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    Land of winds > The people > Culture | Issue 16 (Sep.-Oct. 2013)
    By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

Popular singers from the southern Andes


Popular singers from the southern Andes

The Chilean guitarrón is used to play cuecas, tonadas and polkas (three of the most popular genres in the central part of Chile) as well as to accompany a form of sung poetry known as "canto a lo poeta" (also called "popular poetry" or "verse"). When the instrument is used to play any of the rhythms mentioned above it can be played by either sex, however, only men can accompany the "canto a lo poeta" with the guitarrón.

The repertoire encompasses both a profane and a religious version known as "canto a lo humano" and "canto a lo divino" respectively. The former sometimes takes the form of "versos por historia" (on subjects ranging from the old Castillian romancero, to recent history, astronomy, recent social and political events, homages, wedding congratulations, love verses, etc.) and other times the form of improvised singing whose most renowned expression is the "paya" or improvised singing duels. The latter takes some elements from Christian tradition (world's creation, Christ's birth, the life of the Virgin and the saints, and other subjects drawn from the Bible).

The singers employ a variety of poetic structures, although the most common are the "cuarteta" (cuatrain) and the "décima espinela" (ten line stroph of octosyllabic lines). These décimas are combined together to form "versos" of four to six strophes.

The poetry of "canto a lo poeta" is delivered with "entonaciones", melodies with which the octosyllabic lines of the verses are entoned. There's a large repertoire of "entonaciones" that varies significantly from region to region and from musician to musician. The guitarrón accompanies the "entonación" with its corresponding "toquío", that provides harmonic and rhythmic support.

Appeared during the colonial period, the "canto a lo poeta" does not only draw on elements from the Iberian Peninsula but is also rooted in indigenous influences. The guitarrón and its repertoire have seen a "revival" in recent decades (back in the 1950 there were only five players left), thanks largely to young musicians who are studying and preserving this musical heritage. The topic has brought about a heated discussion between those who belong to the "classical" tradition (usually represented by the "cantores" of Pirque, the musicians who preserved the instrument when it was on "the verge of disappearing") and those with urban background who favour a "modern" approach while looking for new ways to develop and improve their style and expand their music (e.g. Alfonso Rubio, Moisés Chaparro, José Pérez de Arce, Manuel Sánchez, Rodrigo Sanhueza, and the band Los Tres).

This is an ongoing debate, and the answers depends on whom you talk and listen to; new questions are arising and this is always good news for they challenge the way we think and how we engage ourselves in conversation with living traditions so as to re-invigorate them.


Article. "El canto a lo poeta", by Francisco Astorga Arredondo. In Revista Musical Chilena, 54 (194), July 2000 [es].
Article. "El guitarrón chileno", in Educar Chile [es].
Article. "Guitarrón chileno, Alfonso Rubio y Violeta" [es].
Article. "El guitarrón chileno", by AGENPOCH [es].
Book. "Renacer del guitarrón chileno", by AGENPOCH [es].


Audio 01. "El guitarrón chileno: herencia musical de Pirque" [complete album].
Audio 02. "El guitarrón chileno", by Hugo Arévalo [complete album].


Video 01. "Que pena siente el alma", by Violeta Parra.
Video 02. "Canto a lo humano / El verso es una paloma", by Víctor Jara [complete album].
Video 03. "Canto a lo poeta" 01, documentary film by María José Calderón.
Video 04. "Canto a lo poeta" 02, documentary film by María José Calderón.
Video 05. "Canto a lo poeta" 03, documentary film by María José Calderón.
Video 06. "Canto a lo poeta" 04, documentary film by María José Calderón.


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