Guatemalan music has a surprising variety of styles. When the Europeans arrived during the 1500s, they brought along their religion and their music. The Spanish introduced plenty of Flemish and Spanish liturgical songs to the Guatemalans. It didn’t take long before the indigenous peoples began to learn the art of contrapuntal composition and began making their own music.
After Guatemala gained independence, many young promising musicians went to France and Italy to study music. They learned from the best and learned all the latest trends at that time and brought it back to Guatemala. Baroque music generally gave way to Classical styles and soon Guatemalan symphonies and operas began to be performed in the cultural centers and churches across the country. By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, several composers started looking to their own roots in Mayan music. There were several operas written about Mayan folklore and the Popol Vuh (I mentioned this book in the previous post), incorporating Mayan traditional music into the opera as well. Symphonies, choirs, orchestras, and opera companies popped up around the country during the 20th century and kept the idea of this new classical-Guatemalan music alive.
The most prominent instrument in Guatemalan music is the marimba. Classified as an idiophone, its ancestor, the balafon, originated in West Africa and was brought over during the slave trade. Once they arrived in Guatemala, they created what is known as the chromatic marimba, similar to what we know now. Although the area that it was created in is now part of Mexico, it is still considered a Guatemalan invention and serves as its national instrument. Many famous marimba players have risen to fame, such as Mariano Valverde; Paco Pérez’s famous waltz “Luna de Xelajú” is one of the most famous marimba pieces. When I was in college, I visited the Woodwind & Brasswind store in South Bend, Indiana, and I got to play on a 5 ½ octave marimba. It was surreal. (It’s made by Yamaha and currently for sale on Woodwind & Brasswind’s website for $15,274.99. You might want to pick up two or three for that deal. It does qualify for free shipping, so there you go.)
Dance is either divided up between pre-Hispanic dances and Hispanic dances. Many of the pre-Hispanic dances are named after animals (Dance of the Deer or Dance of the Monkeys) and performed for a particular societal function. The Dance of the Deer is a ritual dance for the annual Deer Hunt for food and materials for the community. The Dance of the Monkeys is based on stories from the Popol Vuh. Dances of the Hispanic period tend to immortalize battles (Dance of the Conquest), folk stories and pastoral life (Dance of the Pascarines, Dance of the Cowboy, Dance of the Mexicans), or religious themes (Dance of the Xacalcojes, Dance of the Moors and Christians). There are many dance festivals that take place throughout the year across the country, some lasting several days.
As far as popular music goes, Guatemalans listen to a lot of music from Mexico, the Caribbean, and other areas of Latin America. But they have plenty of their own musicians as well. One musician that I listened to is Ricardo Arjona. His simple acoustic guitar reminds me a little of Carlos Vives at times. I listened to the album Viaje. I especially liked this album. It was the type of album I could listen to while I work. (And I did.)
Bohemia Suburbana is a rock band that played on the edge of new psychedelic rock. They reminded me a little of a cross between U2 and the Brazilian band Skank at times. I liked what I heard from the album Sombras En El Jardín. They have four albums available on iTunes for $9.99.
Viernes Verde is another band I listened to. They have a very strong 1990s alternative rock sound that I love. I would especially recommend the album Namaste. They use the deeper driving guitar riffs, but not too much. These catchy riffs and unexpected chord changes at times keep the listener interested. I think they remind me a little of the band Live at times.
I’m so glad that I found out about La Dubvolution. It's reggae music, and it’s all very chill. I love it so much. I listened to the album 3 Es Sonsuelto En Souldub, and I could totally picture listening to this while relaxing with a glass of wine or a cold beer. I think I need to get this album. It’s also available on iTunes for $9.99.
I liked Malacates Trebol Shop’s album Si!. But it was to be expected since I really like ska. It’s a fun listen. I think this would make a great album to listen to in the car.
Magda Angélica is a Guatemalan singer whose album K’aslem is very good. She’s been instrumental in promoting the musical traditions of the Mayans in both Mexico and in Guatemala and has won several awards for her extraordinary work.
Guatemala also has its fair share of hard rock. I included two bands into my Spotify playlist: Los Mojarras and Astraroth. Los Mojarras has more of a 1980s hair band hard rock style but mixed with a little bit of The Ramones. And actually, they use such a wide array of styles in their music that I have to respect that. Astraroth is a very typical metal band. Complete with gunshot-sounding percussion, guttural screams, and sewer-deep guitar riffs, metal fans should really give this a listen.
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