Panama City Feature


Panama, Musica

Considering that Panama has long been a crossroads for people and goods, it's hardly surprising that the country is home to an array of musical styles. While traveling here, you are likely to hear such Panamanian music as pindín (ormúsica típica) and cantadera, as well as internationally popular genres such as salsa, merengue, reggaetón, and house music. Commerce and immigration have long connected Panama to musical traditions from far-flung places. Witness the resulting musical mélange for yourself by surfing the radio in the capital, spending an evening at one of the city's dance clubs, or simply by walking up and down the streets catching snatches of music that seep out of homes and apartments.

Panama's current musical panorama has its roots in the mixing of Spanish, African, and indigenous traditions centuries ago, which resulted in the development of the country's folk music. Panamanian musicians have also excelled in genres from other countries, such as jazz, calypso, and salsa. However, most Panamanians are especially fond of the country's home-grown music, namely cantadera, mejorana, música foclórica, and pindín.

Mejorana is a Panamanian music that was developed on the Azuero Peninsula and can now be heard mostly at folk festivals and cultural celebrations. It is played on a five-string guitar called the mejoranera, and usually accompanies folk dancing. Cantadera is a popular music form evocative of flamenco; it consists of an improvisational exchange between a guitarist and singer, with a consistent rhythm. The guitarist performs a simple chord progression punctuated by more complex melodic improvisations called torrentes, and the singer accompanies him with a series of décimas, traditional 10-line poems that often have comic endings.

Folk dances are accompanied by what is simply called música foclórica, or folk music, which is similar to the vallenato of Colombia, a country of which Panama was a part for nearly a century. That rhythmic music is performed by groups with an accordion, different types of drums, and a churuca—a serrated gourd or metal cylinder that is scraped with a stick. During the 20th century música foclórica gave birth to a more popular form known as pindín (or música típica): a lyric-driven, danceable music in which the accordion is accompanied by an electric guitar and bass, and the percussion includes a drum set. Pindín is the music that many rural Panamanians party, dance, and live to, but it's also popular in the city, where you're likely to hear it in taxis and in bars and restaurants. Pindín has its share of stars, such as Dorindo Cárdenas, Victor Vergara, and the siblings Samy y Sandra Sandoval.

In Panama City pindín has traditionally shared the airwaves with salsa and other Caribbean dance music. A child of the Cuban son (sound), salsa was largely developed in New York during the 1960s and ‘70s, and it has been popular in Panama from day one. The country has produced some excellent salsa musicians; the most famous is singer and composer Ruben Blades, who has also acted in dozens of Hollywood movies and TV shows. He is known for using salsa to tell stories or to address social and political issues. His most popular song, "Pedro Navaja," which tells the story of a murder on the street in New York, is one of the greatest hits in the history of salsa.

Panama also has a strong tradition of jazz, especially in the Caribbean port of Colón, where big bands reigned in the 1940s and ‘50s. The country has produced some excellent jazz musicians, among them pianist Victor Boa, singer Barbara Wilson, and pianist Danilo Pérez. Pérez was instrumental in the creation of the Panama Jazz Festival (, a weeklong celebration that brings together international and local musicians in late January.

The thousands of Afro-Caribbean workers who settled in Panama after completion of the canal made the country home to Antillean music, such as mento, calypso, and soca. The Afro-Caribbean connection has more recently resulted in Panamanian versions of reggaetón, the Latin American response to Jamaican dance-hall, which mutated out of reggae in the 1980s as a response to American rap music. Panama has produced a few international reggaetón stars over the years, among them El General and Nando Boom, and for better or worse, reggaetón could well replace both pindín and salsa as Panama's most popular music.

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