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The Cueca is the ultimate musical expression of Chilean folklore and has been considered the national dance since 1979.


The origin of this dance has generated intense debate by musicologists, historians and performers. The three most accepted versions are:

One of the theories came from Jose Zapiola (1802-1885). He believed that the origin of this genre was Peruvian. In his 1872 book “Memories of Thirty Years” Zapiola stated:

“Since the year 1823, Lima provided us with numerous and different kinds of zamacuecas…”   

Zapiola believed that these and other dances originated from within the battalions of soldiers who participated in the Peruvian liberation expedition commanded by José San Martin and Bernardo O’Higgins. Black men made up a large part of this campaign and in order to make their nights livelier and military life more tolerable, they danced and sang popular songs accompanied by the guitar. Zapiola concluded that although there may have been a generous amount of influence from Africa, the dance originated and developed in Peru.

A second version is by the eminent political philosopher Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna (1831-1886). In his essay “La zamacueca y la zanguaraña” (written in 1882 during the Pacific War) he theorized that the zamacueca is neither Chilean nor Peruvian:

“It was brought to Chile, long before Peru, at the end of last century by black slaves that passed through the lands following the routes of Los Andes, Quillota and Valparaiso, on their way to Lima from the valleys of Guinea…”

Mackenna believed that the origin was entirely African and that it came straight to Chile, specifically to Valparaiso and Quillota. From there it moved on to Peru where it was named the limeña. Later it found its way to Lima where its name was once again changed, this time to the zamacueca. It then returned back to Chile in 1824 (the same way that Zapiola suggested), as a “black dance”. 

After these developments, the Peruvians gave it the name, Chilena (seen as an acceptance of its origin). Finally, a few years later during the Pacific War in which the Peruvian-Bolivian confederation fought Chile, its name was changed to the Marinera in Peru to honor the glory and sacrifice of the Peruvian sailor. This last dance is very similar to the Cueca and is one of the most formidable Afro-Peruvian dances that exist today.

The third version, by the Argentinean musicologist Carlos Vega (1898-1969) hypothesized that the origin of this genre is Spanish and that it comes from ancient Andalucian Fandangos (a form of music related to Flamenco). Vega made the following definition of the Cueca:

“Extraordinary dance, the most difficult in its genre, the most profound and noble in America”.

Vega also believed that the Cueca was responsible for many other dances throughout South America including notably, the Argentinean Zamba. He believed it was exported to Chile and Argentina in 1810 from Lima but under the name zamba. Hethen theorizes that it changed its name to the Zamacueca in 1824, which later became the zamba in Argentina. (Argentina’s national dance is the zamba, not the tango as many believe.) In Chile, it developed its own unique personality and was simply called the Cueca

“Lima adopts with great enthusiasm the variation that comes from Chile with names like the Zamacueca Chilena or Cueca Chilena or Chilena, (from here), it expands throughout all Peru”.

José Zapiola, Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna, Carlos Vega.


The Cueca is written in a combination of 6/8 and 3/4 at the same time and has a very rigid structure that is divided into three sections.

The cuarteta contains four verses in eight syllables (the second and fourth verses rhyme).

Cuarteta     A-B-B-A-B-B   TOTAL: 24 measures
Seguidilla A-B-B-A-B-(B TOTAL: (20) 24 measures
Remate  A   TOTAL: 4 measures

Sampler of the score “Adiós Santiago querido” by Segundo Zamora

The Chilean nationalist painter Fernando Allende Bellido has used the Cueca as inspiration in many of his paintings.

Types of Cueca and its Instrumentation

Among the different variations of the Cueca found in Chile, the most developed are:

Cueca from the North

This type of Cueca has no lyrics and is danced during religious feasts and carnival. The instruments used to perform it are sicus, zampoñas and brass (trumpets and tubas).

Cueca from the Central Region

This type of Cueca is the sound most associated with the genre in Chile. The instruments most commonly used to perform it are the guitar, accordion, guitarrón, and percussion. Some of its more well known proponents are: Los Cuatro Huasos, Conjunto Graneros, Hermanos Campos, Los Huasos Quincheros, Gabriela Pizarro, and Hermanas Freire.

Listen to “Adiós Santiago querido” (Conjunto Asís)

Urban Cueca (brava, chora)

This variation of the Cueca was born in the 1860s and came from the rougher side of life. It was sung and danced in places like bars, prison, and brothels. Some people who sing in this style today are Nano Nuñez-Los Chileneros, Roberto Parra, Eduardo “Lalo “Parra, Los Tricolores, Los Santiaguinos, Los Trukeros, Los Paleteados del Puerto, Los Porfiados de la Cueca and Los Chinganeros.

Listen to “De la guitarra hice un barco” (Los Chileneros)

Cueca Chilota

The main difference with the traditional Cueca is the absence of the initial cuarteta.  The verses of the seguidilla are repeated, in the style of the Cueca larga (until four or five verses are completed). There is a greater emphasis placed on the interpretation of the lyrics by the vocalist rather than on the music or the dance.

Roberto Parra, “Lalo” Parra, Nano Nuñez

Artists and continuity

In addition to the people mentioned previously, the following people have also had a tremendous impact on the growth and expansion of the Cueca over the last decades: Héctor Pávez, Los Provincianos, Dúo Rey-Silva, Silvia Infanta y Los Baqueanos, Cuncumén, Violeta Parra, Mario Rojas, and Los Santiaguinos,

In the first half of the last century, music and culture from other Latin-American countries started to find their way into Chile and began to affect the manner in which the Tonada and the Cueca were composed. These new styles, and the globalization of music that followed, actually spurred a renaissance in the interest of Chilean music that influenced not only folkloric artists, but also renowned classical composers such as Pedro Humberto Allende, Carlos Isamitt and later, Gustavo Becerra. What all of these artists had in common was an insistence that Chile needed a national musical identity and a modern, but tradition-based compositional style unique in Latin America and indeed, the world.

Neofolklore was a movement born in the 1950s that also had a large impact on traditional music in Chile. The movement was more urban than rural and was started by right leaning; intellectually conservative groups who wished to have a nationalist folkloric identity more in line with their beliefs. The main characteristics of this sub genre are complex vocal arrangements and a greater use of the guitar as a virtuosic instrument rather than for just simple accompaniment. Its most famous performers are Los Huasos Quincheros, Los Cuatro Cuartos and Las Cuatro Brujas.

Conversely, and at the same time, there were also many people who were hard at work investigating the roots of folkloric music and what was being lost as migration to the cities from the country began in earnest. Some of the principal researchers and performers from this time were: Violeta Parra, Margot Loyola, Samuel Claro Valdés, Gabriela Pizarro, and the Conjunto Cuncumén.

One of the most important people in the history of the Cueca is Fernando González Marabolí (1927-2006), an erudite poet and researcher who made the dance a truly graceful part of life in Chile throughout the last century.

Today, there is a new generation of musicians who are breathing new life into the Cueca by using innovative arrangements, instrumentation and interpretations. Some of these performers are Daniel Muñoz y 3x7 veintiuna, Los Afuerinos, Las Capitalinas and Mario Rojas and his project of “El ángel de la Cueca”. Finally, musician Álvaro Henríquez, a member of the immensely popular Chilean rock band Los Tres, has used the Cueca to great extent in his music, and in doing so, has had an important influence on new generations of musicians and fans alike.

Los Tres, Daniel Muñoz, Los Chileneros, Mario Rojas.

It would be negligent not to mention the work of Sergio Sauvalle, composer, guitarist and musicologist, whose highly influential 1999 book “Guitarra Chilena” (featuring Cuecas and Zamacuecas arranged for the classical guitar) has lead to a much renewed interest in the genre among musicians everywhere.

Guitarra chilena by S. Sauvalle E.

Listen to “A la una nací yo” (Sergio Sauvalle E.)

Comments about the Compositions

General Guideline

To be able to play these pieces correctly, one must understand the techniques of both the “pinza” for playing notes and chords, and the “apagado” used during the execution of the “rasgueo” or strum.
(See Sergio Sauvalle, técnicas de la guitarra chilena- - pages 4 and 5). 

The complexity of writing in this genre lies fundamentally in the rigidity of its own form and melodic structure. The melodic turns which constitute the Cueca are derived from only two phrases, A and B, and being that one must use this limited material while adhering to the form makes it rather difficult to maintain an appealing musical line without straying from the previously mentioned structure. In addition, there are no lyrics. This means a composer must be very prudent when repeating the two themes so as not to exhaust all the variant possibilities and furthermore, not bore one’s audience.

Cueca I “El adiós, en forma de Cueca” Audio
Cueca II “De todas maneras” Audio
Cueca III “El canto espera, el canto vuelve” Audio

“El adiós, en forma de Cueca” (Cueca I)

In and of itself, this is not a Cueca; however, I based the piece on the structure of one, taking two themes and developing them in a way that is customary to the genre. I also included two rhythmical resources that are not normally associated with this folk art: anticipations and retards.
The piece is in B minor and does not have an introduction. The first theme A appears immediately in measures 1 through 4 and is followed immediately by the second theme B in measures 5 through 8. When the two phrases are repeated, variations are made in the melody and accompaniment while being mindful not to lose the intention of the original idea.
These first twelve measures A, B, B will repeat later, thereby completing the initial “cuarteta”.
The seguidilla begins in measure 25 where theme A reappears, but this time an octave higher. Theme B also repeats an octave higher but returns to its regular tessitura in measure 33 and features a slight variation used to create a tonal sounding cadence (F#7-G) in measure 35.

When theme A repeats, it maintains the integrity of the original line, but this time uses movement in the bass (D-C#-D-B) that drives a much more appealing re-harmonization. Theme B is then repeated twice (measures 41 to 48) before we arrive at the closing section beginning at measure 49, which, like the beginning, has a very nostalgic air. 

Duration: 1.50 
Guitarist: Eugenio González.

“Como va la Cueca” (Cueca II)

The A Lydian mode (A-B-C#-D#-E-F#-G#-A) is used predominantly throughout this composition. The first eight measures are written in a way that permits tremendous rhythmic freedom in the accompaniment, essentially allowing the interpreter to vary the rasgueo at his or her will. It is most important however, that the apagado is used correctly when playing the fourth beat of every measure. This is fundamental.  

The “cuarteta” begins in measure 13. Theme A features an interesting melodic turn that rises throughout the phrase requiring the performer to take great care in highlighting the line so it will be adequately separated from the accompaniment. Theme B first appears between measures 17 and 20 and later repeats with subtle variations in the bass line in measures 21 through 24. Theme A returns in measure 25 followed, as custom dictates, by theme B, but this time with an F natural in the bass, used to stretch the sound slightly from the original mode.
To provide more variety for the repetition of theme B (measures 33 to 36), the instruments’ color palette was taken advantage of by using pizzicato combined with glissando on the bass strings, creating an appealing, if not different, sound for the end of this section.
When the seguidilla begins in measure 37, the themes are moved up a third. (without changing mode) This practice permits some variety but does not abandon the original idea, as both lines are kept intact. When theme B is introduced (measures 41 to 44), the harmony is much more chromatic and a little more dissonant; this contrasts with its repetition in measure 45 simply because it is then harmonized in a clear, more tonal manner. When A and B return in measures 49 through 56 (the last B is not repeated) they are written an octave higher and lead directly to the closing section in measures 57 through 60.The piece finishes with an extended coda where the rhythmic germ from the introduction is further developed. Once again, it is recommended that the performer varies the manner in which they perform the rasgueos and apagados to their liking. 

I can’t help but associate the restless and rebellious character of this piece with the spontaneous personality of my young son Vicente.  For this reason, I dedicate it to him with all my heart…

Duration: 2.34
Guitarist: Eugenio González.

“El canto espera, el canto vuelve” (Cueca III)

The piece is written in G minor and begins with a very long introduction that uses duplets played against eighth notes in the bass. This superimposition is a very common occurrence in South American folklore and one which defines Chilean music in particular.
The bass line descends chromatically from a G to D flat (m. 16) and in doing so generates a very clear and consonant harmony. The performer will note that the fingerings in bar 13 may prove to be a little uncomfortable for the left hand and that is why an alternative has been provided just below.
The “cuarteta” begins in measure 33 featuring themes A and B and B’s repetition (with slight variance) until measure 44. As structural tradition dictates, these two themes are once again repeated (A, B, B) between bars 45 through 56 with only a slight variance in the final two measures that allows for a major cadence.
We continue with the seguidilla by returning to theme A but this time written one octave below the original melody to avoid repeating the same texture used in the quarteta and providing a much darker color. The repetition of theme B is even more hidden and contrasts greatly with the initial line by the use of pizzicato and tambora.  When A repeats again in measure 69, it is much more terse and rhythmical and provides some exceptional challenges for the left hand, especially in measure 71. 
In the final repetition of B, the melody becomes even more “hidden” by using an extremely “powerful” rasgueo. One must take great care in conserving the line even during this vigorous and forceful strumming.
The closing section (measure 77-80) maintains the same characteristics as the previously repeated theme B and smoothly leads to a coda, which features a succession of rasgueos that move decidedly toward the dominant of the original key (D7).

The title of this piece is in homage to the great singers of this art form both past and present. 

Duration: 3.12
Guitarist: Eugenio González.


Historical Reference

Techniques of the Chilean Guitar

Special Tunings

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