Rough guide to the music of Guatemala
The music of Guatemalan is central to its culture throughout recorded history, from the Mayan civilisations to African and European influences and to today’s successful modern popular acts.
Its diversity and quality mean Guatemala’s music achieves fame well beyond Central America. From classical composers to Grammy Award-winning singers and bands.
Like many societies, music was an important part of life for the Mayan cultures, which emerged in Central America from around 2000BC. And instruments are often depicted in the carvings on their abandoned temples.
One intriguing aspect of the music is a an unusual clay whistle which sounds a lot like a frog and has been found in or near Mayan burial sites as far south as Peru.
It initially baffled historians and archaeologists. But they now believe it may have been an instrument used as part of funeral rituals.
Mayan carvings feature drums made from animal skins, as well as flutes, trumpets, rattles and the tunkul, a percussion instrument made by carving an H shape in a hollow log.
European music from the 16th Century
Spanish missionaries began arriving in Guatemala in the early 1500s and brought with them the music which was a key part of Catholic services and celebrations.
Native musicians took to the religion and adapted its musical styles to their own traditions. Particularly so in the province of Huehuetenango, and they even contributed their own new music to church services.
In the late 18th century, Rafael Antonio Castellanos emerged as a talented composer known for introducing Guatemalan folk, Afro-Caribbean and Mayan elements into vocal compositions.
Other Guatemalan composers have gained fame, including Jose Eulalio Samayoa, Benedicto Saenz, Rafael Alvarez Ovalle and the brothers Jesus and Ricardo Castillo.
No conversation about the music of Guatemala is complete without mentioning the impact of musical styles and instruments from Africa.
From the 1800s the Garifuna people settled on the northern coast of Guatemala. They were the descendants of escaped and ship-wrecked Afro-Caribbean slaves who had ended up on the island of St Vincent but were exiled to Central America when Britain invaded and colonised the island.
Their modern descendants maintain their musical traditions, which you can enjoy in the Guatemalan town of Livingston.
Guatemala’s national instrument: the marimba
Another famous African musical contribution is the marimba instrument, which was brought to the Americas in the early 16th from Africa, possibly by slaves.
The instrument has a set of wooden bars which the player strikes with a mallet to produce the tones, which are amplified by pipes hung underneath. It is now the national instrument of Guatemala, and traditional marimba bands are still popular today.
Modern classical and opera
Guatemala has some outstanding classical musical performers, including two notable orchestras: Orquestra Sinfonica Nacional and Orquestra Millennium.
The Orquestra Millennium was founded in 1993 by two prominent Guatemalan musical figures, composer Dieter Lehnhoff and mezzo-soprano Cristina Altamira. The Sinfonica Nacional has been running since 1936 and has annual performance seasons.
El Coro Nacional is the country’s Government-funded choir and is one of the main attractions at the annual Guatecoral festival, which draws choirs from all over the world.
You can also watch opera performances in Guatemala, especially at the National Theatre in Guatemala City or nearby Antigua Guatemala.
Popular music of Guatemala
Several Guatemalan music acts have found commercial and critical success outside of the country and Central America over the past few decades.
Perhaps the most successful Guatemalan musical export is Ricardo Arjona, whose album ‘Adentro’ won Best Latin Album at the 2007 Grammy Awards. He has sold more than 80 million albums, and won five Billboard Awards among his numerous accolades.
Other prominent Guatemalan artists include singer-songwriter Gaby Moreno, rapper Carnage, and multi-instrumentalist Hedras Ramos. While alternative rock band Bohemian Suburbana were nominated for a Latin Grammy Award in 2010.
One up-and-comer to keep an eye out for is singer Shery, who was a finalist in the John Lennon Song Writing Contest in both 2006 and 2007. She has already worked with producer Eddie Kramer, who has also collaborated with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and David Bowie.
Where to enjoy music of Guatemala today
Guatemala has a range of places to enjoy music, especially in Guatemala City, ranging from the sophisticated National Theatre to jazz clubs like TrovaJazz and more gritty rock and punk venues like TrovaRock.
Livingston is the place to enjoy Garifuna music, Antigua Guatemala has some classical venues, and you can find marimba performers in many towns.
Overall Guatemala has a rich musical tradition, ranging from ancient culture to world renowned classical composers and modern popular performers. Whatever your taste, you are likely to find something to pique your interest.