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. When you finish reading go to this page to see videos of the traditional Bolivian music types and typical dances described below or read more about Bolivian music here.
If you want to see some of these dances, go to YouTube.com and search "bolivia" plus the name of the dance (as described below). You'll get LOTS of results and videos to see.
Bolivian Music Types from the Andes
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.
Kantus: 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 wee 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.
Bolivian Music Types in the Valleys
Antawara: This rhythm is from the valleys and the highlands where shepherds herded sheep, llamas and alpacas and spent long hours entertaining themselves with their quenas. Later, a dance was created based on the common movements the shepherds and shepherdesses made to herd, watch over, water and feed their herds. This is one of the newer Bolivian dances.
Cueca: This lively music is typical to Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Peru and the Bolivian valleys, with variations in each country. It is played with charangos or guitars (and in many modern variations violins and accordions). This dance, almost in a satirical manner, is a courting dance between men and women. It is known throughout the world and can be identified by the typical twirling of a handkerchief overhead.
Huayño: This is an Inca type of music, common to both the valleys and the highlands as well as Peru. It is the rhythm that spawned the “bailecito”, “carnavalito”, “caluyo”, “rueda” and “cueca” dances. It is played with the quena or zampoña and the charango, but today there some Bolivian musical groups also play it with the accordion, trumpet and saxophone as it is one of the few indigenous dances that became popular among all racial and social classes, from Colonial times through the present.
Pujllay: From Chuquisaca, this is danced to the rhythm of the quena flute. It originates from a festivity to celebrate the arrival of spring and the beginning of a good planting season.
Potolos: Also from Chuquisaca, this Bolivian music type is played with wind instruments. It’s a pretty funny rhythm with movements that make observers laugh. It originates from a festivity to thank Mother Earth for providing an abundant supply of water.
Bailecito: This dance is similar to the “cueca” and is seen in Cochabamba and Chuquisaca. In involves songs of love and sometimes resentment accompanied by guitar chords. It is danced in pairs.
Doctorcitos: This music is danced in the Altiplano and in the valleys. It has a paused rhythm and uses only drums and cymbals. It originated in a more recent century and is a satire about lawyers (thus the name). Dancers use tailcoats, ties and top hats.
Chacarera: This music type varies in each of the three countries that share the Gran Chaco region, which in Bolivia covers portions of three departments (Santa Cruz, Chuquisaca, and Tarija). It is played with the guitar, violin, accordion and bass drums. Bolivian dancers require a lot of flexibility as they do many acrobatic jumps and spins.
Rueda: This traditional Bolivian music type is from Tarija and is played with the “erke” (a very long trumpet made from several lengths of sugar cane joined together, with a bull’s horn at the end) and a “caja”, which is a small hand drum. Sometimes bass drums and guitars are used, but they aren’t traditionally a part of this music. The name (which means “wheel” or “circle”) comes from the manner in which it is danced. Dancers form a circle and hold hands. They then spin in one direction and upon completing the circle, spin back in the other direction.
Copleo: Also from Tarija, this music is actually more of a poem that is sung or put to music. It comes from the traditional “duelos de coplas” folk songs about duels that are sung and danced at the fiestas of the “chapacos”, as people from Tarija are called. One dueler sings his verses and then other must respond, competing to see who can sing the most ingeniously in an attempt to overwhelm their rival. It can be accompanied by the “cajas” (small handheld drums), violin or guitar, or may simply be sung. This Bolivian music type originates with the European tradition of the troubadours (minstrels) who settled the region.
Bolivian Music Types from the Tropics
Carnavalito: Derived from the “huayno”, described above, it was adapted to Eastern Bolivian instruments and does not include flutes or pan flutes, but does include drums and other similar wind instruments. Now it is played by large bands and sometimes with synthesizers but traditionally it is played by the “tamboritas”, typical Eastern Bolivian musical groups. The two main instruments are the tamborcillos (small drums) and violins.
Taquirari: This type of music is believed to have originated from a warrior dance that is danced by the Moxos (from the departments of Beni and Santa Cruz) according to the translation of the word “takirikire” which meant “dance of the arrow”. It is the emblemic rhythm of the Bolivian orient and like the chovena, the carnavalito and others, it is played with both wind and percussion instruments, or with violins and accordions. There is also an Andean version but it sounds more like the huayño.
Chovena: Also from Eastern Bolivia it is played using the “pifano de tacuara” (a fife made from the tacuara which is a species of bamboo), drums, and sometimes the violin and accordion. This is the rhythm of the tribes that inhabited the plains and originated prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. It is very popular during Carnaval.
Macheteros: This type of music and dance is from Moxos (in the department of Beni) and is played only with small drums. It is typical of the “moxeño” indigenous tribes who, upon being colonized by Spain, merged their customs with the Spaniards’ beliefs and this dance usually accompanies Catholic festivities that were instilled during the Colonial.
There are many other Bolivian music types and many Bolivian musicians and music groups who sing and compose more contemporary music including rock, pop, ballads, alternative, techno, and all types of music. But the above are what is known as traditional Bolivian music. Visit these pages to read more about more Bolivian music types and some famous Bolivian musicians and singers.