Bolivian folklore: a look into Bolivia’s culture and history through song

Exploring Andean and Eastern Bolivia’s musical heritage

Photo of indigenous Bolivian folklore

The music of my hometown

From taxis and storefronts to restaurants and street food stands, one can hear the soundtrack of Bolivia’s heritage throughout the city of La Paz, one of the country’s two capitals. Bolivian folklore music is a medium that expresses love for specific regions and the country as a whole. In the music, you can also hear the Indigenous people’s fight against oppression. While listening, the audience can feel how strong these emotions are.

Growing up in La Paz, I was used to hearing Bolivian hayños and sayas, traditional songs from the Andes region, anywhere I went. During New Year’s celebrations, older generations of my extended family danced to cuecas, a traditional song and dance with three distinct parts. As a child, I didn’t know how to appreciate this music. But after moving to the U.S., whenever I feel homesick, Bolivian folklore helps me stay connected to my heritage.

The instrumentation of Bolivian folklore includes a variety of wind, string and percussion instruments. Zampoñas, also known as sikus in the Indigenous Bolivian language of Aymara, are bamboo flutes arranged in two lines and tied together with wool. Charangos are traditional small guitars with eight strings. Their size and build provide a higher pitch than classical guitars. The deep drums heard in Bolivian folklore are called wankaras.

Like many households in Bolivia and abroad, my family in Colorado owns traditional instruments, two zampoñas and a charango, as a reminder of our homeland. The track “Bolivia” by Los Kjarkas quickly became the country’s unofficial anthem, showing the influence of folklore within our culture.

Behind the lyrics of “Bolivia”

“Bolivia” by Los Kjarkas, one of the most influential Bolivian folklore groups, was the first song on the group’s debut album in 1976. This song reflects the love the people have for the country and their protest against oppression. The lyrics, “Quiero pegar un grito de liberación es por un siglo y medio de humillación” translate to “I want to give a shout of liberation for the century and a half of humiliation.” Kjarka is the Quechua for strength, a suitable name for a band that has encouraged the Bolivian population through music.

Indigenous heritage in Bolivian music

“Sangre Andina” reflects the pride Bolivians have for their heritage. From describing the physical aspect of the Bolivian highlands to highlighting the importance of la Pachamama and el Tata Inti, mother earth and father son, the lyrics in this song demonstrate the love and appreciation Bolivians have for their culture.

The sounds of the Aymara people

Approximately 1.7 million Bolivians still speak Aymara today. The song “Kullakita” starts with a declaration in Aymara allowing the audience to focus on how the language sounds. This song is a call to action for the Aymara people to remember their heritage and create a better future together.

Celebrating the Department of Cochabamba

Los Kjarkas were founded in the city of Capitona in Cochabamba. Their love song for their region’s 200th anniversary showcases their poetic talent. “Si eres la novia más bella por tu eterna primavera” translates to “Since you’re the most beautiful bride because of your eternal spring.” Cochabamba’s history is central to Bolivian identity. We celebrate Mother’s Day on May 27 to commemorate the women of Cochabamba who were brutally killed defending their town from royalist troops trying to take advantage of all the men in that town fighting the revolution elsewhere. This part of our history is a source of inspiration for women across the country.

Polleras pride

Pollera refers to the traditional skirts Aymara and Quechua women wear. With colorful fabrics and intricate embroidery, polleras showcase parts of the visual beauty of Aymara and Quechua heritage. Since the period of colonization, expressions of Indigenous culture have been stigmatized and discriminated against. Women who wear polleras have been fighting for their space in society in creative ways. They produced their own style of wrestling dressed in polleras, which are considerably heavy given the many layers of fabric. A growing group of Aymara women have dedicated themselves to fight stigma by climbing some of the tallest mountains in the Andes including mount Illimani, which is over 20,000 feet above sea level.

Beauty of the Bolivian Amazon

This is a love song dedicated to the northeastern side of Bolivia known as El Beni. Since part of the Amazon rainforest is in this region of Bolivia, it has a sprawling biodiversity. Growing up, I always wanted to visit the pink dolphins that swim in the rivers of el Beni.

Influence of Bolivian music abroad

“Llorando Se Fue” was originally recorded by Los Kjarkas based on Bolivian oral tradition. But the Brazilian cover “Lambada” managed to gain more popularity, even though it was an unauthorized replication of the Bolivian song. The melody of this song also inspired Jennifer Lopez’s “On the Floor” and Don Omar’s “Taboo” and has become one of the most influential songs to come out of Bolivia.

A love song for my hometown

Chuquiago Marka, originating in Aymara, refers to the region that is now the city of La Paz. Los Kjarkas use poetry and symbolism to convey a yearning for the city. The lyrics describe the mountain Illimani as having a white poncho referring to its glaciers at the summit. The artists sing, “No quiero morirme sin volverte a ver mi La Paz del alma” translating to “I don’t want to die before seeing you again my beloved La Paz.” Since I was born and raised in this city, listening to this song will always put a knot in my throat.

The artistry of Bolivian music instrumentation

By now, it is apparent that instrumentation plays a major role in creating Bolivian folklore. Many songs begin with a one-minute instrumental introduction and have several instrumental sections throughout the song. Songs like “Canto Boliviano,” recorded by Savia Andina, emphasize the beauty of the musical arrangements within Bolivian folklore.

Influence of folklore music in South America

Many countries across Latin America have their own interpretations of the genres presented in this selection such as cuecas, huayños and sayas. Even within Bolivia, there are different versions of our folklore based on the region of the country. The beauty of Latin American folklore is the variety within each genre. Because of the different themes highlighted in folklore, the audience can learn about the history, societal causes and culture of the country.

Listen to these songs and more original content about Bolivian folklore on the Spotify playlist here.