Bolivian music styles, like Bolivian clothing, vary greatly from one region to another and are invariably connected to typical Bolivian dances. In Bolivia music is usually not created just for playing, and almost all traditional Bolivian music can be danced to. The following are examples of some of the most popular music of Bolivia, most of which can be seen during Carnaval or traditional Bolivian festivals.
There are so many different Bolivian dances, we’ve divided this into 4 pages. When you finish reading this page on Andean music from Western Bolivia, proceed to page 2 to hear the beautiful music of the Central and Southern Bolivian valleys, continue to page 3 with the lively and party-like music of the Eastern Bolivian tropics and plains, and finish on page 4 with the most surprising of all, the centuries-old tradition of baroque music of Bolivia's Jesuit Missions, an ancient European Renaissance music style taught to the indigenous peoples in Bolivia's Chiquitania region and passed down from generation to generation for over 500 years.
Saya: The saya originates in the Bolivian Yungas region among the country's small Afrobolivian community. The main instruments used are the drum and the flute. The men chant "coplas" (a 4-versed poem) and the women repeat them, all while dancing very sensuously. It blends ancient rhythms brought by former slaves from their African homeland with traditional Andean flutes and dance steps. The music is called the saya but the dance is called "Negritos". The saya is the music style plagiarized by Brazilian singer "Kaoma" who renamed it and made it known around the world in the 1980's as the famous "lambada".
Caporal: The word “caporal” means “foreman” or “ranch manager” in Spanish. This is one of the best known Bolivian music types around the world. It has its origins in the “saya”, from the Yungas region North of La Paz. It’s almost the same as the saya but the costumes worn and the meaning of the dance are different. This well-known traditional Bolivian dance parodies the mulatto overseers who managed the large Colonial haciendas on behalf of their Spanish and creole owners; because of this, the whip and the clothing that was traditionally used by the landowners are part of the dance costume.
Morenada: The word “moreno” means “dark” in Spanish. This music and its dance are from La Paz and involve a lot of drums and rattles. Over the years trumpets, trombones and cymbals were added. This traditional Bolivian dance also originated with the African slaves brought to Bolivia from Africa to work on haciendas; however, this music comes from the area of Lake Titicaca, high on the Bolivian Altiplano (the high plateau that surrounds La Paz) not the tropical Yungas region.
Diablada: The word “diablo” means “devil” in Spanish and this is probably the most famous of all Bolivian dances. Thousands of tourists arrive each year to see Carnaval de Oruro, one of the top tourist attractions in Bolivia. The Diablada is from Oruro and you can read more about its origins in on our History of Oruro page. The instruments originally used were those that accompany almost all Andean Bolivian music types: the zampoña (pan flute made from reeds) and / or the quena (a vertical flute). Now professional Bolivian musical groups play it during Carnaval and other festivals, accompanying the flutes and pan flutes with drums, trumpets, trombones, and cymbals.
Llamerada: From the word “llama”. Of pre-Incan Aymara origin, this Bolivia music was played only with quenas and zampoñas, and basically continues to use them today, although sometimes it is also played by bands with other instruments. This rhythm arose from the ditties composed by shepherds who spent their day herding llamas, alpacas and vicuñas, the typical livestock of the entire Andean region.
Khantus: This music is from the Altiplano too and is played with various wind instruments (somewhat similar to flutes) that are typically Andean such as the “pututu”, “wankara”, “sicus”, and others. This music is only played during the ceremonial dances of some of the ethnic groups from the area of Oruro, but a version of it, with a modified choreography, is played at many Bolivian festivals.
Suri Sicuri: Also from the Bolivian Andes, it originates with the merger of a dance about the ostrich (called the “suri” in Aymara – thus the enormous feathered headdresses used by Bolivian dancers), and another type of music from Bolivia known as the “huayño”, which is played with a type of pan flute called the “sicuri”.
Kallawaya: Also from La Paz, it is more a dance than a rhythm and is inspired by the Aymara medicine men (the “kallawayas”). It also uses the typical wind instruments, although they are often replaced by band instruments when large Bolivian musical groups play them during festivities.
Incas: This is more of a theater-dance type of music, and not exactly a musical style. It originates in La Paz and is based on parodies with dances and masquerades accompanied by Andean flutes (quenas, zampoñas and pinquillos). It tells the story of Spanish conquistadors from the Renaissance period (when they recovered their territories from the Moors) to the Colonial Era.
Tobas: This Bolivian music type involves a lot of athletic jumps executed by Eastern Bolivian warrior dancers who were deported by the Incas from the lowlands to the highlands as war trophies or slave labor. They never forgot their origins and represented their tropical customs and ceremonies through this dance to the rhythm of flutes, chants and drums.
Kullawada o Cullaguada: This is the tune of the Andean thread spinners and originates from the religious ceremonies they held to thank their deities when their herds produced an abundant amount of wool. As so many other Bolivian music types, it is played with the aforementioned wind instruments but, also like so many other types of music in Bolivia it has also been modernized and is played by large bands.
Ch’utas: This is one of the traditional Carnaval rhythms, a fusion between the music of the “carnestolendas” (3 days of Carnaval before Ash Wednesday) of the Spaniards and of the indigenous peoples. It originates with the indigenous carnivals which were celebrated separately from the Spanish carnaval. The music and dance are both monotone, but not monotonous, as they are happy and colorful and nearly always accompanied by drums, cymbals and trumpets.
Waca-Waca o Waca Tokoris: This is another example of the humoristic fusion between Spanish and native Bolivian music. It began as a theatrical parody of yet another custom brought over by the Spanish, bullfighting. At the theater one Bolivian dancer would dress up as a bull and pretend to attack another, who played the “torero” (bullfighter), while women danced around them. The music is produced with wind instruments, the “charango” (a tiny 10-stringed guitar) and bass drums. Now it is often played with modern instruments.
Tinku: Originally from Northern Potosí, this music is also played with the charango (which in Bolivia is usually made from an armadillo shell), accompanied by chanting, which is almost always done by the women of the group. It is a ceremonial war rhythm played at times when disagreements between ethnic groups are resolved with fist fights. This is one of the most recognized Bolivian music types around the world.
Tarqueada: This is a pentatonic (5-toned) rhythm played with only one instrument, the “tarq’a”, a wind instrument that looks like a large, thick bamboo flute.