Most people are familiar with traditional Andean folklórica (folk music) without even knowing it: Simon and Garfunkel’s version of ‘El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could)’ was a classic Andean tune long before the famous duo got their hands on it. Hearing it day in and day out (as is quite possible in certain market towns) may induce insanity. Still, its distinctive and even haunting sound is characteristic of Andean folk music. Folklórica’s definitive instrument is the rondador (bamboo panpipe). Other traditional instruments include the quena and pingullo (large and small bamboo flutes) and the charango, a mandolin-like instrument with five double strings and a sounding box that was initially made with an armadillo shell.
Although most people associate Ecuador with folklórica, the country’s actual national music is the aisle, which is rooted in the waltz. Its most famous voice was Julio Jaramillo (known affectionately as ‘TI’; 1935-78), a handsome singer from Guayaquil whose emotive singing popularized Latin America’s genre.
Northwest Ecuador, mainly Esmeraldas province, is famous for its marimba music, which is historically the music of Ecuador’s Afro-Ecuadorian population. Today it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hear live because of the increased popularity of salsa and other musical forms in the Afro-Ecuadorian community. One name to look out for is Afro-Ecuadorian dance and music group Azúcar. Its choral arrangements feature African-style rhythms alongside the marimba and cunucos (rustic congas).
Ecuador’s rock scene is small but growing, with several original bands breaking new ground. Esto es Eso is a talented US-Ecuadorian duo blending hip-hop, pop, rock, and reggae, along with aisle and other traditional sounds. If any band is destined for crossover success in North American and Europe, Eso es Eso is it.
Salmo Reggae, a band that hails from Quito, is mostly known for reggae, though it also blends other Afro-Latin rhythms such as ska and calypso with bossa nova and samba.
Rocola Bacalao is a top performer in the Guayaquil scene, playing a mix of ska, punk, merengue, and other sounds, with irreverent lyrics and a good sense of humor.
The percussion band Tomback (which takes its name from an Iranian hand-drum) is a youthful nine-member group playing progressive rock and rap and jazz laced with heavy beats.
Ecuador also has its share of Latin pop artists, with Tercer Mundo being Ecuador’s original boy band still around and going strong, filling the airwaves.
If there’s one inescapable music in this Andean country, it’s cumbia, whose rhythm resembles that of a trotting three-legged horse. Originally from Colombia, Ecuadorian cumbia has a rawer (almost amateur), melancholic sound and is dominated by the electronic keyboard. Bus drivers love the stuff, perhaps because it so strangely complements those back-road journeys through the Andes (and hopefully, it keeps them awake at the wheel).