This article examines the cultural programs developed by reformist intellectuals and artists working for the Colombian government during the period known as the Liberal Republic (1930-1946). It explores the implementation of two music programs in particular, the orfeones obreros and the murgas populares, with attention to both the political discourses from above and the everyday music practices from below. I show that, far from being inspired by common interest or nationalist sentiment alone, the ruling elites turned to cultural politics as an arena through which to define the relationship between the rulers and the ruled in a way that naturalized the former’s place in power. I argue that while music programs asserted the unity, horizontality, and inclusiveness of the nation by glorifying popular music, they also deepened the terms of exclusion they professed to level by essentializing the pueblo. However, this official celebration of popular culture, which rendered its practitioners archaic and passive repositories of the nation’s soul, was challenged by a very dynamic, effervescent, and transnationally open music landscape driven by the activities of creative grassroots musicians. Using data from the National Folkloric Survey of 1942, I explore the everyday music practices of popular sectors in different areas of the country and the challenge that these practices posed to elite definitions of popular music.

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