Argentinian Folk Songs as Multi-Faceted Teaching Tools

by María del Carmen Aguilar


Argentine's traditional folk songs show special rhythmic, melodic and harmonic features which lend themselves extraordinarily well to stimulating the acquirement of basic "music language" skills.

A selected group of traditional songs will be presented in this workshop, comprising binary/ternary crossed patterns, syncopated rhythms as well as tritonic, pentatonic and bi-modal scales. Whereas the songs will be first performed and analyzed by the presenter, active participation of the audience will be encouraged in listening, singing along, improvising and dancing on these Argentinian folk songs.

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

Owing to different geographic, historical and economic 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 certain similar elements, each country and region has songs and dances with special features.

Because of the organization of its economy on extensive cattle raising, Argentina did not have a significant number of African slaves in colonial times. These slaves 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.

Great number of the native people were exterminated at the time of the Spanish conquest . Survivors either adapted themselves to the colonization or kept themselves completely isolated. Thus, the influence of their cultures on Argentine folklore is minimal It appears in some words and idioms in the native languages , in some pentatonic melodies, in some dances and in certain instruments such as the sikus (Pan flute) or the quena (a reed flute that plays the pentatonic scale)
The origin of Argentine folklore must be sought in the Spanish music of the sixteenth to eighteenth Centuries, the time when the conquest and colonisation of the territory took place. Here ca be found the six-by-eight combined with three-by-four rhythms, that are performed in different ways in each region and by each instrument. Also to be found the type of poetry that is used in the songs, the use of the guitar itself and other string instruments, the steps of some dances, and, of course, the major-minor tonal system with some reminiscences of the mediaeval modes. All this material was transformed and adapted to produce some strongly defined regional features that are very interesting to observe.

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.

Folk songs and music education

Rhythmic, melodic, harmonic and formal features of the Argentinian folk songs all lend themselves extraordinarily well to stimulating the development of music language skills. Students reach a high level of rhythmic ability by means of practising and improvising on the syncopated combination of three-by-four and six-by-eight patterns, as well as other syncopated rhythms.
The tritonic and pentatonic songs provide simple melodic patterns to improvise and experiment on, allowing students the possibility of practising different poetic patterns, musical forms and rhythms. At more advanced levels, students can make use of a more complex scale, the bi-modal (dorian/aeolian) one, as a basis for singing and improvising and can experiment on the major/minor harmonic combinations.
The musical form of some folk dances, having set choreographies, offers interesting material with which to introduce the study of formal aspects, and to provide students with an opportunity for developing their compositional skills.

Tritonic songs

These are played in the mountain region of the Puna (a very isolated 3,500-metre-high plateau found among mountains). These songs are usually sung by a solo performer, who accompanies him/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 repeated choruses.
These songs have different types of rhythm: free rhythm or two- or three-measure rhythms at different speeds. This kind of singing borders on shouting and makes use of "glissando".
Improvisation on this scale is very useful in the initial steps of a musician's education. The simple melodic patterns allow for experimentation with the composition of lyrics and provide interesting combinations of solos and choruses, and different rhythmic effects.

Ex.1 "Baguala"

Pentatonic songs

The melodies of these songs use the minor pentatonic scale, though they are accompanied by the minor-mode normal harmony, which includes sounds that do not 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 5-double-string guitar made of the armadillo shell) and percussion: "caja"or "bombo" (a big drum) and a bunch of goat's hooves. Pentatonic songs have various rhythms, e.g. the Carnavalito, which is a a dance on a binary pattern, and the Vidala which is a slow song on a three-beat measure. The lyrics are often improvised on the same patterns as the tritonic songs.
The pentatonic scale is also adequate for developing improvisational skills. The harmonic accompaniment may require two chords only -Tonic (minor) and Third- degree (major)

Ex. 2 ¿Quién es ese pajarito?

Bi-modal songs

These 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.

Ex. 3 Bi-modal scale

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 rhythmic patterns of the bi-modal songs include Vidalas and Carnavalitos as well as the Chacarera and the Bailecito, which are dances in a six-by-eight combined with three-by-four measure. Training with this scale develops the ability to sing in parallel thirds on a sophisticated harmonic pattern.

Ex. 4 "Chacarera"

Ex. 5 "Pobre mi negra"

AGUILAR, María del Carmen. FOLKLORE PARA ARMAR. Ediciones Culturales Argentinas, Buenos Aires, 1991