Argentine Folk Songs

by María del Carmen Aguilar

This workshop, accompanied with live performances, was presented at the Stord Lærarhogskule, Stord, Norway, 1993

FIRST PART: Introduction

Latin American folk music has its roots in a mixture of Spanish folklore, which was introduced into South America by the conquerors, and the music both of the native peoples and of the African slaves.

Due to different  geographic, historic  and economical factors, these musical influences  were mixed in diverse proportions in each one of the South American regions. Because of this, though it is possible to point out some similar elements, each country and region has songs and dances  with special features.

Due to its economical organization based on extensive cattle raising, Argentina did not have a significant number of African slaves  in the colonial times. They were concentrated in the area of the Buenos Aires seaport and only left their musical influence on the Candombe and the Milonga, two rhythms of the “urban” folklore , and on some rural rhythms which are played in the coastal area of the country.

A great part of the native people were exterminated at the time of the Spanish conquest. Survivors either adapted tehmselves to the colonization or kept themselves completely isolated. Because of this, the influence of their cultures on the Argentine folklore is not too relevant. It appears in some words and idioms in native languages , in some pentatonic melodies, in some dances and in certain instruments as the sikus (Pan flute) or the quena (reed flute that plays the pentatonic scale)

So, the origin of Argentine folklore must be sought in the Spanish music of the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries, the time when the conquest and colonization of the territory took place. From there comes the six-by-eight combined with three-by-four rhythms, that are performed in different ways in each region and by each instrument. Also come from there the type of poetry that is used in the songs, the guitar, the steps of some dances, and, of course, the Major-minor tonal system with some reminiscences of the mediaeval modes. Nevertheless, all this material was transformed and adapted to define some strong regional features that are very interesting to observe. In the first part of my recital  I’d like to show some examples.

The European immigration- basically Germans, Poles, Russians and Italians- that took place at the turn of the nineteenth century brought to the coastal area of the country some popular rhythms such as polkas and waltzes and spread the use of the accordion.

Tritonic songs

These are some songs that are played in the mountain region of the Puna ( a very isolated 3500-meter-high plateau found among mountains) . These songs are usually sung by a solo performer, who accompanies him or herself with a small drum called “caja”. The melodies are improvised on a three-note-scale: the major chord notes. The lyrics include improvised stanzas on the pattern of four verses of eight syllables each, and some repetitious choruses.

The songs have different types of rhythm: free rhythm or two- or three-measure rhythms at different speeds. The singing is slightly shouted and makes use of “glissando”.

Pentatonic songs

The melodies of these songs use the minor pentatonic scale, thoguh they are accompanied by the minor-mode normal harmony, which includes sounds that don’t belong in the  pentatonic scale. These songs are played in the Puna region too. They are often sung with the accompaniment of guitar or charango (a small guitar made of the armadillo shell provided with 5 double strings) and percussion: “caja”or “bombo”( a big drum) and a bunch of goat’s hooves. Pentatonic songs have different rhythms: the first and the third ones I’ll sing are Carnavalitos:  a dance on a binary pattern. The second one is a Vidala, a slow song on a three-beat measure. The  lyrics are often improvised on the same patterns as the tritonic songs.

Bi-modal songs

These are songs that are always sung in parallel thirds. The upper voice sings in Dorian Mode (minor mode with a sharpened sixth degree) and the bottom voice sings in Aeolian Mode. Some of these songs are found in the Puna region and the others are sung in different places of the North-Western area of the country. In the Puna region they are played “a cappella” to the  accompaniment of caja; in the other regions guitar and bombo are used . The first song I’ll sing is a Chacarera, in a six-by-eight combined with three-by-four measure. Then, I’ll sing two Vidalas and one Carnavalito.

Major-mode  songs which use some chords of the minor mode

These songs make use of the normal harmony of the major mode plus the fourth-degree minor chord and the third-flattened degree chord.  These songs are played in the Central Andes region and in the Pampa area. The rhythms  of the first three songs I’ll sing make use of the six-by-eight combined with three-by-four measures. They are three different dances: Chacarera, Gato and Triunfo, each one with a special musical form that corresponds to a set choreography. The last song is an Estilo, played in free rhythm.

SECOND PART:  Other songs and dances

I’ll show you now some songs  to try and complete a synthetic view of Argentine rhythms and musical forms. In the first place, I’ll sing two Chayas, which are songs that are danced with a free choreography. The rhythm is based on the three -beat measure.

Now, two Vidalas, which as I have just said,  are slow songs on the three-beat measure.

Now, a Chacarera. This is a dance which are performed either by a couple who do not hold each other or by two couples placed at right angles. Its choreography is set and the musical form, i.e. the succession of sung and instrumental parts corresponds to the choreography.The lyrics are loose stanzas that are improvised in many cases, which means that there is not neccesarily any thematic relationship among them.

Now two Bailecitos. They are danced by one or two couples too , as mentioned before and have their own choreography and so, their own musical form.

The Gato is a dance too. It is based on the same rhythmic structure as the Chacarera and the Bailecito. Its musical form is related to its choreography.

A Carnavalito, a free choreograhed dance on a two-beat measure.

The Vidalita, a slow song on a three-beat measure that is usually sung by two voices in parallel thirds and has improvised lyrics.

A Zamba, which is a song as well as a dance, on a three-beat measure with a set choreography.

And finally, two songs of my home city, Buenos Aires: a Tango and a Milonga. They are danced  by couples  who hold each other with very complicated steps and a free choreography.

THIRD PART: Choral singing

Let us sing together a choral arrangement I did of a Vidala by Arturo Davalos: No llores más (Don't cry anymore)