Argentine folklore music

Atahualpa Yupanqui and “El Arriero”

Pre-Cordillera Sunburst. Mendoza, Argentina, 2017
Pre-Cordillera Sunburst. Mendoza, Argentina, 2017


Atahualpa Yupanqui (“ahtah-WALL-pah   you-Pan-key”) was arguably the most important figure in the history of Argentine folklore music. You might think of this genre as Argentine “country music” but is more than that, being a form of yearning poetry when at its finest. On oral tradition, it has its original roots in indigenous and afro-hispanic colonial times, thereafter being filtered through the trials and tragedies of the gaucho experience.

I’m not completely sure why, but it was this late-afternoon cloud and sunburst over the pre-Cordillera above Mendoza that made me think of him and his music…his simple but lyrical refrains so very much tied to the expansive and often harsh landscape of the Argentine desert and pampas.

Atahualpa was of an earlier generation (b.1908 – d.1992), so he might best be considered a sort of “founding father” of this música folclórica argentina–much like Bill Monroe is considered by many to be the patriarch for bluegrass in the U.S. of A.

To animate my cloud-landscape photograph above, here is one Atahualpa example, along with my attempted translation of the essence (not the literal meaning) of the lyrics, and a music video:

El arriero (The gaucho)

En las arenas bailan los remolinos, (In the dry sands the dust devils dance,)
El sol juega en el brillo del pedregal, (The hot sun plays in the shimmer of the rocky ground,)
Y prendido a la magia de los caminos, (And bewitched by the magic of the trails,)
El arriero va, el arriero va. (The gaucho rides, the gaucho rides.)

Es bandera de niebla su poncho al viento, (His poncho is a ghost banner in the wind,)
Lo saludan las flautas del pajonal, (The waving grasses of the prairie greet him,)
Y apurando a la tropa por esos cerros, (And hurrying his herd through the hills,)
El arriero va, el arriero va. (The gaucho rides, the gaucho rides.)

Las penas y las vaquitas, (His sorrows and the little cows,)
Se van por la misma senda, (They travel the same path,)
Las penas y las vaquitas, (His sorrows and the little cows,)
Se van por la misma senda, (They travel the same path,)
Las penas son de nosotros, (The sorrows are for him,)
Las vaquitas son ajenas, (The cows are for others,)
Las penas son de nosotros, (The sorrows are for him,)
Las vaquitas son ajenas… (The cows are for others…)

[NOTE: An “arriero” is often translated as a mule driver or drover, but I think “gaucho” works better in this context and it also hits the ears of the English speaker nicely, thus imbuing the song with the necessary Argentine flavor. This is just one of several liberties I have taken in the translation to try to communicate the spirit of the poem/song rather than a literal, but necessarily cumbersome, translation. Can you find my other major deviations from the purely literal?]

Also, what I have in bold print is a clear example of the author’s socialist tendencies and seems to be an obvious criticism of the political system of the time (1940s). Indeed, the words are still relevant today with extreme inequality in wealth distribution evident in many of the world’s countries, including our own.]

And, finally, the music video so you can hear Don Ata’s guitar and voice: