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A Helpful Guide to Caribbean Folk Music

A guide to Caribbean folk music
A Papayera group plays at Barranquilla's Carnaval! Photo: noticiascol.com

Barranquilla is arguably best known in Colombia and around the world for its renowned carnival. It is an event in which many of the cultural varieties and folklore of the Colombian Caribbean Coast are expressed through parades, dances and costumes.  Although the popular fiesta is limited to the months of January and February, there is one thing that never leaves the air around the city – its music. Indeed, if you’ve ever spent December in Barranquilla or hopped in a taxi on a Saturday evening, then you’ve surely felt its ubiquitous presence. This guide to Caribbean Folk Music is to help you get acquainted to some of the many different sounds of the coast.

Sound, rhythm and dance that knows no borders.

The Caribbean region of Colombia stood at the epicenter of mighty social and cultural forces during and after the country won its independence. Though the origins of the Caribbean folk music can be rightly described as Neo-African, there were considerable influences by an extremely diverse number of actors. In addition to the important cultural seed sowed by the indigenous people of the region, from the late 19th century to the 1930s, Barranquilla was the main entry point to Colombia for thousands of immigrants (Gypsies, Syrians, Lebanese, French, Germans) who also left their mark on the sociocultural tradition of the city.

A Guide to Caribbean Folk Music
Traditional Colombian Instruments

A wide array of Caribbean musical styles and performers

Many of the rhythms created thanks to this intermingling of cultures were completely native to the region, while others originated thanks to the variations of already existing rhythms from the three continents (America, Europe and Asia). The Cumbia, the Gaita, the Bullerengue, the Mapalé, the Puya, the Son Vallenato, the Tambora, and the Champeta are some of the many representative sounds that both nationals and foreigners enjoy during the festivities that take place in the region. However, in order to create them, many instruments such as the bagpipe, la caja (the box), the guacharaca, the tambora and the tambor alegre (joyful drum), were created or modified from existing instruments.

The musical groups performing the music are also numerous and go by different names according to the style they’re playing and the instruments they’re using. Some of them are:

  • The “Grupo de Millos” or ‘de Gaitas’ (bagpipes), who play rhythms such as Cumbias, Bullerengues, or Mapalés, with percussion instruments such as tamboras, tambores alegres and llamadores, maracas, guaches and flutes (cañas de millo, clarinets or bagpipes).
  • The Papayeras or bands of wind instruments (clarinets, trumpets, trombones, euphoniums, etc.) and percussion (snare drums, cowbells, cymbals, etc.) that play genres such as Porros and Fandangos.
  • The Parrandas Vallenatas, with their boxes, guacharacas and accordions, who perform some of the many ‘aires’ (winds) vallenatos.

A representative of Grupo de Millo performing a “puya” – a rhythm closely related to Cumbia. 

Block parties, folk festivals and verbenas

Barranquilleros make the most out of every corner of the city to express the joy of celebration. During ‘Carnaval’ you’ll hear the music coming out of block parties, ballrooms, neighborhood stores, and even in the middle of the street at the very popular “verbenas”. But if you’re concerned about not being able to fully experience Caribbean folk music at its very best during Carnaval – fear not – you will also get to enjoy the music during weddings, birthdays, promotions, cultural events, or during any given weekend throughout the year. Don’t forget to pay a visit to any of the big musical staple venues in Barranquilla and be sure to check the cultural agenda promoted by the city in places such as La Plaza de la Paz, El Malecón, and musical theatres at universities and schools. Let us know if this Guide to Caribbean Folk music was helpful for you – and if you’d like to see more!

Check out our guide to Carnaval 2020!


[1] Antonio García de León Griego: El mar de los deseos. El Caribe hispano musical. Historia y contrapunto. México D.F.: Siglo veintiuno editores, 2002.

[2] Perea, Jorge. «SALONES BURREROS DEL CARNAVAL DE BARRANQUILLA (Primera Parte)» www.reocities.com


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