Guatemala special feature: a tour around the Guatemalan music scene

Guatemala special feature: a guide to Guatemalan music | Jürg Widmer Probst

Guatemala in 2020 is a product of its rich, sometimes extremely difficult and always fascinating cultural heritage. And it’s the same for Guatemalan music.

If you’re travelling around Guatemala right now, you’ll hear all kinds of music. American music from the 1980s and 1990s is popular on public transport, while Tejano and ranchera music is common in bars and restaurants. But there are many other kinds of music, including those stemming from Mayan traditions too.

Guatemalan music: a Jürg Widmer Probst Guatemala special feature

Tejano music is a popular fusion of Mexican, US and European musical influences. Think Spanish Mexican vocals against a backdrop of European dance and rhythms. You’ll hear it called Tex-Mex music and, of course, musica tejana and it’s usually played in small groups.

Mexican influences can be heard a lot in the music of Guatemala. It’s not uncommon to find a mariachi band playing. Further along the Caribbean coast, the Garifuna population in Guatemala listens to a lot of reggae-influenced music.

The musical diversity of Guatemala marks it out as a country with a thriving music scene and a unique history.

How important was music to the Maya people in the past?

From about 2000BC, Guatemala was dominated by the Maya. And music is a huge part of the Mayan culture and part of everyday life as well as rituals. There are many carvings and other artifacts that show just how vital music was to the Mayan people.

Mayan carvings often show people playing instruments and performing music for others. Drums were made from animal skins, and there were also all kinds of wind instruments including flutes and trumpets. A percussive instrument called a tunkul was used, and Mayan art shows that it was made by carving an ‘H’ shape into a hollow log.

Archaeologists have discovered other instruments, including clay whistles either in or very close to Mayan burial sites. It’s thought that these specific whistles were used as part of funeral and death rituals.

European influences transform Guatemalan music

As with just about every other aspect of culture and life in Guatemala, music was transformed after the arrival of European explorers in the early 16th century. Spanish explores and missionaries brough with them the music of Catholicism. Indigenous Guatemalan people fused this with their own music to form new traditions.

In a few cases, this exchange of cultural and musical styles went both ways. In Huehuetenango province, Mayan people contributed music to Catholic church services. This fusion of styles created a raft of distinguished and successful musicians and composers.

In the late 18th century, for example, Rafael Antonio Castellanos made his name as a composer of music that combined elements of Mayan, Afro-Caribbean and Guatemalan folk traditions. Guatemalan music also gave rise to other prominent and successful composers, including Jesus and Ricardo Castillo, Rafael Alvarez Ovalle and Benedicto Saenz.

Guatemalan music is also influenced by Africa

Along with European influences, Guatemalan music is also impacted by African instruments and musical styles. We can see this legacy today in the Garifuna people. Descended from a mix of shipwrecked African slaves and Amerindian people, they settled on the north coast of Guatemala during the 19th century.

And of course, they brought their music with them. Men and women in this region kept their own musical traditions going, and today we can hear these Afro-Caribbean influences in the Guatemalan music. This is particularly the case in Livingston, the biggest town in the region. Expect reggae beats and a different fusion style.

The African influence on Guatemalan music can also be seen in the popularity of the marimba. This is Guatemala’s national instrument and arrived in the Americas from Africa in the early 1500s. Picture a set of wooden bars, beneath which are pipes. The bars are hit with a mallet to produce the notes, and the pipes amplify this sound. Marimba bands are still popular today, and for many the instrument is synonymous with Mayan people. The instrument has also crossed over into mainstream pop and rock music. You’ll hear it in songs from the likes of the Rolling Stones and the White Stripes through to Ed Sheeran and ABBA.

What about opera and classical music in Guatemala?

The modern pre-COVID music scene in Guatemala includes the Millennium Orchestra and the National Symphonic Orchestra. The latter has been going since 1936, and its annual concerts are highly popular. Of course, COVID-19 is standing in the way of live music all around the world, but when the pandemic passes, I hope that the orchestras will resume their seasons.

While the Millennium Orchestra in Guatemala doesn’t have such a long history, it’s extremely well respected. Founded un 1993 by Cristina Altamira and Dieter Lehnhoff it’s earned many fans and enjoys a strong reputation.

In non-pandemic times, there are also plenty of opera performances to enjoy at the National Theatre in Guatemala City. The theatre welcomes touring opera companies from around the world.

Guatemalan musicians on the world stage

Given the history and complex fusion of styles within Guatemalan music, it’s not surprising that there are many extremely successful musicians. Over the past few decades, a significant number of Guatemalan musicians have enjoyed critical and commercial success across Central America and even further.

One of the most successful Guatemalan musicians of all time is Ricardo Arjona. He won a Grammy in 2007 for Best Latin Album with Adrento. He has sold more than 80 million albums globally. He’s joined by singer songwriter Gaby Moreno, guitarist Hedras Ramos and rapper Carnage as major exports from the Guatemalan music scene.