Music is an integral part of most Latin American cultures and Costa Rica is no exception. Many of Costa Rica’s musical traditions date back to colonial times, when the Spanish brought European rhythms to the country’s shores. Over time, Spanish beats harmonized with indigenous tempos to create folkloric music unique to Costa Rica. Today, in addition to the nation’s proprietary genres, Costa Ricans enjoy Latin, American and British contemporary rock. However, when it comes to dancing, most prefer the traditional Latin rhythms of salsa, merengue, cumbia, and bolero. On the weekends, discos and dance halls are packed, as the typically conservative locals let loose and flirt wildly while dancing the night away. From classical to reggaeton, music is everywhere – in the streets, homes, restaurants, bars, discos and theaters.
Folk Music – Costa Rican folk music is defined as traditional rhythms created by everyday citizens, for the enjoyment of the masses. By definition, folk music is imitated and evolves over the years. The African-derived marimba is the most popular instrument in Costa Rican folk music. Most of the folk music in Costa Rica is very positive and upbeat. Costa Rican folk songs usually cover themes such as: stories, recipes, nicknames, anecdotes, tongue twisters and old customs. Enjoying Costa Rican folk music is a must on any trip to Costa Rica. In Costa Rica, the four powerhouse areas for folk music are Guanacaste, the Central Valley, Limon, and San Isidro del General; popular folk music from other areas of the country is considered to copy these four principal styles.
Guanacaste Folk Music – Musica Guanacasteca
The rhythms of Guanacaste are an integral part of the nation’s musical heritage. Guanacaste is the major center for Costa Rican folk music, especially pre-Columbian styles such as the Danza del Sol and Danza de la Luna, of the native Chorotega area. They popularized the ancient Quijongo, a single-string bow with a gourd resonator ( see our link Guanacaste’s Quijongo: The Mystical Sound that Few Have Heard) and native oboe, the chirimia . Folkloric music from Guanacaste features Spanish, Nicaraguan, Cuban, Panamanian and Colombian influences. It employs use of the marimba (similar to a large wooden xylophone) and encompasses many styles – puntos, tambitos, callejeras, and parranderas are among the most popular. Guanacaste’s music is inseparably interwoven with the region’s dances, which incorporate old-world flourishes and traditional costume; popular Guancastecan dances include the Punto Guanacasteco and Los Amores de Laco.
Central Valley Folk Music – Musica Aldeana
The Central Valley’s folk music has no known composers, but these beautiful, Spanish-influenced melodies are known as “serenatas campesinas,” or peasant serenades. Batambas are a common type of Central Valley folk music that feature guitarists and marimba players, and a harmonic and irresistible beat. The Central Valley’s traditional songs can be easily identified, since each stanza continues for several counts longer than the music. Two popular examples of “musica aldeana” are “Despierta nina” (Wake up, child) and “No puede haber amor como el primero” (There can be no love like the first).
Caribbean Folk Music – Musica Limonense
There are four basic branches of Caribbean folkloric music, which is rooted in the rhythms of Spain, the Central Valley, and the Caribbean islands. The first type features comparsas, or lively bands that play during parades and celebrations. The second form, known as sinkit, is a famed Costa Rican musical genre that has base drums, snare drums, and clarinets. The third branch of Limon’s musical heritage is known as “son,” and is rooted in the syncopated rhythms of Spain, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Panama and the Dominican Republic. Finally, “Afrotica,” also known as Afro-Costa Rican or Afro-Limonese music, is the result of blending traditional Christian music with the so-called profane sounds of plebeian Costa Rica.
San Isidro del General Folk Music – Musica Generalena
San Isidro del General is a small city located in south-central Costa Rica. Historically, this region was both physically and culturally separated from the rest of Costa Rica, allowing for the emergence of unique folkloric rhythms. Popular regional music includes Campera, a combination of peasant music and creole beats; Tambito, an upbeat guitar tune; Southern Son, which features a three-four meter with accents on the first and third beats; and Tonadas, which are romantic songs inspired by local legends, incorporating guitar, violin, accordion, and mandolin harmonies.
Classical Music – The National Symphony Orchestra (Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional) has received international acclaim under the direction of its current conductor, Chosei Komatsu. The Costa Rican Youth Symphony Orchestra, National Symphony Choir – one of the first professional choirs in Central America – and the Costa Rican Chamber Opera are also important fonts of the nation’s classical music. San Jose’s National Theater hosts a variety of concerts, from classical guitar to solo pianists and grand symphony orchestras. Other venues of interest include the Teatro Mozart and the Costa Rican and North American Cultural Center.
Jazz – Several jazz cafes and restaurants in and around the Escazu and San Jose area are excellent options to watch new musicians play acoustic and jazz sets. The nation’s most famous jazz ensemble, Editus, has found international acclaim and won a Grammy award in 2000 for Best Latin Pop Presentation. To nurture the nation’s burgeoning jazz scene, Costa Rica hosts the semi-annual International Jazz Festival, which celebrates some of the world’s most talented musicians. Calypso Calypso is a style of Afro-Caribbean music that originated in Trinidad among slaves who used the music as a means to communicate and tell stories. In Costa Rica, Cahuita’s Walter Ferguson is a popular calypso musician whose songs include anecdotes about his childhood in poverty-stricken Panama, and are an excellent illustration of Afro-Caribbean culture.
Reggae – Reggae, which first developed in Jamaica in the 1960s, is very popular in Costa Rica, especially along the Caribbean coast. Local artists include C-Sharp and Fuerza Dread, who perform at local bars like La Mochila, which hosts Costa Rica Reggae Nites every Friday. In 2011, Damian Marley honored Costa Rica as the only Central American country to make his tour list. Reggaeton blends urban beats with Jamaican dancehall and Latin rhythms to create Spanish-language songs popular among the nation’s teenagers and dance club regulars. Reggaeton is also the music of choice for catchy ad campaigns and San Jose street music.
Tropical – Costa Rica’s dance clubs boogie to the beats of merengue, salsa, cumbia and other Latin American rhythms. Interestingly, while Costa Ricans dance salsa and merengue in the traditional styles, they exchange the popular Colombian-style cumbia dance steps for “swing criollo,” or creole swing, which features a series of hops and bouncing steps to accompany cumbia’s infectious beat.
Contemporary – Costa Rican Musicians Popular Costa Rican contemporary musicians include Ghandi, Cantares, Balerom, Evolucion, Akasha, El Parque, Gaviota, Percance, and Debi Nova. In August 2011, Malpais, one of Costa Rica’s favorite bands, suffered the loss of Fidel Gamboa, a founding member and lead singer.
A very popular folksong is “Soy Tico” (I am Costa Rican). Enjoy.
And yet another, probably the oldest known folksong ever sung in Spanish: “De Colores”. This song is practiced by every grade school student in the Costa Rican school system.