Puerto Rico

At the far Southern end of the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean, culturally and geographically remote from the United States, Puerto Rico has through chance and fortune, or misfortune found itself linked to the United States in a relationship that continues to be unique for each of them. Although as a result of the Spanish American War, the United States eventually permitted Cuba to go its own way, Puerto Rico remained tied as a dependent state to the US and yet is clearly and strongly a Latin American culture with only the thinnest veneer of what might be termed a US American culture.

The background of Puerto Rico is much like that of Cuba. The first Spanish colonizers arrived to find the Indian population unable and unwilling to do the arduous work that the commercial potential of the island demanded. The Spanish killed off the Taino Indians, the original inhabitants of the island, and replaced them with an African labor force brought in by the slave trade. Some remants fo the Taino culture may survive as in the use of the maracas and perhaps also the guiro and the widespread use of the hammock through tropical Latin America, the Taino themselves are gone. Recent studies indicate that there may be Taino linages in the DNA of Puertoricans today, nevertheless, it is clear that the Taino culture has all but disappeared.

Spanish settlers who made their livelihood through the cultivation of small plantations lived in the highlands of the island and were known as 'jibaros'. The small farming that they engaged in was largely a family type business and did not require the employment of slaves. Thus the culture of the highland 'jibaro' in Puerto Rico represents and retains the strongest elements of Spanish culture found on the island.

In the lowlands and especially around the major coastal cities of San Juan and Ponce there was a need for a large labor force and it was here that the largest concentration of African slaves grew and where gradually the strongest Afro-Puerto Rican elements of the culture developed. A few strongly African villages or towns remain in Puerto Rico, but it is in the admixture of African elements into Puerto Rican music that its greatest impact lies. From this mixture came a powerful force in the music of Puerto Rico, one that figured strongly in the later development of the contemporary musical style known as 'Salsa'.

The Highland Culture.

The 'jibaros' of the highlands of Puerto Rico preserve a rich musical heritage, one which is both uniquely Puerto Rican as well as one which manifests strong ties to its Spanish cultural roots. The Spanish settlers who came to Puerto Rico like those who went to Cuba, came mostly from the Southern region of Andalusia and brought with them strong elements of the culture of that region. The jibaro music is played by small ensembles consisting mostly of 'cuatros', small double course guitars, that is guitars in which two strings are tuned in unison or octaves; are strung closely together, and plucked as a single string. To this ensemble of guitar type instruments are added a gro which is a wooden instrument shaped like a dried gourd, which may have been its origin, onto which a number of grooves have been cut and over which a small metal comb is scraped producing a rhythmic rasping sound. Recently it has become popular to add the sound of the bongo drums and often a clarinet or trumpet. But even in the purer setting of cuatros, guitars and gro the influence of Afro-Caribbean rhythm is unmistakable.

In its repertoire the music of the jibaros of Puerto Rico also shows its clear Andalusian origins. All the songs are sung and the frequent use of improvised couplets of ten syllables each, called decimas, links the Puerto Rican tradition to 16th Century Spanish poetic practice. Two of the most frequently encountered forms are the 'aguinaldo' and the 'seis'. The 'aguinaldo' or Christmas offering is based on an old form of Spanish Christmas carol. The 'seis', which literally means 'six' is, in fact, a great number of different tune types, or melodic motifs each of which can then be used as the basis for sung poetic improvisation. What is interesting about the performance of the 'seis' in Puerto Rico is that most are named after a particular town on the island. Thus we have the 'Seis de Andino', the 'Enramada', named for the town of Ramos, the Seis del Dorado, named for El Dorado, etc. In this sense the naming of these 'seises' after towns parallels the practice in Spain of naming different types of fandango after the particular town or region of Andalusia where the variant form was developed. In point of fact many of these seises, are fandangos in origin.

The Aguinaldos are traditional Christmas tunes, many of which are also known in other parts of Latin America. During the Christmas season there would be what is called a 'parranda' in which a group of family, friends and neighbors would take out their instruments and sing and play these Christmas carols, going from house to house in the area, usually being invited in for food and drink at each house and perhaps ending it with a succulent roast suckling pig. Gradually, these aguinaldos came to be used as vehicles for the improvisation of decimas and have come to be used almost interchangeably with the seises.

Among the famous names in Puerto Rican mountain music are Ramito, La Calandria, Chuito, el de Bayamon. New groups appear and many excellent groups have begun to record in the US, for special Puerto Rican audiences.

Afro Puerto Rican Music.

Two important forms from the coastal areas of Puerto Rico where African influence is notably strong are the 'plena' and the 'bomba'. While the African basis of the forms is clear, distinct Spanish elements can be noted in the forms as well and therefore they can, like the Afro Cuban forms, be described as a mixture of European and African musical practices.

The 'plena' is traditionally associated with the region around the city of Ponce in the Southwestern portion of the island. In its purer form the plena was performed by a group of singers who accompanied themselves on large Spanish tambourines, called 'panderos'. The playing of the 'pandero' in Spain is itself an African borrowing, the instrument originating in the Moroccan tambourine, the 'bendir', having been introduced into Spain sometime during the 500 years or so when the Arabs were in control of large portions of Southern Spain.

The 'Plena' makes use of a characteristic rhythm which emphasizes beats one and three and is organized into a pattern which suggests it may have grown into a relationship with the 'merengue' of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Today, the rhythm of the 'plena' has been adapted to the music of the bands which play in the larger cities of Puerto Rico and compositions in the 'plena' rhythm are arranged in a style similar to that used for other forms of Afro Caribbean music.

The bomba is also an Afro Puerto Rican form, this one associated with the Northern area of the island around the city of San Juan. The bomba seems to have fewer clear Spanish elements in it than the 'plena' and would seem to be the outcome of cultural expression of a people who knew the African rhythmic tradition but who now had to use Spanish as a common language. The pattern as well as the drums used traditionally to perform it are known as bomba. In addition to these drums some players beat on the side of the drums with small sticks to create a secondary pattern and maracas, or rattles are also employed. Originally performed by singers to the accompaniment of these drums and maracas, the bomba, like the 'plena' has gradually become adapted to the popular dance style of Puerto Rico and its rhythm serves as the basis for new compositions using the 'bomba' rhythm as a basis.

The musical style know as 'salsa' has clear and strong Cuban roots, which, however, most of its avid fans might not think of at all. Yet although the Cuban origins of most current 'salsa' dances are not thought about very much, whenever a 'plena' or 'bomba' is played at a 'salsa' dance they are generally recognized as being distinctly Puerto Rican rhythms.

Afro Puerto Rican music is today difficult to separate from the more international Salsa style. Among the more well known recording artists are, Cortijo, Ismael Rivera, El Gran Combo, Eddie Palmieri and Charlie Palmieri.

Robert Garfias 1995 (rev. 2005)