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.


The pajarillo 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 rapid tempo.

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 

The joropo, 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 cultural elements.

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 fandango jarocho 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 music competitions.

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.”


The zamba 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.

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