Music and Dance
Given its geographical location, it’s not surprising that a wide variety of music is popular in Panama. Dance clubs may spin a salsa, cumbia, merengue, or reggae number, then follow it up with a Latin pop music hit, a bit of electronic dance music, or a rock song in English or Spanish. What may be more surprising is how strong a hold Panamanian folkloric music still has on the country, both in purist and modernized forms.
Important instruments in folkloric music include the accordion, los tambores (wooden drums with the top covered by cowhide), la caja (a small wooden drum with both sides covered with hide), la mejoranera (a small, five-stringed guitar), la bocona or socabón (a four-stringed guitar), la guáchara or churuca (a gourd-shaped instrument played by scraping an implement across notches carved into it), maracas, and violins. Folkloric music can be instrumental or feature singing, the most distinctive element of which is the saloma, a Panamanian form of yodeling. The music is an acquired taste for those who didn’t grow up listening to it.
Folkloric music is often accompanied by traditional dances, the most famous of which is the drum-based el tamborito. This is Panama’s national dance, with many regional variations, and is usually what is performed for visitors or on other special occasions when there is a folkloric dance performance. Women dress in beautiful hand-embroidered polleras (formal hand-embroidered dresses) and the men in either long-sleeved white camisillas (shirts) and black pants or a colorful embroidered shirt and pants cut off below the knees. In either case, the man wears some variety of traditional Panama hat, often the sombrero pintado (painted hat). All of these hats are quite different from the so-called Panama hats that are made in Ecuador.
Other important dance-music forms include the mejorana, a type of song accompanied by the mejoranera, and the festive dance music performed by murgas (strolling bands of musicians) during Carnaval.
All these folkloric traditions come from Panama’s central provinces, particularly the Azuero Peninsula. Other traditional dance forms include the congos, derived from Africa and still performed occasionally by descendants of African slaves, and the balsería, which is really something between a festival and an extreme sport performed by the indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé peoples; it involves throwing balsa poles at the legs of participants, often with painful results.
Music rooted in Panama’s folkloric traditions has changed with the times and evolved into what is known as música típica or simply típico, a dance-music form that features traditional elements such as accordion and yodeling, but has a livelier beat, modern lyrics, and an almost pop sensibility. It’s enormously popular in Panama. Its biggest stars include the accordionists Osvaldo Ayala and Ulpiano Vergara and the brother-sister duo Samy and Sandra Sandoval.
Panama’s most famous musician outside its own borders is the salsa star, actor, and politician Rubén Blades. He first gained fame for his work with salsa legend Willie Colón before launching a solo career notable for both his politically conscious lyrics and musical innovation. He ran an unsuccessful campaign for the presidency of Panama in 1994. He is currently the director minister of tourism.
Another international music star is Danilo Pérez, an innovative jazz pianist noted for blending Latin, African, and other influences with established jazz forms. Both he and Blades spend a great deal of their performance time abroad, and concerts in Panama are special events.
El General (born Edgardo A. Franco) had some reggae-influenced, Spanish-language dance hits in parts of the United States and Latin America in the early 1990s. He is now considered one of the forefathers of reggaeton, a hugely popular blend of rap, reggae, rock, dancehall, and calypso that has become hugely popular in the last few years. Nando Boom, a Panamanian reggae star, is also considered an early influence.
Reggaeton is usually characterized by a driving, syncopated snare-drum rhythm that’s come to be known as “Dem Bow.” It’s a notoriously controversial genre, both because non-fans tend to find the music irritating at best and because the lyrics of many songs are deemed misogynistic, violent, pornographic (often through innuendo), racist, or all the above. Perhaps fortunately, many don’t have a clue what the lyrics are, since they tend to be delivered in heavily accented Spanish, English, or patois. Despite or because of all this, it has a large audience around the Spanish-speaking world.
Many trace reggaeton’s roots to Panama, though most of the genre’s stars are Puerto Rican. The biggest Panamanian star is El Roockie (sometimes spelled El Rookie), who has so much street cred he once made a video that featured rival street gangs. Félix Danilo Gómez, who records under the name Nigga, had a major hit in Mexico in 2007–2008. He plans to record under the less controversial name Flex to try to crack the U.S. market. Nearly all reggaeton’s hitmakers so far are male. But Panama’s Lorna (Lorna Zarina Aponte) had an international hit a couple years back with “Papi Chulo,” which was many European club goers’ first exposure to reggaeton.
Panama has a sizable rock scene, with a number of bands of varying skill performing original songs and covers in Spanish and English. The veteran band Los Rabanes has met with the greatest success outside of Panama, with tours in Latin America and the United States. Cage9, which records in both English and Spanish, plays modern hard rock and seems poised to gain an international audience as well. Other popular bands include Son Miserables, Os’ Almirantes, Señor Loop, the long-established Los 33, newcomer Filtro Medusa, and the band formerly known as Big Fat Hen, which in 2003 wisely changed its name to Polyphase.
Jazz and classical music draw urban sophisticates to occasional performances at concert halls and restaurants in Panama City. Panama has also been trying to establish regular music festivals, including an annual Panama Jazz Festival, held in Panama City during the dry season.
High-toned cultural events—such as performances by the 60-person national symphony orchestra, the national ballet, and visiting arts groups—are generally held in the Teatro Nacional or Teatro Balboa. Smaller groups sometimes perform in the intimate Teatro Anita Villalaz. These kinds of performances are rare outside of Panama City.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition