To be Chilean is to live on the edge. A long, narrow country of about 18 million whose southern tip marks the end of the South American continent—or, as many say, the end of the world—it’s hemmed in by the wild Pacific Ocean to the west, the formidable Andes Mountains to the east, and the merciless Atacama Desert to the north. The country’s rich bounty of folk music reflects these dramatic landscapes and equally dramatic history.
Chile’s famous national dance, the handkerchief-teasing flirtation called the cueca, is the folk genre every tourist hears about. But each region in Chile is like a musical microclimate. In the north, for instance, one hears the influence of the pre-Incan indigenous peoples—the Quechua, Aymara, and Atacama—as well as of Catholic liturgy and Spanish colonial military bands. Rural life is the basis for the music of the agricultural Valle Central (Central Valley), with its singing and dancing huasos, Chile’s version of the cowboy. And in Easter Island one finds chanting and dancing derived from Polynesian cultures, like the sensuous Samoan-based sau sau.