Puerto Rico Music & Musical Instruments

As with many aspects of Puerto Rican culture, Puerto Rico music displays elements which reflect the influence of different cultures and nationalities. Music influences from Spain, Africa, Europe and the United States, along with the music of the indigenous Puerto Rican Taíno people, have all played their part in creating the variants of music which Puerto Rico has become famous for.

Historical Overview of Puerto Rico Music

Before the discovery of Puerto Rico by Christopher Columbus (Colon), and later the colonization led by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1508, the island was inhabited by Taíno people. The Taíno had Arawak Indian origins, and lived in communities headed by a Cacique (chieftain).  The Taíno people had their own belief systems and created music as an expressive art form, used in celebration and to pass on tradition.

With the arrival of the Spanish colonists, much of the Taíno way of life was lost, although Puerto Rico music gained new aspects such as formal music training, religious music and the Spanish guitar. Later, the Spanish began to import African slaves, who in turn brought their West and Central African tribal rhythms.

In 1898, the Spain/US war lead to the end of Spanish rule in Puerto Rico, and again, fresh perspective to the music scene. Further influences came from other Latin American countries, particularly Cuba, whose music history has similar roots to that of Puerto Rico music.

Puerto Rico Musical Instruments

Very little is known about the instruments played by Puerto Rico’s first musicians – the Taíno people. This is mainly due to the fact that the Spanish almost wiped out the race, and feared the native culture, so destroyed objects such as musical instruments. There are very few records of the Taíno way of life, although in the 15th Century Frey Ramon Pane described the ceremonial dance known as arietos. He noted that during these dances,  the Taíno used an instrument called a mayohavau, which was made from a hollowed out tree, and produced a percussive note which could be heard a great distance away.

Further knowledge about the Taino musical instruments were, of course, passed down through the remaining generations of tribes people, while some instruments would have been cached for safety in caves or sacred sites. Many genres of Puerto Rico music now rely on these instruments – from the maracas, which were made from the dried fruit of the calabash tree, filled with seeds or pebbles, the conch shell horn, and the güiro. The güiro is made from a hollowed out gourd, which has a notched design carved across the shell. A scraper, or pua, is dragged up and down the body of the gourd to create sound.

Puerto Rico’s national instument is the Cuatro. An iconic symbol of the island’s culture, this small guitar-like instrument first appeared in its modern form in 1875. Previously, the cuatro had only four strings, hence the name cuatro, which is Spanish for four. Later Cuatro guitars have five sets of double strings and are carved from a single piece of wood – usually laurel. Similar in shape to a violin, the Cuatro is played with a flat pick and plays an essential role in Jibaro music.

Puerto Rico Music Genres

Puerto Rico is home to a number of musical genres, each of which displays a blend of historical, social and cultural influences. In general, Puerto Rico music is lively, upbeat and designed to be danced to. Usually, Puerto Rico music, and the dance it accompanies, share the same name.

Folk Music & the Jibaros

During Spain’s colonization of Puerto Rico, thousands of Taíno people were used as slave labour. However, small numbers decided to avoid a harsh life working under the Spaniard’s rule, and escaped to the mountains. These people became known as Jibaros – roughly translated as peasant farmer or mountain people, and are an important part of the Puerto Rican cultural identity.

Jibaro music takes several common forms : Aguinaldos, Seis and Decimas. Aguinaldos arrived with Spain, a Catholic country, who aimed to spread the message of their faith through converting people of other faiths. During the 16th Century, Aguinaldos became a intrinsic part of the Puerto Rican Christmas tradition of Parrandas. From the end of November, until the finale of the festivities in mid-January, groups of musicians meet up to serenade friends at their homes. In the past, this would have taken the form of a surprise party, but these days is more likely to be planned. To this day, revelers taking part in Parrandas remember the Jibaro way of life by dressing in typical costume.

Aguinaldos are similar to Christmas carols, and usually have a religious theme. Some of the most popular Aguinaldos include Los Tres Reyes Santos – The Three Kings, and Cantares de NavidadSongs of the Nativity. In some cases the song will reference Puerto Rican culture – for example Si Me Dan Pasteles, which translates as “If you give me pasteles”, pasteles being a popular savoury treat eaten during the festive season. Aguinaldos are also used in churches, particularly during the Misa de Aguinaldos, a sung mass.

The two other types of music which are considered to be music of the Jibaro people are Seis and Decimas.Seis originated in Spain, where is was danced by six couples, hence the name Seis, which is the Spanish word for six. The Jibaros adopted the music of the Seis, taking the melodic motif and accompanying it with improvised lyrics.

The heartfelt, lively vocals often related to the Jibaro way of life and the countryside. There are now more then 120 different Seis rhythms, and they may be named for the dance choreography, where the song originated, the author or another distinctive feature of the music.

 Decimas are sung to the music of Seis, and originate from a poetic form used in 16th Century Spain. Decimas had been popular during the Medieval era, but later dropped from use, to be revitalized and

modernized by Vicente Martinez de Espinel. The ballad style songs are made up of 10 pairs of lines of eight syllables which have the same meter and a specific rhyming scheme. In Puerto Rico music, the rhyming scheme is A BB AA CC DD C, while complex rules dictate what is defined as a syllable. Traditionally, Saint’s Day Festivals would be celebrated with Decimas contests – participants try to create clever and suitable lyrics on the spot. Some famous musicians who are known for their skilled Decimas include Ramito and El Jibaro.

Danza – National Music of Puerto Rico

Considered to be the national music of Puerto Rico, Danza first appeared in the 1840s and is the style of music used in the Puerto Rican national anthem “La Boriquena”. The music was similar to European classical, and it became a popular accompaniment to ballroom dancing amongst the upper classes of Puerto Rico. The development of Danza began in Spain, some saying that it can be traced back to Danza Caballeresca of the Extremadura region.

 During this period, a style called Contradanza was very common, and formed the accompaniment to structured dance movements to three or more defined sections of music. This was performed by couples who were directed by a bastonero.  Then, a Cuban influence appeared on Puerto Rico, bring Habeneras, a style which was much more free and fluid. Habaneras became increasingly popular with the younger generations who enjoyed the intimacy that this new style of dance brought to them.

Puerto Rican composers recognized the attraction of the new Cuban beats and rhythms and began to develop a new style of music with a distinctive Puerto Rican flavour – Danza. One of these was Manuel G Tavarez, a Puerto Rican who had lived in Paris but was forced to return to the island due to illness. Tavarez taught piano lessons, and one of his students was Juan Morel Campos, who would become one of the best known names in the history of Puerto Rico music.

Tavarez’s influence could be seen in Campos’ early compositions, particularly the first – Sopapos. However, Campos went on to take this musical style even further, writing over 300 Danzas during his lifetime. Campos preferred the theme of love and was influenced by women he knew and desired in writing his compositions. Titles of some of his pieces include No me Toces, Felices Dias and Maldito Amor.

The Puerto Rican Danza has two forms : romantic and festive. Romantic Danzas are more traditional and are usually divided into four parts – a paseo of eight measures of music, then three parts of sixteen measures. The third theme would include a lively section with a solo by the tuba player. Romantic Danzas can be identified by a left handed piano rhythm, and are described as waltz music with an Afro beat. Festive Danzas are much more free flowing and high energy than the Romantic Danzas, and less likely to follow a pattern.

 African Influences in Puerto Rico Music

Bomba is one of the main genres of Puerto Rico music which shows significant African influences.  Bomba is thought to have originated in the sugar plantations of North Puerto Rico, where it developed from a tribal dance. The first versions of Bomba were recorded by a French scientist called Andre Pierre Ledru in 1797. He was making a survey of Puerto Rico to study the flora, fauna and indigenous culture, and witnessed slaves of African origin performing what he called the Bamboula. Some of todays scientists believe that the dance can be traced back to a tribe called the Akan, who came from the area now called Ghana.

Bomba is played on a  goatskin covered barrel drum with an accompaniment of maracas. Using a call and response style of singing usually started by a female soloist and answered by a small chorus, Bomba is more than just music, it is an interaction between drummer and dancers. Bomba is usually danced in a circle, with one dancer moving to the centre during their turn.

The African people used the dance and music as a way of expressing themselves – for they were treated harshly and forbidden to follow their native religious beliefs. Plantation owners only allowed their slaves to perform Bomba on Saturday nights and on Sundays, when the slaves celebrated baptisms, weddings and births. It is also said that in some cases Bomba was used to plan rebellions against slave owners. Bomba also become an integral part of the festival of St James.

This is a Catholic festival which the African’s amalgamated with their beliefs during the conversions. Evidence of the African influence can be seen in the masks worn during this festival, while the Bomba dance is performed as part of the celebrations.

Bomba cannot be mentioned without a reference to the Cepeda family, who have been credited with keeping the traditions of Bomba and Plena alive. The music and dance styles have been passed down through the Cepeda family and folklore has it that the “Patriarch of Bomba” Rafael Cepeda was born while his mother danced a Bomba. Rafael’s son Modesta Cepeda founded a Bomba and Plena dance school in the 1970s, naming it after his father, and ensuring that the tradition of Bomba would not be lost to Puerto Rico’s future generations. Puerto Rico celebrate the Cepeda family with a commemorative event every August which includes dance workshops and artisan craft exhibitions.

The second type of African influenced dance to be created in Puerto Rico is Plena. Plena first appeared in Ponce towards the end of the 19th Century, when slaves who had earned their freedom were beginning to settle in city “barrios” and look for work. Some people say the name Plena comes from the words for full moon – luna plena (llena), while others say it was invented by a couple called John Clark and Catherine George.

Plena is referred to as el periodico cantao (cantado), the sung newspaper, as its lyrics served as a way of passing of gossip and making comment on situations and events which had taken place locally. The music of Plena is created with panderos, a type of tambourine which has no cymbals. Later versions of the Plena included music for frame drums and güiro, while a modern Plena may include brass instruments.

The lyrics of Plena are sung in a call and response style, with some of the most influential artists being El Canario, Ismael Riviera and Rafael Cortijo. Traditionally, the costume worn by dancers of the Plena includes long colourful or white skirts for women, and Panama hats for men. Today Plena seeing a revival, from artists like Miguel Zenon, who has formed a modern Plena group.

Other Puerto Rico Music

While Salsa may not strictly be defined as Puerto Rico music, the input of Puerto Rican music was undeniable in the creation of this passionate high-energy style. The word Salsa, literally translates as sauce, and is very apt for this spicy, aural treat! Salsa combines Cuban rhythms with Puerto Rican elements and began to reach a wide audience due to the growing community of Puerto Rican’s living in New York City in the 1960s and 70s. Many performing artists at this time became part of what is called the Nuyorican Movement, which incorporated not only music but other art forms. Earlier forms of Salsa, which had emerged in the 1940s were referred to as Afro Cuban Jazz.

A more recent Puerto Rico music style is Reggaeton, which first began to gain momentum in the 1990s. A youthful, exuberant style which fuses Jamaican Dancehall with Spanish Hip-Hop lyrics, in its early years Reggaeton caused much controversy due to its explicit lyrics and erotic dance styles. Today, Reggaeton is one of the biggest genres in the music industry, with Puerto Rican artists such as Daddy Yankee and Calle 13 achieving international hits and global acclaim.

 Other contemporary contributions to the Puerto Rico music scene include that of Tito Puente, who is often affectionately referred to as the King of Latin Music. Combining Afro Caribbean and Latin style, Puente’s life work is defined by a vast discography. Tito Puente’s contribution to the Puerto Rico music scene are remembered with an amphitheatre named after him at the Luis Munoz Marin Park.

Another Puerto Rican born star is Ricky Martin, who started his music career as part of the ever shifting line-up of the manufactured boy-band Menudo, during the 1980s. Ricky Martin later began a solo career, which lead him to the international stage. The award winning Latin music artist has released both Spanish and English language records, and is known for his hits such as “Livin La Via Loca”.

Learning More About Puerto Rico Music

Anyone who wants to learn more about Puerto Rico Music while visiting the island should take time to see the Museum of Puerto Rico Music in Ponce. The neoclassical style building was once owned by an affluent family of rum producers and displays a fascinating selection of memorabilia relating to Puerto Rican artists, as well as examples of Puerto Rican musical instruments.