Music Preferences in Colombia

Benedict Anderson wrote: "All communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even those) are imagined.  Communities are to be distinguished not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined."  These acts of imagination can take a variety of forms and themes (history, heritage, language, religion, commerce, military, culture, food, etc).  In this article, we will discuss how music is used by Colombians to imagine themselves, with respect to their nation, region, community and peers.

We present some data from the TGI Colombia study, a consumer survey of 7,035 persons in Colombia conducted by IBOPE Columbia to collect demographics, media usage, product usage and lifestyle information.  Here, the respondents were asked to list their favorite types of music.  The answers were tabulated in a table of preferred music genres versus age/sex.  We present the results in the form of a correspondence analysis map, which is a geometric representation of complex tabulated data.  

Correspondence Analysis Map of Music Preferences by Age/Sex

(source:  TGI Colombia, IBOPE Colombia)

The correspondence analysis yielded the following graphical representation of the age/sex groups: along the horizontal axis, the groups are sorted by age, with the youngest people on the left and the oldest people on the right.  The relationship of the various music genres to age/sex can be characterized by three groupings:

A simple explanation would be one based upon the notion of fads.  Each generation has its own preferences in its own time, and the next generation will move onto something else, just to be different.  However, this does not explain why these particular genres should appear in the way that they do.

The manner in which these musical genres became popular to their generation has a great deal to do with communication media and technology.  In the early days, music is played by live musicians.  As a country, Colombia encompasses many physically different regions --- there are the islands of San Andrés, Providencia, the Islas del Rosario and San Bernado in the Caribbean and Gorgona and Malpelo in the Pacific; the western part of the country is mountainous, with the three Andeans chains --- the Cordillera Occidental, Cordillera Central and Codillera Oriental --- running roughly parallel north-south across the entire country, making for arduous travel; the eastern country is divided into the rolling savannahs of Los Llanos in the north and the rainforest of the Amazon in the south.  This geography had made Colombia look like a collection of city-states rather than a single nation until recently.

As a result, there came to be many forms of music that were popular in specific regions.  These regional musical forms evolve out of the local cultural traditions, which represent a synthesis of the cultural heritages of descendants of the local Indian inhabitants, the Spanish settlers, the black slaves and even some English-speaking smugglers, who exist in different proportions by region.  Here, we describe some of these forms:

Whereas the oldest generation grew up with regional music that was most often played live at parties, dances, fiestas and festivals, the next generation received its music from radio play and records.  The music business was driven by the mass mechanical reproduction, marketing and sales of vinyl records and this tended to favor mega-corporations with production facilities and marketing power.  Radio music emerged as an industry of its own right, providing free music entertainment, which are simultaneously advertisements for the recorded products,  to listeners.  In this environment, regional music forms are no longer attractive areas of investment.  Rather, it is more efficient to produce music that has national appeal and, better yet, across national boundaries.  This generation was brought up with a heavy dose of Europeanized popular music, most often romantic ballads sung in Spanish as well as imports in English.  Simultaneously, tropical music forms such as salsa (a form that is based upon the Cuban son and exploded in popularity in New York City to spread around the world) and merengue achieved popularity as hot dance music that is distinctly Latin American in flavor.  Occasionally, these music forms may be given a local flavor (such as Colombian salsa as exemplified by groups such as Grupo Niche from the Cali region). 

Today, the communication media revolution has gone much further ahead.  In a market with just a few radio stations, one may have had to program music conservatively to attract the largest audience.  Not only are there many more radio stations today, there are many other alternative media:

The fragmentation of the media environment has resulted in the development of global niche markets such as rap, hip hop, techno, reggae, heavy metal and so on.  This is obviously the result of two apparently contradictory impulses --- niching and globalization.  By definition, a niche market is a narrowly and precisely defined segment (such as heavy metal music).  Its narrowness and precision would have been made it an unprofitable piece of business in a country like Colombia, but for the fact that this niche market can accumulate a large audience globally.  Thus, globalization also represents the salvation of niche markets.

We have presented an analysis in which we argue that the segmentation of music preferences in Colombia today is the result of the change in communication media and technology over the last fifty years.  If true, this obviously does not bode well for the future of the traditional forms of regional music in Colombia.  Yet, these musical forms have by no means exhausted their possibilities.  Niche markets can continue to thrive in an era of globalization.  It is just that a music form like vallenato can no longer be promulgated by a troubadour like Rafael Escalona traveling from village to village and plying his trade.  Rather it takes a Carlos Vives starring in a telenovela like Escalona and scoring a global monster hit like La Gota Fria.




Pies Descalzos

Grupo Niche: 
The Best

Diomedes Diaz & Iván Zuleta: Volver a Vivir

Orquesta Guayacan:
La Otra Cara

En Esta Noche

(posted by Roland Soong on 6/25/00)

(Return to Zona Latina's Home Page)