Jurg Widmer Probst shares the history of Guatemalan music

Guatemalan music has evolved from its Mayan origins into a cultural wonder full of colour and life, from the unique Garifuna on the Caribbean coast to global pop superstars.

This diversity and quality have brought accolades from well beyond Central America, with the country producing successful performers and composers during a remarkable history.

Music was important to the Mayans

The Maya, who dominated Guatemalan civilisation from around 2000BC, loved music and made it part of their lives and rituals, often depicting instruments and performances in their carvings. 

These durable records show drums made from animal skins, as well as trumpets, flutes, rattles and a percussion instrument called a tunkul, which was made by carving an H shape in a hollow log.

Archaeologists have also found a number unusual clay whistles in or near Mayan burial sites as far south as Peru. The whistles have survived thanks to their rugged design, and they sound like a bit like a frog. Researchers believe the whistles were used as part of funeral rituals.

European arrivals transformed Guatemalan music

The arrival of Spanish explorers and missionaries in Guatemala during the early 1500s sent a shockwave through the existing culture, and music was no exception.

Music played a major role in Catholic services and celebrations, and native Mayan musicians adapted its musical styles to their own traditions. In the province of Huehuetenango they even contributed their own new music to church services.

This willingness to fuse different styles distinguished Rafael Antonio Castellanoswho emerged as a talented composer in the late 18thcentury. His vocal compositions featured elements of Guatemalan folk, Afro-Caribbean and Mayan traditions.

Castellanos was not the only prominent composer produced by Guatemalan music, with Jose Eulalio Samayoa, Benedicto Saenz, Rafael Alvarez Ovalle and the brothers Jesus and Ricardo Castillo all achieving fame. 

African music has left its mark

European music revolutionised Guatemalan music, but African styles and instruments also had a profound and lasting effect.

This is embodied in the Garifuna people, who settled the northern coast of Guatemala during the 1800s and were descended partly from a mix of Amerindian natives and escaped and ship-wrecked African slaves. 

These men and women had kept alive musical traditions from their West African homelands, and those Afro-Caribbean influences survive in the music of the Garifuna in the town of Livingston in particular.

The marimba is a feature Guatemalan music 

If you visit Guatemala you will almost certainly encounter someone playing a marimba, which is the country’s national instrument and was originally brought to the Americas from Africa in the early 16thcentury.

The marimba has a set of wooden bars with pipes hung beneath them. The player strikes the bars with a mallet to produce the tones, and the pipes amplify the sound. 

Traditional marimba bands are still popular today, and the instrument has even worked its way into popular music through artists as diverse as the Rolling Stones, Ed Sheeran, The White Stripes, Frank Zappa and ABBA.

Classical music and opera are thriving

The modern Guatemalan musical scene includes two outstanding orchestras in the Orquestra Sinfonica Nacional and Orquestra Millennium.

The Sinfonica has been running since 1936, and its annual season is a popular highlight of the musical calendar. The Orquestra Millennium is not as steeped in history as the Sinfonica, but it has earned a strong reputation since it was founded in 1993 by Dieter Lehnhoff and Cristina Altamira.

The annual Guatecoral festival attracts choirs from all over the world, and is led by Guatemala’s own El Coro Nacional.

Touring opera companies often visit Guatemala, with performances at the National Theatre in Guatemala City and at various venues in nearby Antigua Guatemala.

Guatemalans are achieving global stardom

The global music scene has inevitably attracted Guatemalan performers, and many have achieved commercial and critical success outside of the country and Central America over the past few decades.

Ricardo Arjona is one of the most successful Guatemalan musical exports of all time, having won Best Latin Album at the 2007 Grammy Awards for ‘Adentro’, and sold more than 80 million albums.

He is not the only one, with singer-songwriter Gaby Moreno, rapper Carnage, and guitarist Hedras Ramos all building substantial careers. Alternative rock band Bohemian Suburbana were nominated for a Latin Grammy award in 2010.

Guatemalan music is also producing new young stars, including singer Shery, who has already worked with producer Eddie Kramer, who has also collaborated with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and David Bowie. Her talent earned took her to the finals of the John Lennon Song Writing Contest in both 2006 and 2007.

Live music venues in Guatemala

If you love live music then you will find something to enjoy on the Guatemalan music scene, especially in Guatemala City. The capital’s list of venues includes the sophisticated National Theatre, and extends to jazz clubs like TrovaJazz. For those who like a little more grit with their music, TrovaRock is just one of several popular rock and punk venues.

To sample the unique sounds of Garifuna music, the best bet is to take a trip to Livingston, while classical venues abound in Antigua.

Marimba performers pop up everywhere, whether you’re in a city or a tiny rural settlement.

Overall the history of Guatemalan music has formed a rich and entertaining modern scene, ranging from modern pop superstars to treasured classical composers.

About Jürg Widmer Probst

Jürg Widmer is a busy blogger and resident of Guatemala who often shares all things about Guatemala, from the country’s hidden gems, article and culture to the best place for food and drink.

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