Costa Rican Typical Folk Music: the Essence of Our National Soul

Nurturing from many influences it has become a rich cultural tradition

One of the best ways to experience the culture of any country is through its music. Local clubs and discos are perfect informal scenarios to explore current and popular sounds. For a more formal introduction to classical genres, churches, concerts and music festivals are a great place to start.

Dance and music go hand in hand, especially in Latin countries. Salsa, samba, merengue, and cumbia are popular styles of dance music among older generations. Mexican music is also popular in Costa Rica, due to Costa Rica’s great exposure many years ago to Mexican culture. Nightclubs and local hotspots in San Jose and other metropolitan areas are probably the best way to enjoy music and participate in the dance scene.

The place to explore Costa Rican folk music is in the province of Guanacaste. The pre-Columbian style of music can be heard through “Ocarinas” and “Quijongos“, but many modern instruments are also used to explore ceremonial songs and the heritage of the past. Today’s most popular music in Costa Rica combines rock, Latin sounds, jazz, and traditional folk music.

Four well-marked regions can be identified as the main sources of our national folk music: Guanacaste (Guanacasteca), the Central Valleys (Aldeana), Limón (Limonense) and San Isidro de El General (Generaleña).

Description of some of the rhythms of typical and folk music

As an initial clarification, it should be noted that not necessarily a composition belongs exclusively to a particular rhythm. The same piece of music can be adapted to perform in different rhythms. This is the case, for example, of the song “De la caña se hace el guaro”, which has had many rhythmic versions; it has been recorded in the rhythm of Mexican Corrido (Kike de Heredia), Northern Mexican (Maribel Guardia), and Chilean Cueca (Los de Ramón), Slow Waltz and even in Rock (José Capmani). So it is not strange to find the same song, which is performed in different rhythms.

Costa Rican Waltz:

It arrived between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and prevailed as representative of the aristocratic classes of Cártago and San José. Subsequently, with some compositions of the 20th century, it acquired nuances. Some examples of Costa Rican Waltz are Baldazo: (Luis Castillo C.), Coyotillo (Anonymous), El Amigo (Manuel María Gutiérrez).

The National Bolero:

Like the Ballad, the Bolero is originally from Europe. It arrived in America, brought by the Spaniards, first, to Cuba, in the 19th century, where it had a wide diffusion. There it was mixed with African rhythms and maracas were added to its interpretation. This resulted in the contentious song mix we know today.

It arrived in Costa Rica at the beginning of the 20th century, brought by some singers traveling through Central America, around the 1920s. Perhaps the most prolific national Bolero composers, whose songs have crossed borders and have been recorded by famous singers are Ricardo Mora, Orlando Zeledón and Ray Tico. About the main Boleristas (Bolero singers): Jorge Duarte, Gilberto Hernández and Rafa Pérez. Some of the best known Costa Rican Boleros are Cartaginesa (Carlos M. Hidalgo), Eso es Imposible Ray Tico (José Jacinto Herrera Córdoba), Luna Liberiana (Jesús Bonilla Ch).

Mazurca and Polka:

Rhythms originally from Poland, defined as cult music for high society. Both genres spread throughout Europe in the mid-18th century and arrived in Costa Rica with Catalan immigrants in the late 1840s. It quickly became popular as ballroom dancing for elegant parties. Among the most prominent composers who developed this musical genre are Manuel María Gutiérrez (author of the National Anthem) with Mazurcas like Chepita, Ester, Los Guerreros, La Viviana, and Polkas such as La Nueva Era, Las Josefinas, Ana Benita and La Isabel. Among modern groups, Malpaís has a composition called Mazurka de Dámaso and Miguel Salguero composed the Mazurka “La Pava Negra”.


It is a folk music rhythm of unknown origin, although it could be derived from the Spanish Dance. Some consider this the national rhythm. The name Tambito was coined by José Ramírez Saizar, about the Tambo, a type of Huts that were built on cattle farms for the laborers to sleep. The Tambo seems an Inca term, who used their famous Tambos as resting places on the Inca route. Among the songs that belong to this rhythm are: A Mi Bandera, Así es mi Tierra, Caballito Nicoyano, all composed by Mario Chacón.

Calypso Limonense:

A contentious Afro-Caribbean rhythm, whose origin is attributed to the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, The route is followed to get to Costa Rica is not well known, although it is presumed that it first arrived in Jamaica and from there the blacks brought to the province of Limón, where, because of the contagious pace, quickly was adopted by all the population.

Since its arrival with Jamaicans and the other Caribbean in the penultimate decade of the nineteenth century, the rhythm began to acquire its variety. In the first half of the 20th century, it had a great development as a spontaneous cultural manifestation. Limón began to mix with the influence of many other local rhythms such as waltz, parrandera or tambito and imported, such as Cuban, Colombian and Mexican cumbia, as well as reggae and salsa. This has produced a calypso with a very native flavor.

Over the years, various instruments have been incorporated. It started with drums and maracas but progressively the bongos, ukulele, shekele, guitar, clarinet, accordion, harmonica, and other instruments were incorporated. Some of the best known Calypso Limonense is:

Cabin in the Wata, One Pant Man, Black Man Food, Helen, Tacuma y Anancy, and Caroline, all composed by Walter Ferguson.

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SOURCEOsmary Torres
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