Also:       gaita macho      gaita hembra      carrizos      kuizis      

Title: Un Fuego de Sangre Pura—Asi Lo Grita Toto (That’s How Toto Shouts It); Tono Garcia, gaita hembra; Nicolas Hernandez Pacheco, gaita macho; Johache Plata, Adolfo Rodrriquez and Gabriel Torregrosa, drums; Martin Vejarano, maracas. Label: Smithsonian Folkways . Format: CD. Catalogue#: SFW CD 40531. Track: 11.

Title: Un Fuego de Sangre Pura—El Corcovado (The Wood-Quail); Tono Garcia, Fredys Arrieta and Gabriel Torregrosa, gaita hembra; Nicolas Hernandez and Joche Plata, gaita macho. Label: Smithsonian Folkways. Format: CD. Catalogue#: SFW CD 40531. Track: 6.

Contextual Associations

The gaita is an edge aerophone (flute) found from Caribbean coastal Colombia through the northern extension of the Andes, with a primary diaspora in the cities of Cartagena, Barranquilla, and Bogota. Before the 1940s, gaita were almost always pair matched as part of an ensemble, conjuntos de gaita (first audio clip), used to accompany the cumbia folk dance during rondas, a nightlong feast. The ensemble was traditionally composed of four male musicians: two gaita players and two drummers. These ensembles were often formed on an as needed basis usually to disperse after their function had been served. According to Ochoa, the gaita was also employed in funereal performance, lending it, at times, a somber association. Rondas no longer occur in community life and the flute's primary musical context now occurs at folk-music festivals, theatres, and discotheques. For Ochoa, “The sound of the gaita ensemble has become a widespread and iconic sonority of costeño music.” Due to its iconic sound association with the Andes, the gaita lends an otherness to music adopted by ensembles on the streets of New York City, in film scores, and contemporary and ‘World Music’ albums.


The gaita hembra and gaita macho are a pair of internal duct-flutes, usually player made. They are almost identical morphologically, the exception being the number of fingerholes. For both, the flute body is made from a hollowed out length of cardón, a cactus (Selenicereus grandiflorus), and the head from a composite of vegetal carbon (in the form of charcoal) and beeswax. A bird-feather quill extends a little past the end of the head and acts as mouthpiece and duct. On the macho, two circular fingerholes are burnt into the instrument close to its distal end; for the hembra, there are five equidistantly placed fingerholes. Both gaitas are left unadorned.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

There is no standardized tuning for gaitas, which are instead tuned to only their particular complement. A player produces a note by sealing his lips around the quill mouthpiece and blowing through it. This directs the airstream against an edge inside the wax-composite head (see detail image, which focuses on the instrument’s head section; through the slit in the head the sharp edge of the tube rim is visible). Manually opening and closing tone holes with middle (hembra only) and index fingerpads (hembra and macho) of each hand serves to lengthen and shorten the standing wave produced by the airstream. The wide spacing of the holes makes covering them difficult and a moveable beeswax plug (missing from this specimen) is used to seal the uppermost or lowermost hole on the hembra. Literature and recordings suggest that the fundamental is never played and that the instrument’s ‘normal’ pitch range starts at the secon harmonic partial. The more pitch limited gaita macho plays secondary melodic material, while the hembra plays primary melodic material (second audio ex.). A hembra player often holds the flute in his left hand while simultaneously playing a supporting rhythm with a maraca in his right, adjusting fingering as needed.


According to List, this Columbian instrument is “without question indigenous” to South America and he found no firm evidence of its existence in Europe or Africa. The gaita most likely evolved from shorter duct-flutes of highland Amerindian groups such as the Kogi (Cágaba), Ika, and Cuna. The flutes, however, represent the amalgamation of tri-cultural sensibilities. The ensemble in which it is played is a confluence of Spanish, Afro-Colombian, and Amerindian musical traditions. As differing musical identities began to merge, separate elements were taken from each fusing Spanish vocals, African style drums, and a native aerophonic instrument and performance practice into what is now an iconic folk sound. In response, the gaita was made longer and louder in order to be heard in its evolving ensemble setting.

Bibliographic Citations

Hernandez, Juan Daniel. n.d. "Instrumental Acoustic Study about the Gaita Hembra."

List, George. 1983. Music and Poetry in a Colombian Village: A Tri-cultural Heritage. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

________. 1991. "Two Flutes and a Rattle: The Evolution of an Ensemble." The Musical Quarterly 75/1: 50.

Ochoa, Ana Maria. 2006. “Introduction.” Un Fuego de Sangre Pura. CD and liner notes, Smithsonian Folkways SFW CD 40531.

Poche, Christian & John M. Schechter. 1984. "Gaita," NGDMI v. 2: 6. 


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: South America

Nation: Colombia

Formation: Costeño

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

421.221.12 aerophone--single open flute with internal duct: the duct is inside the tube; with fingerholes

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - cylindrical with open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: beveled edge in wall of instrument, indirectly blown against with aid of duct

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: opening fingerholes to reduce space or shorten length of standing wave in air cavity

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at consecutive partials

Pitch production: multiple pitches - changing length of standing wave within cavity with fingerholes and by selecting partials through overblowing


36.25 in. total length 33.5 in. length of tube 3.75 in. length of head 0.75 in. length of mouthpiece 1 in. external diameter of tube 0.5 in. bore diameter

Primary Materials

quill - bird feather

Entry Author

Gaelyn Hutchinson