The most traditional of Nicaraguan instruments is the Marimba. Its exact origin is not known but most believe that it is a derivative of an African instrument. Despite its rather crude appearance it is a complex instrument. It is composed of 22 wood keys and shaped in the form of a triangle. The wood used is mahogany or cedar. The marimba player plays with rubbed-headed sticks called bolillos. The instrument has very clear and sonorous tonalities. Most marimbas are used for folkloric music and typical music of the countryside, yet today the marimberos perform any rhythm from cumbia to salsa to merengue. The country’s most famous marimberos are from Monimbó, the Indian barrio of Masaya, where there is a long tradition of marimba crafting and playing.
Folk Music is still very popular today and has deep roots in Nicaraguan culture. One of the most important creators of the Nicaraguan song is Víctor M. Leiva (Managua, 1916) who authored the song "El Caballo Cimarrón"(The Untamed Horse) in 1948, the first Nicaraguan song recorded inside Nicaragua. During his long performing career he painted musical portraits of the Nicaraguan’s daily life. Victor M. Leiva received a Gold Palm award in United States, as the second greatest folkloric composer in all of Latin America. Another legendary folk singer-songwriter is Camilo Zapata. Zapata was born in 1917 and still performing today, he wrote his first song at the age of 14 and his songs have made him the face and heart of Nicaraguan regionalism.
Two brothers from the northern town of Somoto are largely responsible for the continued popularity of folk music in Nicaragua today. Carlos and Luis Enrique Mejia Godoy have not only brought the form to the forefront of Nicaraguan music, but their creativity and dedication have created new forms, like the famous Misa Campesina (peasant mass). Originally from the rural splendor of the Solentiname Archipelago this music uses marimbas, guitars, atabales (Indian drums), violins and mazurcas. The songs were composed by Carlos Mejía Godoy and recorded in the 80’s, by the “Popular Sound Workshop”. La Misa Campesina has been translated into numerous languages and is even sung by Anglican, Mormon and Baptist Churches in the United States.
Arguably the oldest form of painting in Nicaragua is the petroglyph. These mysterious stone pictorials are found in every corner of Nicaragua and their quantity and diversity is amazing. The depictions are of ancient beliefs, family histories, calendars and other scenes in relief that remain a mystery to today’s art lovers and archaeologists alike. This art was lost with the arrival of the first Europeans in the 16th century and the painters of the colonial period were usually Spanish.
The first notable Nicaraguan painter was 19th century artist, Toribio Jerez, who authored a collection of portraits of the Bishops of Nicaragua. At the beginning of the 20th century the most appreciated work was that of Alonso Rochi, who’s paintings of urban scenes and flowers received acclaim. The maestro of modern Nicaraguan painters was one who gained an equal amount of fame from teaching as he did from painting. León painter Rodrigo Peñalba (1908-1979) spent years studying and painting in Rome and gained fame at home in the 1940’s. The visitor can see his paintings in León at the gallery across from the Iglesia San Francisco and at the museum in the Masaya Volcano National Park.
At the beginning of the 1950’s the work of Asilia Guillen (1887-1964) brought primitivism (naive) painting to the forefront of Nicaraguan fine arts. Primitivism may be the most famous school of art of painting in Nicaragua, thanks largely to the priest Ernesto Cardenal, it most enthusiastic promoter. The talented campesinos of the Archipelago of Solentiname were given a course organized by the priest and today the islanders paint the vibrant natural beauty of their islands. The naïve painting of Solentiname has taken the island artists to far off locals like Finland and Japan and their work can be found in galleries around the world.
A departure from the traditional concepts introduced by the master Rodrigo Peñalba was organized under the banner of the Grupo Praxis formed in 1963. This group of revolutionary artists joined in a new style of painting under a social ideology that was based on opposition to the Somoza regime. Grupo Praxis style is marked by the use of monochromatic colors with the backdrop of Nicaragua’s volcanic and tellurian landscape. Leading artists of the group include the well-known painter Alejandro Aróstegui. After the Praxis Group painting styles became increasingly diverse with a post-modern movement and an outburst of mural painting in the 1980’s. In the 1990’s figurative painting and hyper-realism became additional movements accentuated by a new and important figure in Nicaraguan painting and installation art Patricia Belli. Belli’s striking and emotional statements transmitted through a diverse use of media have kept her on the cutting edge of the Nicaraguan art scene.
Fernando Saravia was one of the first to earn the title of “el maestro” in Nicaraguan sculpture. Saravia worked in clay cast, mould, and carve stone and wood. Saravia’s original sculptures brought much notoriety and he in turn went on to help form the best known of modern Nicaraguan sculptors including the priest Ernesto Cardenal. In the 1980’s, Ernesto Cardenal, an accomplished artist, was the Minister of Culture. Under his direction a program was created in San Juan de Limay, a small village north of Estelí. There had already been a tradition of soapstone (marmolina) carving there. The colorful stone is found in abundance in San Juan de Limay and the project refined the quality of San Juan de Limay’s artisan sculpting. During this period sculptors like Luis Morales Alonso and Aparicio Artola came to fame with beautiful and unique works in soapstone. The work of San Juan de Limay’s artists can be found across Nicaragua and Central America.
One of most talented Nicaraguan sculptors today is Miguel Angel Abarca. The son of coffin carvers, there is no material that Abarca has not mastered from wood to marble to granite. Abarca also changes styles as easily as materials and his mastery of both that make him unique in the Nicaraguan art scene, he never stops experimenting and what he produces is routinely both unique and sublimely beautiful.
The art form that dominates Nicaraguan cultural life is poetry. With the greatest national hero being a poet, Nicaraguans have poetry running through their blood and soul. The king of this passion is Rubén Darío (1867-1916), the most celebrated of Nicaraguan artists and a true great in the history of the Spanish language. Darío is known as the “Father of Modernism” thanks to his groundbreaking innovations in the Spanish language. The modernist school headed by Dario advocated aestheticism, the search for sensory and sensual values, using the effects of color, voice and synthesis. His landmark workAzul is considered the fundamental work of modernism. Darío published numerous other collections of poetry, a novel and narratives as well as editing literary magazines. Dario’s work had a significant impact on the Spanish language and tributes continue to be paid to his artistic production since his death in León in 1916.
The Vanguard movement followed Darío’s penchant for innovation and was founded by Luis Alberto Cabrales (1901-1974) and Jose Coronel Urtecho (1906-1994). The Vanguard movement exerted an important renovating influence on Nicaraguan literature. Coronel Utrecho’s work Oda a Ruben Dario (1927) contains the essence of the new style and marks the transition from the Dario school of Modernism to the Vanguard movement. Pablo Antonio Cuadra (1912-2002), the movement’s principal author, wrote a declaration reaffirming the national identity, which was later incorporated into his first book Poemas Nicaraguenses (1934). Another member of the Vanguard was Manolo Cuadra (1907-1957) who became known for his poems, Perfil and La palabra que no te dije, published in Tres Amores (1955). Pablo Antonio Cuadra was responsible for a truly prolific literary production, including Libro de horas (1964), a collection of Náhuatl myths El Jaguar y la Luna (1959. He wrote about the life of the mammal in Cantos de Cifar and Al mar dulce (1926); his excellent treatise against dictatorships in Siete arboles contra el atardecer (1982) and Poemas para un calendario (1988).
The generation of the forties brought the themes of love and freedom to the forefront and the emergence of poets Ernesto Mejia Sanchez (1923-1985) and Carlos Martinez Rivas (1924-1999). Mejía Sanchez cultivated a style marked by brevity and precision in his most important works Ensalmos y conjuros (1947) and La Carne contigua (1948) and Martinez Rivas used a modern rhythm, making his ideas felt through quick turns of phrase and ruptures of his own language. El paraiso recobrado (1948) was a revelation and the publication of Insurreccion solitaria (1953) even more so. He published a series of poems titled Allegro rato, in 1989, which continued his experimental line.
Ernesto Cardenal’s (1923) poetry tries to reflect common language and simple expressions. Founder of the expressionist poetry current, he opposed the subjectivity of lyrical poetry. Through his poetry he attacked the Somoza family dictatorship for more than four decades. La ciudad deshabitada (1946), Hora 0 (1960), Oracion por Marylin Monroe y otras poemas(1966), are poems reflecting religious, historical and Christian themes as well as the topic of social commitment.
Sergio Ramirez Mercado is one of the most internationally known Nicaraguan writers. He has published numerous novels and books of short stories including De tropeles y tropelias (1972), and Charles Atlas tambien muere (1976). In 1998 he won the International Prize for Fiction of the Alfagura publishing house of Spain that also published his later works:Margarita esta linda la mar (1998), Adios muchachos (1999), and his most recent work Mentiras Verdaderas (2000). He is considered among the finest novelists in Latin America today.
Another modern great is Gioconda Belli. Her first book was a sensual collection of poems, Sobre la grama (1974), and it broke new ground for Nicaraguan literature with its frank femininity. De la costilla de Eva (1987) speaks of free love at the service of revolutionary transformation. Her novels, La mujer habitada, Memorias de amor y de guerra and El pais bajo mi piel, among others, have been published in more than twenty languages.