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South American Music

The culture and music of South America is heavily influenced by its historical ties to the European nations of Spain and Portugal. The impact of mainstream American culture has also had a huge influence upon South America and its music especially from the late 20th century onwards, due to the effects of globalization and increased connectivity between nations. Popular genres of South American Music are detailed below:





A popular music genre originating from Colombia’s Caribbean region, the word Vallenato when translated into English literally means “born in the Valley”. The valleys referred to are the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and Serranica de Perija in Northeast Colombia. This genre has its roots in groups of nomadic farmers who spent most of their time travelling from town to town. During their travels, forms of entertainment were limited and so the farmers would often sing and play music instruments to pass the time. As these farmers were nomadic, they were also considered by many to be unofficial news bearers. The farmers commonly used song as a medium through which local or regional news was conveyed to villagers. Due to its peasant origins, Vallenato was once considered to be music of the ‘lower classes’. Today, however, the genre has achieved mainstream popularity and acceptance by all strata of society.




Typical instruments of the Vallenato genre are :


Caja Vallenata: A drum similar to a Tambora. The name means ‘box’ and is believed to have been brought to Colombia by early African slaves.
Guacharaca: A 2-part musical percussion instrument made out of wooden trunks of trees. The average guacharacha is about as wide as a broomstick and as long as a violin. Its origins are believed to lie with Native American tribes of the Sierra Nevada region.
Accordion:  Whilst the accordion is a traditional German instrument, it features prominently in South American music. Accordions in South America differ slightly from those found in Germany as they have unique notes and tones. Folk tales about the accordion state that the instrument found its way to South America when it was washed ashore from a German shipwreck that was bound for Argentina


A music genre whose roots can be traced to the Caribbean coastal region of Colombia, Cumbia is popular throughout Latin America.It is considered to be a genre which was born out of a variety of musical influences mainly those of the Native Colombians, African slaves and Spanish colonists. Cumbia was traditionally used in courtship ceremonies and dances performed amongst the African slave population. As time went on, European instruments and musical styles were incorporated into the music. Cumbia is particularly popular in the Andean region and Southern Corne where it is considered to be even more popular than Salsa music. Cumbia arose out of a strong desire of African slaves to preserve their musical traditions. African slaves were exposed to the musical influences of the Native American Kogui and Kuna tribes who lived between the Sierra Nevada and Montes de Maria in Colombo. Intrigued by their different musical styling, it was decided that these musical influences should be incorporated into Cumbia. These interactions between Africans and Native Americans under the Spanish caste system led to a fusion of genres which shaped the genre into Cumbia as it is known today.

Popular instruments used in Cumbia music include:


Drums: Cumbia drums are of African origin and are constructed from wood, rope and dried animal skins. The drums are played either with hands or sticks. The edges of the sticks are sometimes wrapped with leather in order to avoid damaging the main drum.
Claves: A percussion instrument consisting of two short, sturdy sticks which are knocked against one another to produce a sound. Traditionally made from materials such as rosewood, ebony or granadilla, modern claves are made from fiberglass or plastic. Claves are used to provide a repetitive rhythm throughout a music track.


This quintessentially Brazilian genre has its roots in Rio De Jenero, Sao Paulo, Salvador and Belo Horizonte. It incorporates cultural influences from Africa due to Brazil’s multicultural and multiethnic population. The genre is now recognized worldwide as an icon of Brazillian national culture and was officially proclaimed a UNESCO Heritage of Humanity in 2005. The etymology of the term is debated by music scholars. Some scholars believe it to have its origins in the Arabic word ‘Zamba’ whilst others state that it originates from the African language Kimbundu. In Kimbundu the word ‘samba’ means to give and receive. The first record of the word samba can be traced back to 1938. Music scholars often consider Pelo Telefone, recorded in 1917, to be one of the first original samba tracks. The genre was popularized in the 1930s and 40s and continued to evolve and adapt into a new subgenre known as Bossa Nova in the 1950s. In the 80s and 90s, samba’s popularity was overtaken by disco and brazillian rock, genres which had greater appeal to Brazil’s youth culture. Despite all this, its iconic status has allowed its popularity to prevail both in Brazil and worldwide.

Instruments commonly used in Samba are:


Acoustic Guitar: A classical acoustic guitar is a 6-stringed plucked instrument with Spanish origins. The guitar as it is known today is an instrument that has spanned numerous chronological periods including the renaissance, baroque, romantic and modern periods.
Tamborim: This instrument is a small, round frame drum of Portuguese and African origin. The frame is often 6 inches in width and common construction materials include metal, plastic or wood. Typically the head if made of nylon. The tamborim is played with a small wooden drumstick and on rare occasions, it can be played with fingers.
Ganza: The ganza is a Brazillian rattle often used as a  percussion instrument. The instrument has become synonymous with samba music . Typically shaped as a cylinder, the ganza can consist of either a hand-woven basket or a metal canister which is filled with beads or other items used to create a sound when shaken.


Tango is a style of ballroom dance music set to a 2/4 or 4/4 tempo. Its roots lie in the European immigrant populations of Argentina and Uruguay. Originating approximately in the mid-19th century, the art form was shaped and molded in working class neighborhoods where it was immensely popular. Tango is generally performed by a sextet known as an Orquesta Tipica which consists of two violins, a piano, a double bass and two bandoneons. Tango may be entirely instrumental or may at times include a vocalist. This world famous art form was recently declared a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003.

The word ‘tango’ was first used to refer to a musical/dance form in 1823 in Havana, Cuba. The Golden Age of tango music is generally agreed to have occurred from 1935-1952, coinciding with the big band era in the United States. Etymology of the word is debated by music scholars. The word ‘Tango’ either originates from Niger-Congo languages of Africa or Andalusian languages. By 1912, tango’s popularity had reached international status and the artform quickly spread to other European countries beginning with Paris then London and Berlin.

Popular instruments used in Tango music include:


Bandoneon A South American version of an accordion. The accordion is originally a German instrument which was invented for the purposes of making religious music. The instrument is played by either pushing or pulling the instrument whilst simultaneously pressing one of the buttons

Violin A stringed instrument, a violin generally contains 4 strings. It is the smallest of the instruments in the Violin family and also contains the highest pitch. Other instruments belonging to the same family include the Viola and the Cello.


Further reading about the South American community in Australia: