Dancing cueca "with your coat on":
the role of traditional Chilean dance in an immigrant community

JAN SVERRE KNUDSEN  Online version of article printed in British Journal of Etnomusicology, Vol. 10/ii 2001
Published by British Forum for Ethnomusicology

The power of the cueca
The cueca in the Chilean community of Oslo
Linking time and place
Choice and necessity
Invented tradition
Emblem or catalyst?
Control and authenticity
The 14th region
The Future

This article examines the cueca dance, an undisputed symbol of Chilean national identity, within the diasporic Chilean community in Oslo. The immigrant experience involves dramatic social change and therefore provides an interesting field in which to investigate the dynamic relationship between changes in musical practices and social change. In this article I address the complex processes of adaptation, redefinition and reconstruction that cueca dancing has undergone in Norway. I begin with an overview of the processes involved in the construction of the cueca as the Chilean national dance. I then look at the changes it has undergone in Norway in relation to recruitment,interpretation, experienced meaning and social function. The article is based on a paper presented at the ESEM seminar in Belfast, September 8th 2000.

All over the world...1
The cueca is pure Chile.
Although we are dancing so far away,
Here, outside ...
Let us celebrate our Independence Day,
And in the enramada2
The Chilean party is prepared ...
Let us dance cueca in Norway
Let us dance cueca “with our coats on”
Because cueca is Chile ...
Here ...
And in any corner of the world...

Aquí ...
Y en la quebrá del ají ...
Es puro Chile. La cueca
y que no lo fuerá ...
Aunque se baile ré lejos,
Por aquí afuera ...
Celebre las fiestas patrias
Y en la enramada,
Que la fiesta chilena,
Esta preparada ...
A bailar cueca en Noruega
A bailar ‘cueca abrigá’
Porque la cueca es Chile ...
Aquí ...
Y en cualquier quebrá ...

Cueca Poster
Lyrics and poster by Sergio Campos



The lines that introduce this article were written by Sergio Campos, the “house
poet” at the Chilean Cultural Centre (Casa Cultural Chilena) in Oslo. They were
printed on the poster shown above inviting members of the Chilean community to the
Independence Day celebrations in 1999. Written as a brindis, a toast
in the folk style, they underline the fact that both within Chile and in the many
Chilean communities around the world, the traditional dance, the cueca, holds
an undisputed position as a key symbol of Chilean national identity. The
poet explains that the expression “dancing with our coats on” (bailar cueca
3) is an image that relates to the importance of the cueca for Chileans:
“It is danced by Chileans all over the world, and in Norway the cold environment
makes it necessary to adapt by wrapping yourself up well.” In this article
I have drawn on this image as a metaphor for the complex processes of
adaptation, redefinition and reconstruction that musical expressions undergo
when confronted with the new and unfamiliar cultural environment of a foreign
country. By discussing a number of salient aspects of a diasporic musical
culture and relating them to the immigrant situation, I attempt to show that the
performance of a symbolically loaded traditional dance can undergo substantial
changes in such realms as recruitment, interpretation, experienced meaning and
social function, when resurrected within a new social framework.

The article is based on on-going Ph.D. research into the musical activities
of the Chilean community of Oslo. Fieldwork has centred upon the Chilean
Cultural Centre, which organizes a wide range of activities for Chilean immigrants
currently living in Norway. At the Centre they can meet fellow Chileans,
speak Spanish, eat empanadas, read Chilean books and magazines, watch
Chilean movies and football matches, enjoy music and poetry and engage in
many other activities. All in all, the efforts of the Centre are aimed at creating
and maintaining a complete social world for those who want to live a Chilean
life in Norway. Music and dance, including a variety of Latin-American genres,
have a central position among Chilean immigrants, with the cultivation of the
cueca and other expressions of Chilean folklore constituting focal points connected
to the representation and expression of national identity. In this social
environment there is a strong tendency to encourage the cultivation of national
symbols, such as the flag, costumes, food and music. The names of such
performing groups as Tierra Chilena, Canta Chile and Chile Andino, which
foster Chilean musical traditions in Norway, reflect this emphasis.

Cueca practice at Casa Cultural Chilena Photo: J. S. Knudsen 

The cueca dancers shown above belong to the group called Tierra
Chilena, a traditional dance group that is active in the Chilean immigrant
community of Oslo. Most of its ten members came to Norway as refugees
towards the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, which lasted from 1973 to 1990.
It is an amateur group that practises regularly at the Chilean Cultural Centre,
performing chiefly within the immigrant community at both public and private
events, “peñas folcloricas”, charity concerts, weddings, anniversary celebrations
and other contexts.

Most of the dancers in Tierra Chilena learned to dance cueca in Norway and
admit to having had little or no interest in the national folk dance 4 before
leaving Chile. Most of them come from predominantly urban backgrounds and
their families had limited interest in Chilean folklore. Whether or not they had
dancing experience in Chile, they all report that the immigrant situation spurred
a new interest in specifically Chilean cultural expressions. A few quotes from
field interviews may give us further hints of what the cueca means in the community:

When we hear cueca here in Norway it makes me vibrate (vibra!). I learned
to dance here in Norway. In Chile I never found time to learn what is really
ours. (Woman, aged 61)

When I see the children dancing cueca, it goes straight to my heart. It is a
part of our culture which we have reclaimed (rescatado) in Norway.
(Man, aged 44)

Ayekantun is a Chilean folk dance workshop for children ... which aims to
preserve our dance traditions through the children. Some of them were born
in this country [Norway] and have very little contact with their parents’
country of origin. (Derived from a programme folder presenting Ayekantun, May 2000)

We come from a country (tierra), Chile, that has customs, that has a way of
thinking, that has folklore, that has dance, and that is what we are. (Man, aged 42)

“What is ours”, “reclaiming our culture”, “preserving our dance traditions”,
“what we are”: these quotes suggest that the feeling of belonging to a continuing
tradition is essential to many immigrants. How might we explain this
urge to rescue something perceived as lost, but which in many cases was never
owned in the first place? According to John Blacking (1995:49, 148ff), changes
in musical performance reflect social change, although not necessarily in a
direct, causal way. The immigrant experience involves dramatic social change
and therefore provides an especially interesting field in which to study the
dynamics in the relationship between changes in musical practice and social
change. What social changes experienced by immigrants contribute to making
the revival of a national dance a preferred, logical or even a necessary activity?
Or, to turn the question around, how do changes in the use and social function
of a particular musical form reflect the dramatic social changes of the
immigrant experience?

The power of the cueca


As the undisputed national dance of Chile, the cueca belongs to a large group
of so-called “handkerchief dances” found in several Latin American countries.
A number of different forms of handkerchief dance are found in Bolivia,
Argentina, Peru and Mexico. Some of them are known by other names, such as
zamacueca, marinera or chilena. In Chile the dance is generally associated
with rural culture, and particularly with the culture of the huaso, the Chilean
version of the Argentinian gaucho. Chilean folklorists have described an
infinite number of cueca forms that are related to different geographical areas,
settings and social functions and that employ different poetic and musical
structures and different instrumental formats (Loyola 1980). In general, the
guitar is the most important instrument associated with the dance, and it plays a
hemiola-based rhythm similar to a number of other rhythms found in Latin
American popular culture, such as the joropo of Venezuela, the huapango of
Mexico, and the chacarrera of Argentina. A variety of additional instruments
may be used to accompany the dance, including the harp, the tambourine, and
such typical folk instruments as the guitarron 5 and the tormento 6.

Most cueca styles follow a basic fixed structure. The lyrics are ordered in
an octosyllabic four-verse cuarteto, followed by an eight-verse siguiriya and a
two-verse remate, both with five or seven syllables in each verse. Basic choreographic
elements, such as turns and the changing of places, are linked to
specific points in the music. Nevertheless, much in the same way as in the
Spanish sevillanas, a basic, rigid structure can allow for a great deal of improvisational
freedom and personal interpretation. Much of the fascination people
have for dancing the cueca lies in the opportunity it affords to create one’s own
dance. During performance dancers can express their immediate emotions and
their relationship to their dance partner. Often described as a courting dance,
elements of courtship and flirtation are an integral part of the dance ethos. Eye
contact is crucial in the interactions between dance partners, and dancers can
communicate dense messages about their relationship to one another in the way
they confront or avoid each other’s glances. However, as further discussion will
show, the cueca is far more than a courtship dance, and far more than gender
relations are negotiated through cueca performance.

The cueca, as danced in informal settings in the Chilean community in
Oslo, could be described as follows. The music starts with a brief instrumental
introduction, to which each couple does a promenade (paseo), back and forth
on the dance floor. Then, when the singing begins, the dance partners turn to
face one another and perform the first careful dance steps and start waving their
handkerchiefs. The man circles the woman without touching her, pursuing her
with soft “whiplashes” from his handkerchief. She alternates between moving
away from her partner in elegant circular movements and meeting his
approaches in different ways: with her eyes, with her movements or with the
ever-waving handkerchief. Intensity builds gradually towards the end of the
dance, culminating in a short “tap dance” (zapateo) by the man, before he
offers his partner his arm and the couple finishes in a gesture of greeting, while
the music ends in an instrumental coda.

The cueca is above all a celebratory dance. Although the cumbia and in
recent years the salsa have become the dominant party dances in Chile, cuecas
are often danced in settings with a ceremonial character, like birthdays, weddings
and above all, during such national festivities as Independence Day. The
participatory element is striking. A Chilean audience will always join in with
rhythmic clapping (palmas, ) and encouraging shouts. Folk groups

 Cueca Palmas:

performing for predominantly Chilean audiences often encourage members of
the audience to join them. Jan Fairley (1989:14) describes how this practice at
concerts by the exiled group Karaxu! during the late 1970s could be seen as
forming a symbolic link not only between performers and audience but also
between the resistance in Chile and the solidarity movement in Europe.

A number of scholars of the past century have discussed the history and
development of the cueca. Different influences and paths of development have
been suggested, often reflecting changing national or ideological agendas.
There is little reason to doubt that the roots of the cueca are European or
criollo, the term for Latin Americans with Spanish ancestry. Similarities
between the cueca and such Spanish popular dance forms as the fandango and
sevillanas are obvious. According to Argentinian musicologist Carlos Vega
(1947:7), it is possible to recognize in the cueca the choreographic structure of
the danza picaresca, which spread from Spain to Europe and the Americas
around the middle of the eighteenth century. Vega further claims that the
origins of the cueca can be found in the dance salons of the aristocracy of
Lima, where the name zamacueca first appeared in 1824. He suggests that in
the course of a few decades, it “descended” to the rest of the people and spread
geographically, emerging in Chile in the 1850s, where its name was abbreviated
to cueca.

Vega’s theories have been contested in the comprehensive Historial de la
, by Chilean composer and researcher Pablo Garrido (1979). The idea
that aristocratic Lima stood as the single hub of cueca development, radiating
its influence to “lower social levels”, is considered monocentric; belonging to
an outdated “diffusionist” school of anthropology that fails to recognize the
creative talents of the human being. According to Garrido (1979:52), the early
development of the cueca was influenced by a number of different social and
ethnic groups in different locations. With respect to the dance in Chile, Garrido
(1979:103–40) places a strong emphasis upon influences deriving from the
small number of African slaves who came to Chile.

More recent writings on the cueca should also be mentioned. Samuel Claro
Valdés (1994), for example, skips over centuries of history and focuses on a
more distant – and perhaps more suitable – past, looking for similarities
between the structural characteristics of the cueca and the Arab culture that
dominated Andalucia from the eighth century onwards. Mario Rojas (2001)
challenges the myth of the rural cueca, suggesting that its origins can be found
in the marginalized social groups of the larger cities, the houses of prostitution
playing an important role in the development of the dance. The most curious
claim about the origin of the cueca is undoubtedly the one which contends that
it was invented by the national hero and founding father of Chile, Bernardo
O’Higgins (see Loyola 1997:1). What one notes in the claims of most Chilean
scholars, however, is the tendency to downplay the dance’s possible foreign
origins and influences while emphasizing that the cueca today is specifically
Chilean and that it developed in Chile by Chileans.

The central position of the cueca in the Chilean mentality can perhaps best
be illustrated by a few examples, beginning with the dictatorship years. In
Pinochet’s Chile, the right to national cultural symbols became a subject of
political struggle. The field of music was no exception. Andean instruments
like the charango and zampoñas, which were associated with the Nueva
Canción7 song movement, were denounced as “subversive” by the military
government and unofficially banned (Fairley 1989:5). Shortly after the military
coup of 11 September 1973, cueca music played at full blast could be
heard from loudspeakers placed in the windows of houses belonging to
Pinochet supporters. After the takeover of the national radio station, the first
broadcasts included triumphant military music alternating with cuecas (Iturra

Later on, the Pinochet regime undertook a series of measures aimed at
conquering the cueca by linking this symbol of national identity to its own
political agenda. On Independence Day, 18 September 1979, Augusto Pinochet
announced a presidential decree that made the cueca the official national dance
of Chile. This had not been previously established officially, although, since the
middle of the nineteenth century, it had been recognized as such (Valdés et al.
1994:47). Today Chilean school children are taught that there are four symbols
representing the nation: the flag, the national anthem, the coat of arms and the

Through the national cueca association, FENAC (Federación Nacional de la
Cueca), championships were organized, in which all state schools were obliged
to participate. According to leading folklore researcher and performer Margot
Loyola, this has done a great deal of harm to the dance:

"[The FENAC championships] created a stereotypical cueca. In Chile there
are more than one hundred different types of cueca, which I have identified
in my work. Because of the competitions, people got the impression that
there is only one correct Chilean cueca: the huaso cueca of the Zona
Central." (Interview, September 2000)

The cueca of the Zona Central, featuring a male costume that includes black
leather boots with oversized spurs, carries for most Chileans a certain flair of
upper-class culture: the culture of the landlords. Such associations were
strengthened by the cueca championships, which coloured the dance with overtones
of national chauvinism. In order that it might be used more effectively as
a national symbol, the regime strove to promote a single form of the dance as
the national cueca. In the construction and maintenance of a common national
symbol, there was no need for cultural diversity. This cultural policy enhanced
the image of a stereotypical cueca and linked it to the totalitarian state. Such
ideological use of a cultural expression based on common popular culture may
be regarded as an essential part of the project of nation-building (Smith
1991:14). It is not difficult to find parallels in the cultural endeavours of a
number of other authoritarian regimes.

Resistance groups fighting the dictatorship, both within Chile and in exile,
were very aware of the strong symbolic content of the cueca, and they too
employed it politically in a variety of ways. Most Nueva Canción groups in
exile included at least one cueca in their repertoire, though rarely as a dance
performance; but if it was danced, it was generally performed without the folk
costumes. In an effort to redefine the dance as the popular culture of resistance,
cuecas were composed and performed in ways that were intended to liberate
the dance from its chauvinistic overtones. The lyrics of these cuecas dealt with
political struggles, labour unions or political parties, instead of the traditional
cueca themes of love, humour and country life.

A particularly potent form of political opposition to the Pinochet regime
was established in the cueca sola, which was performed in front of police
stations and official buildings in Chile. The cueca sola involved women whose
husbands or sons were among the jailed or the “desaparecidos” (literally, disappeared,
abducted by the military), who would dance alone, without partners,
often wearing pictures of their loved ones pinned to their clothes. In this way a
symbol of national identity, recognized and cultivated as such by the regime
itself, became, in a wordless, subtle way, a powerful denunciation of the atrocities
committed during the dictatorship. The cueca sola was made known worldwide
by Sting, through the song, “They dance alone” (Sting 1987).

Another incident, related by Margot Loyola, underlines the symbolic power
of the cueca in the consciousness of Chilean exiles:

We were coming back by plane from a tour in Argentina shortly after civil rule
had been reinstated in Chile. I think it was in 1990. With us on the plane was a
large group of exiles returning home after many ... maybe fifteen years, in exile.
We had just crossed the Andes Mountains ... we could see the valley of Santiago ...
the plane began to descend ... and somebody started clapping the cueca rhythm,
and suddenly the whole plane was clapping. It was very emotional ... many people
were crying. (Interview, September 2000)

As mentioned earlier, clapping is an indispensable feature of a cueca
performance. Normally, the audience performs this anacrustic rhythm at
specific points in the performance, creating a contrast to the hemiola-based
rhythm of the music. In the episode related by Loyola, the claps became the
very essence of the cueca, a simple sign, recognized immediately by any
Chilean on board the plane. There were no words spoken, no singing or
dancing; the spontaneous clapping was all that was necessary to set off a chain
reaction in the group of exiles and their fellow passengers. It is not difficult to
imagine how, in seconds, this symbolic act invaded the separated mental worlds

of the international air passengers and united them in a common social space.
Individual, private thoughts gave way to a collective emotional experience,
which in turn had the power to release a wide array of thoughts and sentiments:
memories, feelings of loss, longing, hopes, group solidarity and national

A spontaneous demonstration of Chilean identity was broadcast worldwide
during the opening rounds of the football tournament of the 2000 Olympics.
After scoring a decisive goal in the match against Spain, forward Reinaldo
Navia rushed over to the Chilean audience, most of them from the immigrant
community, and danced a short celebratory cueca. This short symbolic performance,
which linked sports and music, perhaps the two main arenas for the
creation and celebration of national identity, was enormously appreciated by
the more than 15,000 Chileans in the stadium in Melbourne, and it made the
front page of several Chilean newspapers. La Tercera, for example, featured the
following headlines: “Chile made Spain dance the cueca” (17 September

Even today, there are political struggles concerning the cueca as a national
symbol. At the inauguration ceremony for the current socialist president,
Lagos, the traditional performance of a cueca from the Zona Central, featuring
dancers in full huaso costumes, was replaced by a cueca urbana, with dancers
in modern party attire. This change to a ceremonial element proved to be
a challenge to the imagined community symbolized by the cueca. Most probably,
it was meant as a symbolic gesture from the new government to signify
a break with the policies of former regimes, but it was not well received
in conservative circles, where it was condemned as a provocation and a
desecration of a national symbol. The message was clear: “Don’t mess with
the cueca.”

The cueca in the Chilean community of Oslo


The history of Chilean migration to Norway has created two more or less
distinct groups in the community: the political refugees and “the rest”. After
the military coup d’état of 1973 and the massive persecution that followed,
several hundred thousand Chileans fled into exile, creating the first wave of
Chilean immigrants in Europe, many of whom made their way to Norway.

These immigrants, most of whom had been involved in political organizations,
have a varied and often complex relationship to the cueca. Although
many of them are willing to participate in informal cueca dancing on national
holidays, performances in folklorized settings, with the full festive huaso
costume, are still regarded by a number of these “early” exiles as an upperclass
phenomenon: the expression of a national chauvinistic culture that
belongs to “los patrones”, the landowners. Emphasizing these connotations,
one informant called it a “pretty dance with a stupid meaning”. The profound
social stratification of Chilean society has obviously affected the way in which
many people view Chilean cultural expressions, even in exile.

In the Chilean community of Oslo, public performances of the cueca as a
dance were very rare during the greater part of the Pinochet period, although
sung cuecas were a regular part of the repertoire of the groups active in
solidarity campaigns. One notable exception took place during a cultural manifestation
at the Edvard Munch Museum in 1976. Echoing the cueca sola, five
women dressed in black, waving red handkerchiefs, danced a slow instrumental
cueca without partners. A single spotlight illuminated the stage; the women
appeared to be dancing in and out of the surrounding darkness.

Most of the active cueca dancers today are part of the second, much larger
wave of immigrants, which arrived in Norway during the late 1980s. Although
most of them came as asylum seekers, there is no doubt that their flight from
Chile was motivated primarily by social rather than political concerns. Most of
them were refused asylum but offered residency on “humanitarian grounds”.
The social composition of this group is somewhat different from that of the
early immigrants. Whereas the first group included a substantial number of
academics, teachers and artists, the types of occupations of the second wave of
immigrants were quite different. Taking Tierra Chilena as an example, it can be
noted that among its members there are an electrician, an accountant, a painter,
a cleaner, a bus driver and several housewives. Unlike other immigrant groups,
such as the Pakistanis and the Vietnamese, who tend to concentrate in certain
neighbourhoods, there is no major concentration of Chileans residing in any
one part of Oslo. The almost 2,000 inhabitants with a Chilean background
living in the greater Oslo area are mainly spread throughout the suburbs,
particularly to the north and east of central Oslo. This residential pattern makes
the Chilean Cultural Centre, which is situated at the commercial centre of one
of these suburbs, a natural meeting place.

The small group of active cueca performers is obviously not representative
of the Chilean community as a whole. As mentioned previously, there are
voices denouncing such activity as “too national” or “chauvinistic”. Also, the
“second-generation” teenage Chileans show little interest in the dance,
preferring to engage in the internationalized music of youth culture or popular
Latino music. Although Chilean national identity among teenagers is not
suppressed or ignored in any way, identification with a more general Latino
culture has a much stronger appeal to them. Latino music and dance are the
symbols of identity they prefer to communicate to their Norwegian peers, for
apparently they carry more status among many multi-ethnic groups of young
people. Nevertheless, the activities of the folk dancers do create symbols of
national identification for which there is a demand. For all members of the
community, whether they know how to dance the cueca or not, whether it
makes them “vibrate” or whether they think it has a “stupid meaning”, this
expression of “Chilean-ness” creates a common point of reference related
to the single element that forms the basis of the community as a whole: a link
to Chile.

Linking time and place


Let us now return to the questions raised initially: How do we understand the
fact that this group of Chileans, like similar groups found in many other
immigrant communities, only became seriously involved in their “own” music
culture once in the diaspora? What underlies this renewed interest in folk
dancing, an activity which rarely represents the continuation of an activity
brought from the homeland, but rather indicates a change, or even a break, with
it? Many informants contributing to my research have described their participation
in cultural activity as an act of necessity. It may be an individually
based necessity, connected to the healing of personal feelings of longing or
loss, or it may be described as a more socially oriented necessity, connected to
an urge to construct the immigrant community or provide their children with a
Chilean identity. Yet how do we further understand this necessity? What is it
based on and what is its social function?

If we consider the situation of Chilean immigrants from the perspective of
the individual, a quite complex and often ambiguous picture emerges. On the
one hand, and especially for the Chileans of the “second wave”, immigration
was constituted as a search for new opportunities, a wish to get out of a
difficult economic or social situation and to create a better life for themselves
and their children. Even though a number of professionals with degrees in
higher education from Chile have experienced difficulties in obtaining
employment compatible with their qualifications, for the great majority of
those coming to Norway expectations have been fulfilled. For them, taking up
residence in a new country has meant a substantial improvement in their
access to basic social and material benefits, such as housing, employment,
education and welfare. For many, life in Norway has also meant more spare
time and improved possibilities for becoming involved in activities beyond
work and family, including, of course, cultural activities of the kind discussed

Yet, on the other hand, having achieved a better standard of living does not
prevent immigrants from experiencing a sense of loss, a loss that is generally
felt all the more severely, the more involuntary the experience of departure
from the homeland was seen to be. In Spanish one of the terms for exile is
destierro, which translates as loss of country. It can also be said that immigration
can imply a loss of time, a destiempo. Immigrants find themselves in a
situation where continuity with the past is disrupted. Their past and their
personal history become irrelevant or misunderstood by the surrounding
society. At the same time they are deprived of the possibility of participating in
the flow of time still running back in the homeland. It could be argued that
immigrants have to deal with the difficult task of relating not only to two places
but also to two temporal flows.

The life of an immigrant needs reconstruction, re-ordering and re-invention.
The inherent splits in immigrant identity may be confronted through different
strategies. One of the ways of organizing a reality experienced as disrupted or
chaotic may be by engaging in cultural activity of the kind dealt with in this
article. The cultivation of powerfully loaded cultural symbols can form part of
the development of a “mythical consciousness” with the capability of linking
past and present, here and there (Eriksen 1996:106). As a defence mechanism,
such symbolic work may have the effect of protecting the immigrant against
the experience of the threat of disorganization and dissolution. One could say
that the mythical consciousness cultivated through the practice of the cueca and
other cultural symbols promotes a sense of coherence and continuity out of the
fragments of the past, in much the same way as human consciousness organizes
the tiny dots flickering on a television screen into pictures, or builds
sounds into melody.

Choice and necessity


Paul Willis describes cultural expressions as “necessary symbolic work”
(Willis 1990:6). Symbolic creativity is necessary, he argues, in that it is an
integral part of the human condition, an everyday practice common to all
human beings and not exclusively related to what we call art. Willis has chosen
to focus on young people since it is during the teenage and early adult years

people are formed most self-consciously through their own symbolic and
other activities. It is where they form symbolic moulds through which they
understand themselves and their possibilities for the rest of their lives. It is

also the stage where people begin to construct themselves through nuance
and complexity, through difference as well as similarity.
(Willis 1990:7; my italics)

A parallel can be sought between the situation of young people described
by Willis and that of immigrants. It is striking to observe how symbolic creativity,
especially in the realm of music, among both teenagers and immigrants is
strongly connected to a self-conscious process of production and reproduction
of personal identity. Both situations involve a challenging transition from one
stage of existence to another. Symbolic moulds in the form of cultural
resources from childhood or from a past in a foreign country acquire new
meanings under new circumstances. Some become less relevant and are abandoned,
new expressions are added, while others are revived or filled with new
content and meaning. The teenager is gradually distanced from childhood
culture, in much the same way as the immigrant is distanced from the culture
of the homeland. This naturally leads to a process of construction and
reconstruction, definition and redefinition of identity, through the use of cultural

Both teenagers and immigrants have entered a new stage of life, which
confronts them with a series of new choices. Making these choices is necessary
for both groups in order for them to complete the transition successfully. It is
just as impossible for a teenager to remain in childhood as it is for an
immigrant to live completely as if he or she were still in Chile. But while the
choices made by the teenager sooner or later lead to the abandonment of
childhood and inclusion in adult society, the strategies employed by immigrants
produce a variety of results, which do not necessarily lead to inclusion in
the majority culture and society of the host country.

As Willis points out, the symbolic creativity of adolescence is a selfconscious
process. Whatever choice is made, whatever strategy is chosen, the
necessary process each individual has to go through invariably leads to an
increased level of self-consciousness regarding the outcome of the choice. This
is also the case in the immigrant setting. As one informant stated: “In Chile
I was just a person. Here I became a Chilean.”

In Chile there is no great threat to the common feeling of national identity.
Nobody questions others about their nationality, and there is no need for people
to mark their “Chilean-ness” for the surrounding society. The cultivation of
national identity is, to a great extent, taken care of by others: the school system,
the media and public institutions. It is not an issue that needs to be questioned
by the individual. In Norway, however, it becomes a matter of negotiation,
dependent on choices and strategies of the group, the family or the individual.
Zygmunt Bauman (1998:15) suggests that the essentially polycentric
character of post-traditional Western societies has made personal choice a
fundamental necessity in the process of identification. We have become a
“society of choosers”, doomed to choose whether we like it or not. In a similar
vein, Mary Waters (1992:76–7), in her study on “suburban white ethnics” in the
USA, concludes that ethnic identity in the United States is becoming
increasingly a matter of voluntary and personal choice. The mixed backgrounds
of many Americans allow them to virtually pick and choose which ancestry
they want to identify with, as well as to what extent they wish to incorporate
ethnic symbols and activities into their lives. As intermarriage increases over
the generations, the palette of ethnicities an individual can choose from
becomes ever more colourful. Over the years each generation undergoes a
process of selection, where certain ethnic indicators are neglected and eventually
lost, while others are cultivated and maintained. Thus, to an even greater
extent than otherwise in an increasingly pluralistic society, the construction
of national or ethnic identity becomes a matter of choice, rather than of

The immigrant situation seems to highlight the issue of personal choice both
as a possibility and as a necessity. This does not necessarily have to be
experienced as problematic, despite the countless new “fields of tension” that
appear between different musical practices in an urban multicultural society
(Lundberg et al. 2000:60). Especially the younger Chileans seem to manage quite
well among the multitudes of cultural expressions with which they are confronted.
In field interviews, the committed cueca dancers of the children’s group
Ayekantun express a sincere liking for a variety of musical genres carrying
essentially different cultural connotations. They may use the breaks in their folk
practice session to listen to the latest techno hits on their mini-disc players.

Invented tradition


It seems relevant to view Chilean folk dancing in Norway in terms of what Eric
Hobsbawm has called “invented tradition”, “a set of practices, normally
governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature,
which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition,
which automatically implies continuity with the past” (Hobsbawm and Ranger
1992:1). According to Hobsbawm, the peculiarity of “invented tradition” is that
any continuity with “a suitable historic past” is largely factitious; they must
rather be understood as constructions based on the present needs of a society.

Various objections have been raised against Hobsbawm’s concept. It may,
of course, be argued, as the Norwegian anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen
(1996:22) has done, that “[a]ll traditions in a certain sense are ‘invented’ by
humans, and even the oldest myths and rituals are continuously renewed
and changed in order to fit with the present.” Martin Stokes (1994:99) maintains
that the ideological implications of the term “invented tradition” are worth
questioning. He warns that a division between “invented” and “real” or
“authentic” traditions could make it difficult to accept certain musical
experiences for “what they are”, which in turn could lead to their disqualification
as relevant and legitimate subjects of interest and research. This
comment on Hobsbawm seems particularly relevant when it comes to immigrant
musics, which generally receive less attention than their “authentic
sources” in the countries of origin. However, the application of the concept of
invention to immigrant musics should not lead to notions of fabrication or
falsity but rather help us to become aware of the processes of imagination and
creativity they entail. If we avoid the pitfall of viewing diasporic cultures as
somehow inauthentic or less worthy of scholarly attention than the forms from
which they derive, to view cultural expressions as invented can lead us to focus
on their present social function rather than on their historical or geographical
“roots”. Interest, then, shifts towards the processes of invention or creation,
rather than towards issues of heritage and authenticity.

Following this line of thought, links to images of the past as well as hopes
and visions of the future must be seen as logical functions of the present needs
of a society. For the Chilean community in Oslo, constructing and maintaining
links to the past seems essential. Disconnection from one’s home country is
also a disconnection from one’s regular activities, one’s past and one’s history.
The more or less involuntary departure from Chile leaves a void which
involvement in cultural activity seeks to fill. While many of the aspects of life
in Chile cannot be transplanted to another country, cultural activity, at least to a
certain extent, can, although it may appear as re-invented, in new shapes and
contexts. Participation in folk revivals offers a compensation for the life one
has had to leave behind; it is symbolic activity with the capability of representing
everything one misses from the home country. It evokes very specific
personal memories as well as collective national sentiments. The image of a
common past is held alive and celebrated through the repeated rituals of
musical performance and participation. Arguments based on this image become
a tool for holding the community together and shaping its future. The fact that
there may be no significant common past from which to draw suitable
arguments is not an obstacle. What matters is the common present and the
future of the community.

Thus, in the light of present needs, folk activity can be regarded as an
essential part of the generation and maintenance of social cohesion within the
community. Such activity, according to John Blacking (1995:52), “expresses
the actual solidarity of groups when people come together and produce patterns
of sound that are signs of their group allegiances.” At the Cultural Centre
regular dance activities repeatedly produce experiences of group allegiance,
holding the community together and obliging it to stick together.

Emblem or catalyst?


The Swedish researcher on immigrant music Anders Hammarlund (1990) has
viewed such social functions as catalytic in that they stimulate processes in the
internal social chemistry of the immigrant group. Emblematic functions, on the
other hand, deal with a group’s outward self-representation, especially in
relation to the host culture. In many cases, as shown in Hammarlund’s research
in an Assyrian community in Sweden, these two distinct functions can be filled
by different musical styles. Sometimes, however, similar performance styles
can be regarded as emblematic or catalytic, depending on the performance
context. Although cueca dancing, particularly in the rare performances aimed
at external audiences, must obviously be considered as an emblem of the
Chilean community, my informants rarely seemed concerned about considering
the dance’s emblematic status. When the issue was raised, its emblematic role
was presented as secondary; the primary focus was directed towards the role of
dance in the internal cultural and social development of the Chilean community.
Emblematic issues are, however, foregrounded when it comes to the
formal legitimization of the Cultural Centre and its financial foundation.
Documentation of cultural activity through reports and applications is what
allows the Centre to receive much needed economic support from the
Norwegian immigrant authorities and adult education institutions.

In the struggle for visibility on the multicultural stage, Chilean folklore
maintains a low profile. On the other hand, a number of Chileans can be seen
as members of “Latino” bands playing salsa, cumbia and merengue together
with both Norwegians and other Latinos. In recent years these musical genres
have enjoyed a great increase in popularity and visibility, contributing to the
establishment of a number of music venues with a multicultural profile. At
least eight such venues were opened during the year 2000 in “little” Oslo. Dan
Lundberg explains the success of Latino music with Swedish audiences by
observing that it is “different enough to be regarded as exciting or exotic, but
still familiar enough not to appear as threatening or to provoke aggression.”
(Lundberg et al. 2000:97).

While the Chilean community shows limited interest in presenting the
cueca to outside audiences, the interest shown by Norwegian cultural
institutions has not been exactly overwhelming either. Chilean folklore has
little access to public arenas. One of the main multicultural music venues in
Oslo is the Ethnic Music Café, which is run by the state-financed Norwegian
Concert Institute. Since its establishment in 1992 it has as yet never shown the
cueca on stage. Yet, the aims of the institute – which were especially
emphasized in its early years – explicitly state that it is committed to promoting
the music of immigrant communities, and it has built up a large network of
contacts with immigrant musicians. The cueca does not coincide with popular
Latin American music trends, and it has not become integrated into the “world
music” market, remaining, in essence, “Chilean culture for the Chileans”.

The outward communicative functions of Chilean folklore were more
visible during the dictatorship years, when it was a part of the music of soli-
darity and resistance campaigns outside Chile. The point of using culture to
convey a message about a struggling Chile to European audiences was crucial.
The music of such Nueva Canción groups as Inti-Illimani and Quilapayún, who
were “stranded” in exile by the coup, became the voice of the Chilean resistance
in Europe and “the lifeblood of the solidarity movement” (Fairley
1984:108). In these contexts, Chilean music functioned as the symbol of a
cause, of an international struggle, rather than of the national identity of a
group. In Norway solidarity work was basically intercultural. Most solidarity
organizations as well as many of the performance groups of the time included
Norwegians and Chileans as well as other Latin Americans. With the gradual
return to civil rule in Chile following Pinochet’s defeat in the plebiscite of
1988, the basis for this activity disappeared. Music groups engaged in
solidarity work were dissolved, leaving activities associated with Chilean
folklore entirely within the community.

Control and authenticity


The cultivation of a cultural expression exclusive to a specific group creates a
field of human interaction where its members are in control of the activity in
question. The Chilean Cultural Centre is socially quite separate from the
surrounding Norwegian society and has its own internal set of rules and
behavioural norms. This separation places the community within a social world
in which the immigrants themselves are in total control. While Norwegian
culture may seem inaccessible or difficult to apprehend, cueca dancing is
entirely controlled by members of the community and uncontested by any
outsider. A controllable cultural arena is a fertile ground for symbolic creativity,
if not a fundamental pre-condition for it, creating a life-space where
members are able to influence and change – however minutely – their cultural
surroundings (see Willis 1990:21–3).

In the immigrant setting there is little competition from rival groups and the
activity is rarely subject to any external evaluations. According to the leader
and instructor of Tierra Chilena, this position gives the performance group a
sense of freedom which is beneficial to the social atmosphere, allowing it to
construct a space marked by a great deal of fun, spontaneity and improvisation.
Her ideals centre on the enjoyment of dancing rather than on the achievement
of perfection in performance; the shared, participatory dance experience is
given greater emphasis than the final aesthetic product. Unlike the milieu of
folklore performance in Chile, in Norway one “doesn’t have to be perfect to
dance in public.” In her opinion, this attitude is much more closely attuned to
the “authentic rural cueca” than to the stylized stage presentations of the
professional “ballet folklorico” groups that have visited Norway.

Field observations at practice sessions and performances with Cuncumén
and Paillal, two important music and dance groups that perform in Santiago,
provide further indications of the differences between the immigrant
performance groups and their counterparts in Chile, when it comes to concepts
of quality as well as authenticity. In both Santiago and Oslo the group
experience during practice sessions and performances is seen as a significant
measure of the quality of performance. However, certain discourses are as good
as absent in the immigrant setting. For groups in Chile, direct links to folk
“sources” are considered an important mark of their quality. They call their
presentations projecciones folkloricos, reserving the term folklore or sometimes
folklore autentico for music and dance in the “original” rural setting. Obtaining
material directly from cultores (bearers of tradition) is highly valued, the older
and more rural the cultor, the better. The story of how a group leader travelled
for hours on a donkey to learn songs from a 90-year-old cultor is presented as a
highly valuable way of obtaining source material. Cuncumén and Paillal have
taken on the task of fighting for the survival of something valuable that they
fear is being lost. The performance of a specific song or dance is often introduced
as a generous gift. At one of Paillal’s performances, for example, the
audience was told: “This song was given to me by the cultor Miguel Ortiz from
San Luis.” Moreover, specific details concerning costumes, such as the height
of the heels on the men’s boots, the colour of a sowing-apron used in a peasant
dance, the use of sandals or shoes and so on, are the subject of lively
discussions among group members.

In the immigrant groups, such debates concerning the authenticity of performance
receive less attention. Obviously, they are at a much greater distance
from the “authentic sources” than their counterparts in Chile. In this context
issues of authenticity become somewhat disconnected from direct Chilean
sources and, instead, become linked to the instructor, who comes to be seen as
the one who has the expertise and represents the group’s closest connections to
its “roots”. Costumes are partly homemade and are more improvised. Though
most of the members occasionally travel “home” to Chile, it is often difficult to
create complete costumes. As a substitute for a traditional papier-mâché devil’s
mask for a festival dance from Tirana, for example, the group Chile Andino
obtained a wooden devil’s mask from a shop selling Indonesian handicraft.
This heavy mask, meant for decoration rather than dancing, presented the
wearer with an extremely exhausting task during the whirling and leaping
dance of the Tirana devil.

The 14th region


In recent years a new concept of Chile as a nation has been gaining recognition
both within Chile and in Chilean immigrant communities. While Chile is
officially made up of 13 regions, a 14th region, called the region of el exterior
or el reencuentro (reunion), has been virtually added, which comprises the
more than one million Chileans who left their country during the dictatorship.
Under the Lagos presidency, this notion seems to have gained formal acceptance
and spurred a new government policy aimed at embracing the communities
in el exterior. Such initiatives are warmly welcomed by the immigrant
communities, especially among the early refugees, who in many cases were
declared unwanted and had been deprived of their Chilean citizenship.
Recently, representatives of the 14th region have been invited to official state
ceremonies, and initiatives have been taken to allow Chilean artists living
abroad to apply for government funding through FONDART (Fondo de
Desarrollo de las Artes y la Cultura).
Holding together a borderless region with roughly one million inhabitants
living in more than 110 different countries around the world (Wright and Oñate
1998:91) presents a challenging task for the immigrant communities as well as
for Chile as a nation. It is far more dependent upon continuous symbolic work
than in circumstances in which national identity is granted as a birthright or
through residence within fixed geographical borders. In this special kind of
nation-building project, culture plays a crucial role in the production and
maintenance of identity. In recent years the Internet has provided an efficient
and versatile means of communication and dissemination of culture. Chilean
communities worldwide, as well as folklore organizations in Chile, have set up
a number of well-developed websites, some of which even contain educational
dance videos. Many of the performers in Oslo rely on the Internet to advertise
their performances, to obtain song lyrics and to keep in contact with other
communities within the 14th region. Much of the contact between the Chileans
in Oslo and their sister communities in other Scandinavian countries is related
to music. Contact with the much larger communities in Sweden is of special
importance and includes regular visits by musicians and dancers from one
community to the other.

According to sociologist Anthony Smith, the growth in global migration has
made the ethnic-based concept of nationhood increasingly relevant. “The
nation is seen as a fictive super-family” (Smith 1991:12) based on “presumed
family ties” rather than on residence in a geographic territory. Among Chileans,
continuous performances of the cueca within the immigrant community, as
well as the cultural interaction between Chileans worldwide, can be seen as an
expression and celebration of the “super-family” and, in a wider sense, as part
of the construction of the global, 14th region of Chile.

However, cultural activity also plays a part in marking the borders of the
14th region, sending out signals about who does – and who does not – belong
to this global “family”. Immigrant culture is not only an expression of social
and ethnic boundaries; it also plays a part in their maintenance, and even in
their very construction. According to Lundberg et al. (2000:19), the production
and communication of difference is a significant function of a musical culture
in a multicultural society. The production of difference has two main aspects: it
is necessary in order for a group to attain visibility in the multicultural arena,
but it also enhances the exclusive character of an immigrant community. With
respect to the Chilean community in Oslo, it could be argued that the
cultivation of the cueca, a rather exclusive nationally loaded cultural expression,
could lead to the segregation and isolation of the immigrant group rather
than to its integration into the host society, thus working against the general
ambitions of the official Norwegian immigrant policy. (This, however, is a
complex matter exceeding the scope of this article.)

Although the Chilean Cultural Centre openly invites other Latin Americans
to attend their events, their efforts have not been very successful. There seems
to be a discrepancy between these well-intentioned invitations and the Centre’s
cultivation of exclusively Chilean forms of expression. The ubiquitous Chilean
symbols, both in the decoration of the premises and in the musical activities
promoted at the Centre, probably make the occasional Peruvian or Bolivian
visitor feel as though he or she has shown up at a family reunion without
actually being a family member. In this context such symbols seem to mark
distinctions between Chileans and other Latin Americans.

The Future


“Chilean-ness”, in order to survive in exile, obviously needs to be defended
against the perceived threat of cultural loss or assimilation. Leaders of the
Chilean folk activities often refer to their work as a struggle for survival. There
is no longer any significant immigration from Chile, and the second-generation
Chileans are gradually losing their command of the Spanish language. They
may prefer to listen to Britney Spears or techno music rather than to Chilean
folklore. The decline in interest in the cultural symbols of Chilean identity
undoubtedly poses a threat to the future of the Chilean community. Cultivating
and promoting the cueca has been recognized by Chilean parents as a relevant
way of confronting this challenge. Through the activity of the children’s dance
group Ayekantun and various other activities for children and adolescents, the
Cultural Centre seeks to raise a new generation of Chilean-Norwegians. These
efforts at socializing the next generation into the community include the transmission
of Spanish and the inculcation of Chilean “family values”.

For many Chileans in Norway, the thought of returning to Chile some time
in the future is always present. According to a recent survey conducted among
Chileans in Bergen, 81 per cent of the informants (out of a representative group
of 122) reported that they wished to return, though only a small number said
they had concrete plans to do so (Pavez and Carrasco 1998:17). Almost 20 per
cent of the 8,500 Chileans who have come to Norway since 1973 have
returned, many of them through a Norwegian government-funded repatriation

The strong orientation towards plans of a return “home” obviously has an
impact upon the cultural activities of the community. For families with more or
less realistic plans of returning to Chile, the cultivation of Chilean music, and
especially of Chilean folklore, can be regarded as a way of preparing for el
retorno. They want themselves and their children to be mentally and culturally
ready for a future life in Chile. This does not mean that they view the ability to
dance the cueca as particularly advantageous for their possible re-integration
into Chilean society. Whether returning Chileans will engage in traditional
dance on their return or not is, in any case, irrelevant. It is at the symbolic level
that the rituals of folk performance achieve their efficacy. The significance of
cueca performance resides in the fact that it provides a regular, repetitive
activity within a group setting that contributes towards the creation of a certain
mood or state of mind that maintains and enhances national pride and identification,
a state of mind that, in turn, can foster attitudes perceived as beneficial
to a possible return.



In the Chilean immigrant community of Oslo cueca dancing functions as an
exclusive symbol of Chilean national identity. It is cultivated chiefly by a group
of people with little previous experience of Chilean folklore. The meaning and
function of cueca dancing is re-created through processes of interpretation and
adaptation within the social framework of the immigrant community. This reinvention
is part of a fundamental cultural re-orientation which is connected to
the many social changes that derive from the immigration experience. Dancing
cueca in the diaspora creates links in time and space, reviving personal as well
as collective memories; it is a symbolic compensation for the loss of country
and history. It plays a key role in community activities by generating social
cohesion, as well as by creating and communicating differences that define
social boundaries and distinctions related to age, nationality and political
background. Though barely noticeable on the multicultural stage, cueca
dancing functions as an outward representation of the community, and it plays
a part in the formal legitimization of its institutions. It is one of the elements
through which international contacts between Chilean communities are maintained,
and thereby adds to the construction of the global “14th region”. By
nourishing visions of a “Chilean” future, either in the immigrant community or
in Chile, cueca dancing contributes to the socialization of the next generation
by inculcating in them the community’s values. Finally, it can be regarded as a
means of preparing immigrants and their children for a possible return to the
home country.



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1. Litterally "aquí y en la quebrá del ají " means "here and in the ravine of the peppers". This is a typical Chileanism (Chilenismo). It corresponds to the english term "anywhere in the world". (back)

2. Enramada (or ramada). An outdoor area covered with a large roof made of fresh eucalyptus branches. It is the traditional venue of Independence Day celebrations in large parts of rural Chile. (back)

3. The literal translation of abrigado(a) is “with your coat on”. It corresponds to English terms like, “packed in” or “bundled up” (against the cold). Used in a figurative sense the term carries connotations of being protected or sheltered. (back)

4. Cueca and other traditional dance forms connected to the rural criollo culture are generally referred to by Chileans as bailes folkloricos. Throughout this article they will be referred to as “folklore” or “folk dance”. (back)

5. Guitar-like instrument with 25 metal strings. (back)

6. Percussion instrument consisting of a small table with a top made of loosely fastened wooden rods. It is played by hitting the fingertips against the rods. (back)

7. Nueva Canción in Chile was a politically involved song movement during the late 1960s and 1970s, which played a key role in president Allende’s electoral campaign. After the coup the movement went underground in Chile but was carried on in exile by a number of artists. The Nueva Canción style is closely related to both Andean and criollo folklore. (back)