There are a great variety of Bolivian dance and music. They vary greatly from one region to another. In general Bolivian music is created not just for playing, but mostly for dancing. The following are examples of some of the most popular dances of this country (based on their authenticity and originality), most of them can be seen during Carnaval (South American Mardi Grass) or other traditional Bolivian festivities.
Dances from the Andes (10,000 feet above sea level)
The Saya, the saya originates in the Yungas region (a place between the Andes and the tropical forests). That region is populated by Afro-Bolivians (African descendants). The instruments used in the saya are the drum and the flute. The men chant coplas (a 4-versed poem) and the women repeat them, all while dancing very sensuously. It blends ancient rhythms brought by former slaves from their African homeland with traditional Andean flutes and dance steps. The music is called the saya but the dance is called Negritos. The saya is the music style that was plagiarized by Brazilian singer Kaoma who renamed it and made it known around the world in the 1980’s as the famous lambada.
The Caporal, the word caporal means foreman or ranch manager in Spanish. It has its origins in the saya, from the Yungas region (North of La Paz). It is almost the same as the saya but the costumes are not and the meaning of the dance is different. This well-known traditional Bolivian dance parodies the mulatto overseers who managed the large Colonial haciendas on behalf of their Spanish and Creole owners; because of this, the whip and the clothing that was traditionally used by the landowners are part of the dance costume. Check out this link to see an example of this amazing dance
The Morenada, the word moreno means dark in Spanish. This music and its dance are from regions around La Paz and involve a lot of drums and rattles. Over the years trumpets, trombones and cymbals were added. This traditional Bolivian dance also originated with the African slaves brought to Bolivia from Africa to work on haciendas; however, this music comes from the area of Lake Titicaca and the Altiplano (high plateau that surrounds La Paz city).
The Diablada, the word diablo means devil in Spanish and this is probably the most famous of all Bolivian dances. Thousands of tourists arrive each year to see Carnaval de Oruro one of the top tourist attractions in Bolivia. The Diablada is from Oruro (a region located in a high plateau – 12,000 feet above sea level). The instruments originally used were those that accompany almost all Andean Bolivian music types: the zampoña (pan flute made from reeds) and / or the quena (a vertical flute), drums, trumpets, trombones, and cymbals.
The Llamerada, from the word llama. Of pre-Incan Aymara origin, this music was played only with quenas and zampoñas, and basically continues to use them today, although sometimes it is also played by bands with other instruments. This rhythm arose from the ditties composed by shepherds who spent their day herding llamas, alpacas and vicuñas, which are the typical livestock of the entire Andean region.
The Kantus, this music is played with various wind instruments (somewhat similar to flutes) that are typically Andean such as the pututu, wankara, sicus, and others. This music is only played during the ceremonial dances of some of the ethnic groups from the area of Oruro, but a version of it, with a modified choreography, is played at many Bolivian festivities.
The Suri Sicuri, also from the Bolivian Andes, it originates with the merger of a dance about the ostrich called the suri (Aymara word). The suri’s enormous feathers are used by the dancers as a custom.
The Huayño, the huayño is played with a type of pan flute called the sicuri and the dancers move in rounds playing the instrument.
The Kallawaya, this dance is inspired by the Aymara sorcerer (the “kallawayas”). The music for this dance uses the typical wind instruments, although they are often replaced by band instruments when large musical groups play them during festivities.
The Incas, this kind is more of a theater-dance type of music, and not exactly a musical style. It originates in the Andes also. It is based on parodies with dances and masquerades accompanied by Andean flutes (quenas, zampoñas and pinquillos). It tells the story of Spanish conquistadors from the Renaissance period (when they recovered their territories from the Moors).
The Kullawada, this is the tune of the Andean thread spinners and originates from the religious ceremonies they held to thank their deities when their herds produced an abundant amount of wool. As so many other Bolivian music types, it is played with the aforementioned wind instruments but, also like so many other types of music in Bolivia it has also been “modernized” and is played by large bands.
The Ch’utas, this is one of the traditional Carnaval rhythms, a fusion between the music of the “carnestolendas” of the Spaniards and of the indigenous peoples from the high lands. It originates with the indigenous carnavals which were celebrated separately from the Spanish carnaval. The music and dance are happy and colorful and nearly always accompanied by drums, cymbals and trumpets.
The Waca-Waca o Waca Tokoris, this is another example of the humoristic fusion between Spanish and native Bolivian music. It began as a theatrical parody of yet another custom brought over by the Spaniards, bullfighting. At the theater a dancer would dress up as a bull and pretend to attack another who played the torero (bullfighter), while women danced around them. The music is produced with wind instruments, the charango (a tiny 10-stringed guitar) and bass drums.
The Tinku, originally from the Northern region of Potosi (the highest place in the world – 14,000 feet above sea level), this music is also played with the charango (which in Bolivia is usually made from an armadillo shell), accompanied by chanting, which is almost always done by the women of the group. It is a ceremonial war rhythm played at times when disagreements between ethnic groups are resolved with fist fights.
The Tarqueada, one of my favorite, the tarqueada is a pentatonic (5-toned) rhythm played with only one instrument, the “tarq’a”, a wind instrument that looks like a large, thick bamboo flute. It is danced bending back and forward smoothly.
Dances from the Valleys (between 5,000 and 10,000 feet above sea level)
The Antawara, this rhythm is from the valleys as well as from the highlands, where shepherds herded sheep, llamas and alpacas spent long hours entertaining themselves with their quenas. Later, a dance was created based on the common movements the shepherds and shepherdesses made to herd.
The Cueca, this lively music is also typical to Argentina, Chile, and Peru with variations in each country. In Bolivia it is played with charangos or guitars, violins, and accordions. This is a courting dance between men and women. It is known throughout the world and can be identified by the typical twirling of a handkerchief overhead.
The Pujllay, from Chuquisaca (central part of Bolivia), this is danced to the rhythm of the quena flute. It originates from a festivity to celebrate the arrival of spring and the beginning of a good planting season.
The Potolos, also from Chuquisaca, this music type is played with wind instruments. It’s a pretty funny rhythm with movements that make observers laugh. It originates from a festivity to thank Mother Earth for providing an abundant supply of water.
The Bailecito, this dance is similar to the cueca and is seen in Cochabamba and Chuquisaca regions. It involves songs of love and sometimes resentment. The music is played with guitars and it is danced in pairs.
The Doctorcitos, this music is danced in the Altiplano and in the valleys. It has a paused rhythm and uses only drums and cymbals. It originated in a more recent century and is a satire about lawyers (thus the name). Dancers use tailcoats, ties and top hats.
The Chacarera, this music type varies in each of the three countries that share the Gran Chaco region, which in Bolivia covers portions of three departments (Santa Cruz, Chuquisaca, and Tarija). It is played with the guitar, violin, accordion and bass drums. The dancers require a lot of flexibility as they do many acrobatic jumps and spins.
The Rueda, this dance and music is from Tarija (South part of Bolivia) and is played with the erke (a very long trumpet made from several lengths of sugar cane joined together, with a bull’s horn at the end) and a caja, which is a small hand drum. Sometimes bass drums and guitars are used, but they aren’t traditionally part of this music. The name rueda (which means wheel or circle) comes from the manner in which it is danced. Dancers form a circle and hold hands. They then spin in one direction and upon completing the circle, spin back in the other direction.
The Copleo, also from Tarija, this music is actually more of a poem that is sung or put to music. It comes from the traditional duelos de coplas folk songs about duels that are sung and danced at the fiestas of the chapacos, as people from Tarija are called. One dueler sings his verses and then other must respond, competing to see who can sing the most ingeniously in an attempt to overwhelm their rival. It can be accompanied by the cajas (small handheld drums), violin or guitar, or may simply be sung. This music type originates with the European tradition of the troubadours (minstrels) who settled the region.
Dances from the Tropics (lowlands)
The Tobas, this type of dance involves a lot of athletic jumps executed by Eastern Bolivian warrior dancers, who were deported by the Incas from the highlands to the lowlands as war trophies or slave labor. They never forgot their origins and represented their tropical customs and ceremonies through this dance to the rhythm of flutes, chants and drums.
The Carnavalito derived from the huayno, described above, it was adapted to Eastern Bolivian instruments and does not include flutes or pan flutes, but does include tamborcillos (small drums), violins, drums, and other wind instruments.
The Taquirari, this type of music is believed to have originated from a warrior dance that is danced by the Moxos people (located in the departments of Beni and Santa Cruz). The word takirikire in Moxeño language means dance of the arrow. This dance is similar to the chovena, and carnavalito. The music is played with both wind and percussion instruments, or with violins and accordions.
The Chovena, this music is played using the pifano de tacuara (a fife made from the tacuara which is a species of bamboo), drums, and sometimes the violin and accordion. This is the rhythm of the tribes that inhabited the plains and originated prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. This dance is very popular during carnaval.
The Macheteros, this type of music and dance is from Moxos (located in the department of Beni) and it is played only with small drums. It is typical of the moxeño indigenous tribes who, upon being colonized by the Spaniards, merged their customs with the conquistadors’ beliefs. This dance usually accompanies Catholic festivities that were imposed during the colonial era.