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Under the dark and star-scattered skies of Argentina’s Lerma Valley, the beat of a bombo leguero (a wooden, sheepskin drum) breaks the silence of night. Pithy Spanish guitar riffs and flirtatious violin notes erupt to accompany the rhythm, and gauchos (Argentinean cowboys) draped in regional red and black ponchos spring from their chairs to dance, the clack of their boots on the wooden floor echoing around the surrounding multi-coloured canyons. Patrons clap and stomp, adding high-pitched yodels to the rhythm. Someone shouts, “esta noche, hay peña!” (tonight there will be dancing!), and the folk music and dance races on until first light.

Amid a quiet, mountainous corridor nestled in the northwestern province of Salta, nearly 370km south of the Bolivian border, local Salteños (the people of Salta, which is also the capital city of the province) gather at peñas (folk concerts) to celebrate the capital’s cultural heritage through traditional song and dance. Originating in the Spanish colonial era of the 1500s, the music scene of Salta is often referred to as criolla: a melding of Spanish and indigenous ancestry. Stylistically, it combines elements of Spanish folk music and dance – such as the Fandango – with lyrics that discuss the importance of territory and rural life in Argentina. But unlike milongas, the tango dance parlours that are so popular in Buenos Aires, nearly 1,500km to the south, the peñas in Argentina’s north feel like an integral part of life, not just an entertaining performance.

“First and foremost Salteños identify with their music, the rhythms of national folklore and with the dances that accompany this music,” said Salta native Daniel Plaza, who added that the gaucho is often idolised as a folk hero. “It’s because of this that people from here always set aside time on the weekends to go to rodeos and festivals with the sole intention to feel like a gaucho time and time again.”

After sunset, gauchos and other locals flock to establishments like La Casona del Molino (Luis Burela 1; 0387-434-2835), a hilltop peña on the outskirts of the capital. Here, musicians often perform impromptu jam sessions while couples dance either the chacarera or zamba.

The popular chacarera, a lively partner dance, incorporates flashy zapateo (quick stomps of the feet). During the dance, partners move through a series of passes and turns in a star formation, pivoting around each other before meeting in the centre for a final bow. During zamba, the national dance of Argentina, couples circle each other waving white handkerchiefs – choreography that originated from zamacueca, a Peruvian dance from the mid-1800s. Another cherished dance is malambo, where a solo male gaucho performs his best steps to show off boldness of character and upstage other male competitors.  

During the 1950s, a folklore revival movement spread throughout the country, spurred by famous folk musicians like Andrés Chazarreta who publicised the music on the radio despite strict government censorship from then president Juan Perón. Today, stepping into a peña is like stepping back in time, where even young patrons decked out in the fashions of today sing along to the classic songs of their people’s past. It is clear that the appreciation of local heritage runs through multiple generations and has not been overshadowed by modern music trends like rock and roll from the US and cumbia from Colombia.

“Our generation was born between zambas and chacareras, and like all familial customs, folklore has been passed down from generation to generation,” said 27-year-old Plaza. “It becomes part of our lives from the time we are born, and when we are young we are desperate to learn how to dance. When we get older, we feel proud to dance these steps at every festival and peña we go to. We know that it’s something special that belongs to us and always will.”

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