Jurg Widmer reviews a rough guide to Guatemalan music

If there is one thing that you will not be able to escape in Guatemala (and why would you want to), it is the music. Like much of Central and Latin America, Guatemala is positively bursting with a kaleidoscope of different kinds of music – blaring from the radio in the taxi taking you from the airport, sound-tracking a salsa party in downtown Guatemala City, or drifting out into the night from an open apartment window.

From street performers to vibrant clubs and bars, music is everywhere. Much of the richness of Guatemala’s music scene comes down to the rainbow of cultures that make up the country’s population – from indigenous Mayan traditions, to Spanish influences and even the sounds of Africa.

Here is our quick primer on some of the essential things you need to know.

  1. Learning to salsa is also a great way to learn Spanish.

Salsa music and clubs are huge in Guatemala, and an exciting part of the country’s music scene.

We all travel for different reasons, and learning Spanish might be right up for you. Guatemala is a great place to hone your language skills, and there literally thousands of schools, courses and evening classes running to help you to do it. But there are other ways too – and one of the best (apart from living as a part of a home stay arrangement with a Guatemalan family) is to learn to salsa.

The key to having a successful experience, of course, comes down to the quality of the school you attend and how good your teacher is, but in cities like historic Antigua there are plenty of salsa schools to pick from. Ask around and see where the locals recommend.

But why is it such a good way to learn Spanish? Well, you’ll often find that the local teachers don’t speak English, forcing you to practice. But it’s also a chance to meet other Spanish speakers in an informal atmosphere, and hear some great music while you work on your language skills as well as your moves.

  1. The Mayans have been making music since at least 600AD

Mayan culture influences many different aspects of modern Guatemalan life, and music is no different. One ancient Mayan percussion instrument that is still around today is the ‘tunkul’ – a kind of hollowed out tree trunk that is hit with hammers. Mayan music was most often used for festivals or religious ceremonies, and if you get the chance to hear it first hand in an indigenous area like the Mayan villages around Lake Atitlan, it is an experience you will never forget.

  1. Guatemala’s national instrument is the marimba

In many ways, the warm sound of a marimba is the sound of Guatemala itself. It’s not actually very clear where the instrument first came from (the first Spanish reports of it come from the late 1600s, but it is likely its origins are much more ancient). The instrument is made of a series of bars that are struck with a hammer, with a resonator to amplify the sound below them. They’re often accompanied by a range of marimbas of different sizes as well as drums and bass. It’s almost impossible to visit Guatemala and not hear a traditional marimba band, and you will find the instrument is the soundtrack to many of your travels in the country.

  1. Garifuna music was created by escaped prisoners

Head to the Caribbean coast of Guatemala and you will discover a very different sound to the marimba bands of rest of the country. Garifuna music is a traditional form that has its roots in the original settlers in the area, who escaped British rule in St Vincent. Garifuna is all about the drums – the performers see drumming as a direct link with their ancestors, and almost a form of musical storytelling. True Garifuna performers are becoming fewer and fewer, so head to the coast and seek this wonderful music out.

  1. ‘El Animal Nocturno’ is huge

While Guatemala has a rich and fascinating tradition of indigenous folk music, the country also loves its homegrown pop. That tune you heard coming out of that passing taxi could well have been one of Ricardo Arjona’s – known as ‘El Animal Nocturno’ – who is one of the country’s biggest stars. He’s sold an impressive 80 million records (that’s more than The Black Eyed Peas for one), and fans love his Latin pop style. His talents don’t stop at the microphone either – he famously also played for the Guatemalan national basketball team.