Latin American Choral Music based on popular and folk songs

A survey on different rhythmic patterns, choral arrangements and choral versions and interpretative issues

By Maria Guinand

Popular music in Latin America encompasses a large universe of rhythmic, melodic and harmonic formulas that are accompanied with very varied instrumental ensembles.

Choral music has nurtured itself from this extraordinary varied repertoire and composers have either written arrangements and choral versions of popular songs, or have used them as inspiration to write original compositions.

The aim of this resume is to explore some of the most representative rhythms and genres of popular music that belongs to the choral repertoire through arrangements and choral versions and also to revise some interpretative issues.

Basically, there are two main rhythmic patterns from which all combinations derive: 4/4 (2/4) meter and 6/8 (3/4) meter. However, we also find the 5/8 meter in the Venezuelan merengue.

A key element in understanding the different patterns, is to see them in their melodic and harmonic context, to establish an accurate tempo and use syncopations and accentuations in a correct way; all of these elements belong to a wider cultural concept.

Let´s explore some of these dances and the regions to where they belong.

The Andean Region

There are many original chants and melodies that come from the area inhabited by Quechuas (originally from Peru), Aymaras (originally from Bolivia), and other peoples (Guarayos, Atacama, Mapuches, Guaraniés, Goajiros) who lived roughly in the area of the Inca Empire prior to European contact.

This early music then was fused with Spanish music elements.

This formed the folk music of parts of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, parts of Colombia, Venezuela, Chile and Argentina. Andean music is popular to different degrees across Latin America, having its core public in rural areas and among indigenous populations. 

Some of the most popular musical forms are:

  • Chacarera
  • Zamba
  • Cueca
  • Bambuco
  • San Juanito
  • Huayno

All these musical forms use essentially binary rhythms, either written as 2/4  or 6/8 patterns which alternate with 3/4 patterns. Hemiola is a common trait in many iof these rhythms.

Musical instruments that are used to accompany these  type of songs are guitar, charango (a stringed instrument, derived from the Spanish vihuela), bombo (a bass drum made of wood and two patches of leather in each side. The patches are tuned by the tension of the strings attached to them), quenas (flutes  common to primitive cultures,  often associated with fertility rituals of resurrection and life; constructed of bamboo with 6 holes above and 1 below  for the thumb, usually tuned in G) and panpipes (ancient instruments constructed from aquatic reeds found in many lakes in the Andean region of South America). The sikú or zampoña has two rows of canes and are tuned in either pentatonic or diatonic scales.

The Plains

In this region, called the plains, there is a very characteristic dance resembling the waltz that has an African and European influence and originated only in Colombia and Venezuela.  It is the ‘Joropo’. Formerly, the Spanish word joropo meant “a party”, because in the 18th century the llaneros started using the word “joropo” instead of the word “fandango” which was the word used at the time for party and dance.

The instruments that accompany the joropo are the cuatro, diatonic harp, maracas and bass.

The Caribbean

The Caribbean music includes many varied and different genres, that are a synthesis of different cultures such as Indo-Caribbean, African and European.

The history of Caribbean music originates from the history of the Caribbean itself, a region invaded by Spain, France, England, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Due to the many battles and wars the native culture was eroded and with the importation of African slaves each European power carved out  their own culture on their respective islands and territories.

This is the reason why every island or territory has its distinct musical style, all inspired and influenced by the music brought over from the African slaves. The complex deep origins of Caribbean music can only be understood as the resulting melting pot of the ancestors who came predominantly from West Africa, West Europe and India. 

In the 20th and 21st centuries immigrants have also come from China, Indonesia, Taiwan, Middle East and in addition, neighboring Latin American and North American (particularly hip hop and pop music) countries have naturally influenced Caribbean culture and vice versa.

Some of the best known rhythms that are used as part of the choral repertoire are:

  • Son
  • Guaguancó
  • Salsa
  • Chachachá
  • Calypso
  • Cumbia
  • Porro
  • Merengue
  • Bolero
  • Danzón t
  • Tamborera

The music is mainly written in 4/4 and 2/4 meters, but the main element is the accentuated syncopation, especially in the weak beats of the bar lines.

In El Guayaboso and Son de la Loma you will hear these syncopations happening in the last 8th note of the bar.

The instruments used to accompany this music are: piano, tres, bass, congas, güiro, claves. Also  steel bands.

The Atlantic Coast

The music of the Atlantic Coast includes the popular music of Brazil and Uruguay that present various regional musical styles influenced by African, European and Amerindian forms.

Brazilian music developed some unique and original styles such the Samba, that has become the best  known form of Brazilian music worldwide, especially because of the country’s carnival.

Also the Maracatú, which is played primarily in the regions of Recife and Olinda during the carnival.  In relation to the Maracatú, it is an Afro-Brazilian tradition.

The music serves as the backdrop for parade groups that evolved out of ceremonies conducted during colonial times in honor of the Kings of Congo, who were African slaves occupying symbolic leadership positions among the slave population. 

Another important genre is the bossa nova   which had Antonio Carlos Jobim as one of its most acclaimed composers and performers.

In Uruguay the Candombe originated as a fusion of various African traditions and it is today the music of the carnival in Montevideo. It is mainly based on three different drums: chico, repique and piano drums.

The rhythmic patterns are mainly in 2/4 with accents in different parts of the formulas.

The instruments used for this music are different drums, frying pans played with metal stick, cuicas, tambourines, flutes and guitars.

The Pacific Coast and Mexico

The music of Central America and Mexico also originated thanks to the mixture of cultures from different parts of the world as well as aboriginal cultures.

From the Spanish settlers came joyous, lilting and melancholic rhythms such as the valse, zarandeos, polkas, serenades, danzón, bolero and later other genres such as the cumbia were also well received in the region.

In Mexico the genre of Jarabe, Canción ranchera, Corridos are particularly important. They are dances is 6/8 that derive from the Spanish fandango.

One of the characteristic instruments of the Central American region is the use of the marimba.

In Mexico are more popular the  violins, trumpets, guitars and guitarrons.

The Cities and Urban Music

Popular music also emerged from the suburban regions of cities in Latin America and then became popularized in the world.

Perhaps the better known of these dances is the Tango which originated in Rio de la Plata, in the lower  class districts of Buenos Aires and Montevideo and the music derived from the fusion of various musical forms. In the early years of the 20th century, dancers and orchestras from Buenos Aires traveled to Europe, and the first European tango craze took place in Paris, soon followed by London, Berlin, and other capitals.

Towards the end of 1913 it hit New York in the USA, and Finland and many other countries. It spread worldwide soon after.

The early tango was known as tango criollo.

It was Astor Piazzolla who in the second half of the 20th century reinvented the Tango and gave it a new life.

In October 2009 Tango was inscribed into UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. Other dances that have found their place in the dancing saloon and public squares were the bolero, salsa, pasodoble and valse.

Featured Choirs

  • Schola Cantorum de Venezuela
  • Cantoría Alberto Grau
  • Cantoría Juvenil de Venezuela
  • Houston Chamber Choir


  • Earthsongschoralmusic
  • Makumbebé II. Carus Verlag
  • Bibliography and resources


Latin American Choruses