Despite Bolivia’s significant size, the local musical tradition is quite limited; one of the causes for that is the local conservativeness. No musical group would venture into innovating something, thus all of them within a given style end up with a similar sound. It is very difficult to remember a specific song or theme.
From an ethnic point of view there are two well defined regions in the country; each of them created distinctive musical traditions. The Andean High Plateau inhabitants are mainly Aymara and Quechua, while the Amazonian Basin and other lowlands are populated by Tupi-Guarani people.
The Andean Plateau population uses instruments of wind and percussion, though cheap electronic synthesizers have conquered the market in the last years and have created a distinctive deterioration in the produced music. The most distinctive wind instrument is the quena (kae-naa), which is made of several bamboo-like tubes joined together to form a boxy structure. They appear in varying sizes; the longer ones are bigger than a man and demand a significant dexterity in their use. Other wind instruments are the pinkullo, the sicuri, the pututo, the huankare and the tarka. Percussion instruments – namely drums – are called here Pululu and caja.
Another popular instrument in the plateau is a local variation of European string instruments called charango. Originally it was made of armadillos, a small mammal of the Andean Plateau which has a strong armor suitable for constructing the instrument’s body.
The lowland people have completely adopted the Spanish instruments; guitars and drums are the main music producing devices.
For the fiestas and carnivals, the bands walking with the dancers do not use any of the traditional instruments. They are exclusively brass bands producing a noisy, metallic and monotonous sound.
The Andean High Plateau cultures were communal rather than individual ones, thus also the dances were performed by them in groups rather than in couples. As with the music produced by the groups, this characteristic resulted in monotonous, un-innovative dances, with the dancers moving in slow, unsophisticated, undulating steps.
The heavy dresses accompanying the colorful men’s masks allow the dancers only clumsy, pendulum-like moves and represent archetypal figures from the colonial past. Devils and slaves, patrons and daemons, are all exquisitely represented. The women use peculiar customs: hats belonging to 19th century London, long-sleeved, colored blouses, high-heeled boots reaching above the knees and skirts that seem to end before they begin. Bolivians being heavily organized in unions, each dancing group carries a sign showing to which workers’ union it belongs.
The dances which can be seen during the many carnivals and fiestas filling up the Bolivian calendar are related to the Huayño, a dance in which the groups whirl around while moving down the street in a “Pandilla” (“gang”). The best known such event is the Diablada of Oruro, see the dedicated entry in my Oruro journal.
In the lowlands, the Cueca (koo-ae-kaa) is the favorite dance. It has Spanish origins, and is closely related to the Fandango. If invited to a wedding in the Santa Cruz area, most probably a group performing cuecas would be seen. South of there, in Tarija religious processions are popular. The best known one is San Roque on the first Sunday in September.