Gaita and Colombian Folk Music – History and Culture

Colombia has a rich cultural tradition.  One of its most interesting aspect is Colombian folk music, namely that of gaita, named for the flute like instrument that originated from the nation’s indigenous cultures and is a distinctive feature of the music.  It combined with drums of African origin make the backbone of Colombian folk music.  In this post, I’m going to be explaining the history of gaita music and its cultural tradition.

*Disclosure:  This post may contain affiliate links.  I am a participant in the Amazon Associates Program as well as other affiliate programs and may earn a commission on qualifying purchases made after clicking links from this site.  There is never any additional cost to you.  This post is also part of a pair I agreed to write after being given a courtesy tour to the Montes de María with Taroa Adventures.  The views expressed in it are still my own honest opinions.  For more information, please consult my Disclosure Policy.

Photo of some people with the instruments to play gaita music.
Us pretending we were part of a Gaita band. Read on to learn more about the music’s history.

We recently got to go on Taroa Adventure’s “Footprint of the Jaguar” tour in the Montes de María, about 3 hours south of Cartagena.  After a hike in the morning, we got a cool presentation of traditional Colombian folklore music after lunch.  While I have of course heard this music a lot, I didn’t know a whole lot about its history and influences.  It was really neat learning about it, and even doing some playing ourselves.

Read on to learn more about it.

Indigenous and African Influence and Colombian Identity

Colombian folk music (música folclórica) is thought to have emerged as a cultural tradition during and after the independence era as an expression of distinct cultural identity.

Key to that expression of identity is the importance of Indigenous and African influence.  These two cultures blended in the inland Caribbean coastal areas like the Montes de María.  There, free communities of runaway slaves and indigenous peoples resisted Spanish colonial authority.

The influence of this fusion of Indigenous and African cultures is seen in a number of popular Colombian musical styles, the most famous being Cumbia.  All of them contain the two foundations of the gaitas and tambores (indigenous flutes and African drums).  I’m going to briefly discuss both below.

La Gaita – Indigenous Flutes

Woodwind instruments were an integral part of ancient cultures all over the world.  In what became Colombia, that was no different, and the gaita remains a distinctive feature of Colombian folklore music today.

The gaitas’ body are made from a dried cactus known as the cardón.  The top is is sealed with a mass of beeswax and charcoal.  The mouthpiece is traditionally made using a duck feather (sometimes today plastic mouthpieces are used).

There are two gaitas, the female and male.  The female has 5 openings and is responsible for creating the melody of the music.  Meanwhile the male gaita has only 2 holes and plays the harmony.  They are meant to emulate the songs of birds with the female gaita calling and the male responding.

You can learn more about how the instruments are made at this article from Siendosenda (in Spanish) or in this youtube video (also in Spanish).

Gaita band in San Jacinto
The real musicians playing with the two gaitas on the left and the three drums on the right.

Los Tambores – African Drums

Cartagena was the main entry point for African slaves in Colombia and much of northern South America.  Runaway slaves fled to the rural areas of the inland coastal areas and established free communities known as Palenques, the most famous being San Basilo, often times referred to simply as Palenque today.

There, they kept alive their musical traditions, most notably drums.  In fact, drums were often used as a form of communication and warning sign of approaching Spanish colonial forces as these communities fought to maintain their freedom.

The drums were integrated in Colombian folklore music to provide the rhythm and bass.  There are 3 drums used.  The llamador is the smallest of the drums and sets the time.  The tambora provides more of a bass rhythm and the musician alternates between playing the wooden body and the drum itself.  Finally, the tambor alegre contributes to the melody.

Like the gaitas, all the drums also are still handmade following traditional methods with tree trunks being hollowed out before an animal hide is stretched over the opening.

The mix of sounds and influences is indicative of the mix of cultures on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, giving the region its rich cultural heritage, of which the music is just one example.

Want to learn more about the music?

As I mentioned above, we had the chance to learn more about the music on Taroa Adventure’s “Footprint of the Jaguar” tour.  After a few hour hike in the forest of the Montes de María, we had lunch in nearby San Jacinto, a mecca for Colombian folklore music.  After lunch, we got a presentation of the music where we got to learn more about the music, the instruments, and even got to learn how to play them ourselves!

The tour is a neat way to see a slightly lesser traveled area, see some nature, and experience the music.  You can check out my review of the tour here or see the information on Taroa Adventure’s website here.

You can also learn more about the music at this article from Tierracandela and this article from musicafolclorcolombiano (both in Spanish).

There you have it, an overview of Colombia’s folk music and its cultural influences and history.  I hope you found it informative, and if you do go on the tour you are better at playing than I was!

Cheers and Happy Exploring!

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You may also be interested in the following posts:
Following the Jaguar’s Footprint in the Montes de Maria with Taroa Adventures
What to Expect During the Cartagena November Festivities (2019 Update)
Un Once de Noviembre – Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence

Planning your trip to explore Cartagena?

Check out the following posts to help plan:
Insider’s Guide to the Best Areas to Stay in Cartagena
Complete Packing List for Cartagena
Top Things to Do in Cartagena

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