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Puerto Rico: Music and Culture Essay

The inhabitants of the Island of Puerto Rico, known by the name of Borikén to its natives, possess a strong passion for music. To understand the root of this passion it is necessary to explore some of their history and culture. It is also essential to understand some of the basic key elements of the music that Puerto Rican folk and classical music have derived from. This will help the reader to better appreciate the contributions that Puerto Rican music has made to modern music.

Puerto Rico celebrates many holidays and festivals. Live music and dance are experienced in the Patron Festivals, which are celebrated for ten consecutive days. Each of the 72 municipalities (towns and cities) has its own Patron Festival once a year. Music and dance are not generally taught in public schools. Music and dance traditions are passed on from generation to generation by active participation in community events such as these Patron Festivals. Throughout history, Puerto Ricans have contributed much to the music industry. A few names that might sound familiar are Rita Moreno, Lucecita Benitez, Marc Anthony, Jose Feliciano, Chayanne, Ricky Martin, and Americo Boschetti.

The island was invaded by the Spanish on November 11th, 1493. Africans were introduced into the island as slaves during the 16th century. This was done to replace the Taínos who were becoming extinct due to European diseases that were introduced into the island and the harsh labor imposed upon them. During the 1800s many Corsican, French, Lebanese, Chinese, and Portuguese families arrived in Puerto Rico, along with large numbers of immigrants from Spain. The island was conquered by the United States on July 25, 1898. Since then, there have been constant political battles regarding the status of the island as to whether it should be an independent republic, become another state of the U.S. or remain a Commonwealth. The blending of these cultures has affected the Puerto Rican people in a very unique way, creating the music and traditions practiced today.

The Taíno heritage has played little role in post-colonization music. Due to their quick extermination, much of their music and traditions were lost. Among some things that have been conserved are the names of some instruments such as the güiro and the mayohuacán, a hollowed log with an ‘H’ shaped slit. Areito was a social-religious ceremony centered on music and mainly performed to relate stories and remember genealogies. “As many as one thousand participants danced in concentric circles around a group of musicians. The musicians sang mythological chants in call and response style.” (Manuel 3)

In contrast, the African heritage is quite abundant. Africa’s remarkable regional variation provides grounds to view the general musical elements as a whole, rather than focusing on specific regional elements. One element of African music is ‘collective participation’ (Manuel 7). It is very common for most or all members of a community to be active in a musical event, whether by singing, clapping, dancing or playing instruments. Another element of African music is the complexity of rhythms. The rhythmic complexity derives greatly from the frequent use of syncopation. Yet another general element of the African region is the use of polyrhythms. The polyrhythm is the result of two or more patterns of the rhythm of same importance that are played simultaneously.

The European heritage in Puerto Rico consisted mainly of the Spanish due to the abundant migration from Spain as opposed to other European countries. The various musical forms introduced included more than the popular classical music of the era. Some of the other forms embraced were folk music, popular dances, sailor chants, military marches and decimals, a type of sung poetry in ten lines of eight syllables in ABBAACCDDC form.

The Danza, which was the music for the elite society in colonial Puerto Rico derived from European classical music. Although it is debated that it might have evolved from the Cuban contradanza, it is necessary to consider that Cuba and Puerto Rico have a similar history and therefore were influenced in a similar manner. The Puerto Rican composers Juan Morel Campos and Manuel Tavarez combined their ‘Chopin’ style music with some syncopation to create the very unique style known as cinquillo.

The decimas that came from Spain spawned the jibaro music or folk songs. The jibaros are the small island farmers and country people. The most distinctive feature of this music is the ensemble of guitar, cuatro, which is a ten-string guitar-like instrument, güiro and maracas. The jibaro music consists mainly of seis and aguinaldo forms. The aguinaldo and seis make use of the decima previously mentioned. In between verses, the cuatro player performs virtuosic improvisations. The lyrics are very important in this style of music. The people use it to express their gratitude, sorrows, political or social comments.

Bomba and Plena, also folk music, are erroneously usually seen as one single musical form. Most scholars agree that Bomba is strictly African in origin, while Plena developed from a combination of Taino and Spanish rhythms emerging in the south of the island. (Van Middeldyk, R. A. The History of Puerto Rico. Ebook: Project Gutenberg, 2004).

Bomba involves about three drummers and at least one dancer who follows the music’s complex and elaborate rhythms by stomping, wriggling, clapping and twirling in African style movements. The music originated as a secret way of transmitting messages among slaves through their body language. The slaves were allowed to share their music and dance traditions occasionally and used these opportunities to plan rebellions and uprisings. These were planned in the very presence of their owners.

Plena is a light trotting rhythm, accompanied by the cuatro, guiro, drums, and tambourines. It also is frequently used for social commentary. When considering modern Puerto Rico, the music is very versatile. The traditional folk music is still popular, especially around the Holidays which do not end until January 6th, Three Kings Day. Cuban Salsa and Dominican Merengue have been strongly embraced by the people as if their own. American Hip Hop, Rap, Blues, Country, and other genres are widely listened to and performed. Many performers integrate American music with traditional styles.

The widespread Reggaeton, which blends Jamaican reggae with hip-hop, and has also been influenced by an assortment of Caribbean rhythms, such as Bomba, Plena, and Merengue, did not originate in Puerto Rico but in Panama. Like the Puerto Rican people, its rich musical heritage is also a mixture of races. The people gladly embrace new rhythms as long as they are infectious. Somehow they still manage to keep their classical and folk music and forms such as Bomba, Plena, seis, aguinaldos and danza, intact.

Figueroa, Frank M. “Con guiro y pandereta: Rhythm and Instrumentation of Bomba y Plena.” Latin Beat Magazine. March, 2004.
Green, Derek. “Puerto Rican Americans.” Gale Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, 2008.

Manuel, Peter, Kenneth Bilby and Michael Largey. Caribbean Currents: Caribbean
Music from Rumba Reggae. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2006.
Van Middeldyk, R.A. The History of Puerto Rico. Ebook: Project Gutenberg, 2004.

Online Resource:
Rivera, Magaly. “Welcome to Puerto Rico” 2008. 17 sept. 2008.

Audio Source:
Los Pleneros de la 21. Para Todos Ustedes. CD. Smithsonian Folkway Recordings, 2005.

Video Source:
Cuatrorriqueño. Claudio, Prodigio. 2005. DVD. Master Music Productions..