Panama’s culture is derived from European music, art and traditions brought to Panama by the Spanish. The hegemonic forces created hybrid forms by mixing African and Amerindian culture with European culture. The tamborito, for example, is a Spanish dance that was mixed with African rhythms, themes and dance movements.
Dance is a symbol of the different cultures that have come together in Panama. Local folklore can be experienced through a variety of festivals, dances and traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation. Local towns host performances of reggae music in español, reggaeton, haitiano (compas), jazz, blues, salsa, reggae and rock.
Arts and crafts
Outside Panama City, regional festivals featuring local musicians and dancers take place throughout the year. Panama’s mixed culture is reflected in traditional products such as woodcarvings, ceremonial masks and pottery as well as in the country’s architecture, cuisine and festivals. In the past, baskets were woven for utilitarian purposes, but today many villages live almost exclusively from the baskets they make for tourists.
An example of a unique and intact culture in Panama is that of the Guna, known for their molas. Mola is the Guna word for “blouse”, but the term mola refers to the intricately embroidered panels made by Guna women that form the front and back of a Guna woman’s blouse. It consists of several layers of fabric of different colours that are loosely sewn together in a reverse appliqué process.
Panamanian cuisine is a mixture of African, Spanish and indigenous techniques, dishes and ingredients and reflects the diversity of the population. Being a land bridge between two continents, Panama has a great variety of tropical fruits, vegetables and herbs used in the local cuisine.
Typical Panamanian food has a mild flavour, without the spiciness of some Latin American and Caribbean neighbours. Common ingredients include corn, rice, wheat flour, plantains, yuca (cassava), beef, chicken, pork and seafood.
Traditional Panamanian men’s clothing consists of a white cotton shirt, trousers and a woven straw hat.
The traditional garment of women is the pollera. It originated in Spain in the nineteenth century and was typical of Panama at the beginning of the nineteenth century, worn by maids, especially nannies (De Zarate 5). Later it was adopted by upper class women.
A pollera is made of “cambric” or “fine linen” (Baker 177). It is white and usually measures 13 metres of fabric.
The original pollera consists of a ruffled blouse worn over the shoulders and a skirt at the waist with gold buttons. The skirt is also gathered so that when it is pulled up it looks like a peacock’s tail or a mantilla fan. The patterns on the skirt and blouse are usually flowers or birds. Two large matching tassels (mota) are on the front and back, four ribbons hang from the waist at the front and back, five gold chains (caberstrillos) hang from the neck to the waist, a gold cross or medallion on a black ribbon is worn as a choker, and a silk bag is worn at the waist. The earrings (zaricillos) are usually gold or coral. The slippers are usually the same colour as the pollera. The hair is usually worn in a chignon held in place by three large beaded gold combs (tembleques) worn like a crown. A high-quality pollera can cost up to $10,000 and take up to a year to make.
Today there are different types of polleras; the gala pollera consists of a short-sleeved blouse with ruffles, two full skirts and a petticoat. The girls wear tembleques in their hair. Gold coins and jewellery are added to the outfit. The pollera montuna is an everyday dress consisting of a blouse, a plain skirt, a single gold chain, dangling earrings and a natural flower in the hair. Instead of an off-the-shoulder blouse, a fitted white jacket with shoulder pleats and a flared hem is used.
In Panama, traditional dress may be worn in parades where women and men perform a traditional dance. The women sway gently and twirl their skirts while the men hold their hats in their hands and dance behind the women.