Art, in the European sense, really began in the colonial period. It was exclusively religious and grew up from the need to decorate all the new churches and monasteries. Many indigenous people were involved, initially trained by Franciscan friars.
After independence portraits of leaders and heroes also became an important subject. Rafael Salas was one of the first artists to paint landscapes in the late 19th century.
In the 20th century artists were heavily influenced by the plight of the indigenous people. This can be seen in the work of Camilo Egas, Edurado Kingman and Oswaldo Guayasamín.
Contemporary art remains a fairly respected and vibrant aspect of Ecuadorian culture today and there are several galleries and exhibitions every year in the three main cities.
There’s a lot of types of music and they might not all be familiar so I’ll go through try and categorise it. I’m thinking more about the music you’ll hear than an anthropological study of Ecuadorian music.
Rock and pop
A lot of music on the radio in Ecuador is foreign. You can hear lots of English language rock and pop as well as groups and singers from Mexico, Argentina and Chile. That’s not to say there isn’t anything home-grown – just that it needs a bit more support and recognition.
I’m using this term to group salsa, meringue, cumbia and vallenato. All these forms hail from the Caribbean region and despite the hours that Ecuadorians put in dancing and listening to them, they don’t seem to be able to emulate the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans salseros, some of whom are revered like demi-gods, nor the Colombian troubadors.
Salsa means sauce which either refers to the mix of rhythms used to create it or the fact that the dancefloor gets a bit saucy when it’s full of sweaty men and women spinning and quick-stepping. In my experience the hardest thing for people whose dancing is limited to drunkenly bobbing around in groups at the end of the night, is to keep the upper body level and relatively still (while avoiding doing an imitation of a train with your arms). The dancefloor is the place where many visitors gringo appeal starts to fade, so if you really want to make the most of going out it might be worth enrolling in some classes.
Merengue hails from the Dominican Republic and is a fast rhythm made with various percussion instruments as well as often bass, electric guitar and horns. Fortunately the speed seems to make it easier to dance to – everyone’s body parts tend to flay a little bit more.
This has African origins, especially with the deep-toned drums. It was then used as a courtship dance and a form of protest against the Spanish. Now it is used to dance to and there are more percussion instruments and often a guitar and accordion. It has spread throughout the continent and there are many different forms – Andean cumbia, Mexican cumbia, techno cumbia, a sort of ska-cumbia and the more traditional folk form. Generally, whenever I hear cumbia, I don’t like it.
This originated in Valledupar in Colombia but it’s popularity has spread through the region. It can be played with flutes, guitars and definitely the accordion. The rhythm started slow but now it can be quite varied. Once on a bus journey to Medellin I watched a DVD of various vallenato videos. Each one featured a different pair of Pablo Escobar lookalikes (OK I’m generalising: maybe one in ten didn’t have a bushy moustache and a wide girth). One would sing a mournful lament to a beautiful woman who always slunk around in an orchard or a luxurious house with a swimming pool while the other guy just played a slow paseo on his accordion, bobbed his shoulders and tried to make out he was in with a chance as well.
It took me a while to work out that this rubbish and the more upbeat pop or merengue rhythms I was hearing was all vallenato. Probably the best exponent of the latter (certainly the best known) is Carlos Vives who has even won a few Grammys.
Otherwise known as bus music because that’s where you’re going to hear it. Once on a four hour journey from Puerto Lopez to Guayaquil some guys hijacked the stereo and just rinsed out the one CD with about eight tracks for the duration, including about five rewinds in a row for a song about a guy who killed a man, went to prison and there met his father who had also killed a man and been locked up for life during his mother’s pregnancy. Poor woman. And poor us on the bus – I was ready to slit my throat after the third time.
Bachata translates as ballad, it also derives from the Dominican Republic where the ladies go crazy for the male lead singers. It is played by groups who never go too up-tempo and features an electric steel guitar sound which reminds me of a banjo, so think George Formby, in Santo Domingo, up on a murder charge.
A pasillo is like a slow waltz. The music and accompanying lyrics are melancholy, perfect for getting around a guitar and singing your heart out to. A lot of people wouldn’t even consider having a party unless a guitarist was present for one of these singsongs. The good thing is everyone gets lots of practice and they can mostly hold a note (unlike me, hence I’m still using my bad Spanish as an excuse, which works until they play Let It Be).
In the highlands, the indigenous people still use wind instruments a lot. You will see the four guys (or sometimes a lone one) blowing El Condor Pasa on their pipes in tourist areas but if you have the chance to go to a highland fiesta or even a funeral you will see the real range of the musicians using flutes and pipes.
There are many other musical forms which I can’t distinguish very well. The names include Albazos, Pasacalles, Tonadas, Danzantes, Yaravies, Carnavales
The black population produce different rhythms. In the Chota valley there is a sound called Bomba, which is also the name of the drum that creates the rhythmic base of the music and dance. In Esmeraldas they play the marimba which comes directly from Africa.
In the Amazon region the various communities also play their traditional music but I haven’t heard much of this.
In my experience Ecuadorians aren’t great readers. When I mentioned Jorge Icaza’s Huasipungo in an English class once there was a gasp of incredulity that I might have read it (at that time I admittedly hadn’t). There aren’t many bookshops or much market in second hand books and the libraries leave a bit to be desired.
Nevertheless there have been some important and revered Ecuadorian writers. The first was probably Eugenio Espejo, an indigenous man who led a rebellion against Spain in 1795. Then José Joaquin de Olmedo, who was also involved in the liberation struggle and wrote poems about Simon Bolívar and General Flores, the first president of Ecuador.
Juan Montalvo (1832 – 1899) wrote essays attacking Ecuador’s rulers and all things conservative (hence his exile during the presidency of Gabriel García Moreno. Montalvo was from Ambato, as was Juan León Mera. They were contemporaries but not friends. Mera wrote Cumandá about the Amazon people.
Many writers have considered the gulf between white and indigenous communities and the coast and highlands. At the start of the 20th century Luis Martinez published A la costa in which a man travels to the coast to work and finds disappointment. In the 1920s Fernando Chavez published Plata y Bronce and La Embrujada. In the 1930s there was an explosion of realist literature, first with the aforementioned Huasipungo, then with Ellos que van by Demetrio Aguilera Malta, Joaquin Gallegos Lara, and Enrique Gil Gilbert who were young and determined to expose the reality of the indigenous situation, as they saw it. The works of Alfredo Pareja Diezcanseco and Jose de la Cuadra from this period are also notable.
The poet Jorge Carrera Andrade was a socialist but not quite such a socialist realist writer. His poetry explores many things and has been internationally recognised.
Entre Marx y una mujer desnuda by Jorge Enrique Adoum is a story about Adoum and his friends in a writing Group but considers Ecuador and universal ideas such as love and politics. Adoum has also published plays and poetry.
The film scene in Ecuador is fairly small, although cinema-going is a very popular pastime. There are several cinemas in Guayaquil and Quito and at least one in most major cities which show the latest international hits. There is also an arts cinema in Quito, Guayaquil and Manta. Check out the Quito listings at http://www.ochoymedio.net
It is really cheap to go to the cinema in Ecuador, especially in the week. A popcorn and drink will cost you considerably more. The entry has to be cheap because piracy seems to be completed uncontrolled and you can usually buy a DVD of a new film before it hits the screens.
These are a few of the Ecuadorian films which have received acclaim.
A suspense thriller about a reporter from Miami who travels to Ecuador in pursuit of a serial killer known as the "Monster of Babahoyo." Directed by Sebastián Cordero
Ratas, ratones, rateros (1999)
The story of a young and naive thief whose life changes when his cousin Angel, an ex-convict, comes to visit. Directed by Sebastián Cordero
Que Tan Lejos (How Much Further)(2006)
An entertaining film that shows many of the charms and frustrations of Ecuador. Esperanza and Tristeza both have to get to Cuenca. However, their journey is complicated by a strike, and they spend the rest of the film on the road trip. Directed by Tania Hermida.
Un Titan En el Ring (2006)
The inhabitants of an Andean vllage gather to watch wrestling matches every week until outside operators try to take control. A mysterious wrestler named The Argonaut has to save the integrity of the sport.