The history of African influences in Puerto Rican music begins long before 1508, the year in which the Spanish settled the island, and 1492, when Christopher Columbus made Europeans aware of the New World. The African influence in Puerto Rican music began with two earlier human processes that converged on the island that the Tainos called Boriquén. The first was the millennial economic, cultural and human encounters and clashes between the European peninsula and the northern and trans-Saharan regions of Africa in the years prior to 700 AD. The second process was the birth and development of enslavement of western Africans, their insertion into Iberian society and, later, their use as labor in theAmericas. The combination of these two processes created the basis for the two main ways that Africans arrived in Puerto Rico: from the Iberian peninsula and from the coastal regions of western Africa.
The human interaction that arose through the trade routes extended from the region that consists of what is now Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo and Benin, crossing to the capitals of the Christian kingdoms: the Franco kingdom that is today France, and the Christian kingdoms on the Iberian peninsula, which today are Portugal and Spain. The African presence was consolidated on the Iberian peninsula in the year 711. The Muslim occupation of the peninsula not only opened the European continent to Arab influences, but also, and more importantly, the Mediterranean world to northern Africa. It was through this region that the first influences from western Africa were established on the Iberian peninsula.
Direct contact between the western African kingdoms and the Iberian peninsula during the period between 1415 and 1492 created the conditions that made inhabitants of the region permanent elements of Portuguese and Spanish society. By 1508, the beginning of the occupation of the island of Puerto Rico, free North Africans and slaves from Andalusia (the south of Spain, which was dominated by Muslim North Africans) had spent centuries under the Christian kings of the peninsula, and between 1415 and 1492, their mark on Andalusian society was already permanent. Under the reign of the Catholic king and queen, Fernando and Isabel, the West African population grew in the city of Seville. The Catholic monarchs put this population under their direct supervision, and in 1475, prominent West African Juan de Valladolid, known as “the black count”, was named mayor of the black community of Seville and answered directly to the crown.
The Spain that discovered, conquered, occupied and Christianized the Americas was mulatto. Spanish subjects of various social strata arrived in the New World: black Spaniards such as Francisco Mexias, his wife, Violante González and son, Antón Mexias, with a royal commission to rule over Taínos and ownership of black and Indian slaves; Juan Garrido, a soldier, and Francisco Piñón, a miner and owner of slaves, as well as a holder of a royal commission; Diego Hernández, a domestic servant; Juan Medina, miner; Juan Blanco, pirate; Iseo Rodríguez, a dark-skinned mulatto accused of practicing witchcraft; Cristina Hernández, a black accused of living as a concubine with a sexton in the city of Caparra in Leon; and Marina, a domestic worker and cook accused of hitting a white woman while washing clothes in the river.
This first branch of African culture on the island, of Afro-Andalusian origin, initiated the passage of music between the Caribbean and Europe and produced the first known global/trans-Atlantic musical genres: the zarabanda, the chacona, the guineo, the ye-ye and the zarambeque. By the end of the 16th century, a hundred years after the beginning of the occupation and settlement of Boriquén by the Iberians, a bishop, Dr. Francisco Naranjo, declined the offer of being named bishop of Puerto Rico because he was too old to occupy the position. To demonstrate that, he wrote in his letter that if he accepted the post he would have to dance the portorrico, but because of his age he could not dance. The candidate for bishop was referring to one of the first Afro-Caribbean dances that became popular in the first century of colonization: a dance created by blacks and named for its origin, the portorrico. These dances and music, which were adopted in Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the Caribbean, and in Andalusia, dominated the theater, religious festivals, civic celebrations and public and private merriment during the 16th and 17th centuries.
The presence of African slaves brought directly from the western region of the continent added a second branch to the Puerto Rican musical culture. These Africans, like their contemporaries, made melodic instruments as well as drums. During the 17th century, black Puerto Ricans were associated with playing the harp and other string instruments such as the lute and the guitar. The construction of these types of instruments by Afro-Puerto Ricans in the 18th and 19th centuries is documented, but historically their contribution in this area has not been recognized.
Between the 17th century and the beginning of the 19th century, the figures of Domingo Andino and José Campeche show the playing of music as the work of craftsmen. Andino, a silversmith by trade, played the organ at the San Juan Cathedral. Campeche was a painter, in addition to playing the oboe and the organ and teaching music. These Afro-Puerto Ricans are examples of the professional musicians and teachers who arose on the island and developed among themselves both deep professional and family ties. Domingo Andino was not only José Campeche’s organ teacher, but also his brother-in-law. An effort in 1749 to limit the participation of mulattos in the orchestra of the San Juan Cathedral points to the strong presence of Afro-Puerto Ricans in the ranks of professional musicians. The significance of this date is that it marks the death of a prominent Afro-Puerto Rican after a cruel persecution by the white aristocracy. During the second half of the 18th century, there was a hardening of attitudes toward Afro-Puerto Ricans.
During this same time period, descendents of Africans arrived on our shores as escapees and were able to live as free people. New numbers of African slaves also entered by various routes: through the landholders who were establishing themselves on the island, through new groups that were sold, and through smuggling. Over time, this mixed population of free blacks and slaves of various origins (Haiti, Curacao, St. Thomas, Jamaica, and others) established the basis for the dances and music seen at the civic-military celebrations of 1749 in San Juan and, less than a century later, in Ponce in 1831. Parades of masked characters wearing costumes of real or fictitious personalities [today called cabezotes or vejigantes], and the figures known as caballeros y locas, appeared on every occasion that was declared a festival, as well as the carnivals and the patron saint festivities. The festivities, in which the Afro-Puerto Rican expression dominated to different degrees of importance, during the 17th through 19th centuries, were Corpus Christi, San Juan, Día de Reyes and San Miguel. Both private and religious festivities were brightened by various arrangements of instruments, drums, guitars or other string instruments, and minor percussion instruments such as the güiro and maracas. From the report by Pierre Ledrú in 1795 to the descriptions of government festivals in 1831 and the narratives of Manuel Alonso in 1849, Afro-Puerto Rican music has been described as poly-instrumental. The beating drum is just one of the variations of Afro-Puerto Rican music.
The 19th century serves as the temporal framework for four processes that created the foundation of the Puerto Rico of the early 20th century. First was the arrival of black slaves from Haiti and Curacao. Second, after the independence struggles of the Spanish colonies in the Americas, Puerto Rico entered a period of social and political repression of Afro-Puerto Ricans, both free and slave. Third, the liberal ideology of the island-born or criollo whites was based on the idea that Puerto Rican nationality did not include blacks to the extent that they did not act like the Spanish settlers. Fourth was the process of the cultural and social whitening of the island.
During the second half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, we see various events: Alejandro O’Reilly prohibits the employment of blacks or free mulattos as musicians in the island’s regiments in 1765; and during the first years of the 1800s, police prohibited meetings of blacks to dance the bomba. Equally important were the expressions of the white island-born Puerto Ricans in 1831. On one hand, they praised the festivities of the black Puerto Ricans of the Ponce beach neighborhoods as well organized because they followed the municipal public order ordinances; but on the other hand, they criticized the festivities and celebrations by people descended from the Congo region, held in the second half of the 19th century in the public plazas of San Juan in honor of Saint Michael. Through the cruel repression of slave rebellions, we can track the development of the bomba in the slave barracks and the black neighborhoods of Puerto Rico.
It is the continual vigilance of the white island-born Puerto Ricans that allows us to trace the development of the danza as a musical meta-genre that broadens to include both popular and marginalized forms of expression — danzonetes aguarachados and Puerto Rican danzones – as the middle-class and upper-class forms of music without lyrics and ballroom dances. Professional musicians such as Julián Andino, Juan Ríos Ovalle, Juan Morel Campos, Adolfo Eraclio Ramos and Manuel Rodríguez Arreson belong to the contingent of mulattos and blacks who transformed the Puerto Rican contradanza into the Puerto Rican danza, which is musical art, a rhapsodic piano piece, a song without lyrics, an aristocratic ballroom dance and a middle-class piano piece. But the melodic contours and slow rhythms were not merely an example of the creativity of these Afro-Puerto Ricans in manipulating the European musical language, but also demonstrated their ability to reproduce refined and aristocratic forms of the courtly art of western Africa. The class differences expressed among black and mulatto craftsmen did not just reproduce the social customs of the Europeans, but also those that blacks of different social origins expressed in their kingdoms and nations of origin.
The 20th century, the century of new U.S. imperialism, tied Puerto Rico and its particular racial prejudice to the whirlwind of global capitalism. The occupation of Puerto Rico by the United States put in contact two opposite ways of treating racial differences. The corporate record companies turned the music of the Caribbean islands into merchandise. Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean musical genres expose the survival of African cultural practices inPuerto Rico and their connections within the trans-Atlantic African cultural diaspora. The Puerto Ricanguarachas, the seises, the valses, the bomba, and thedanzones and danzonetes began an ecumenical relationship with other Afro-Caribbean genres. Afro-Puerto Rican musicians such as Rafael Hernández, his brother, Jesús, Rafael I. Dúchense, Sixto Nieves Benítez, and other professional musicians, actively participated in the domestication of jazz and the Cuban, Spanish and Mexican musical genres that dominated the commercial music that was popular in urban centers such as New York, Paris, Havana, Mexico City and other metropolitan areas, as well as among the European and U.S. tourists that flowed to Havana and Veracruz.
The birth and development of the plena dominated the first forty years of the 20th century. This Afro-Puerto Rican genre was born and developed just at the time when Puerto Rican intellectuals were involved in a redefinition of Puerto Rican national identity. The danza had ceased to be the genre that captured the national imagination and the plena rose, precisely at a time when the cultural machinery of mass communications media had identified urban music and the tourism-drawing music of Cuba as the musical paradigm of the region. The plena captured the Puerto Rican popular imagination – port workers and residents of poor neighborhoods, mostly – and also the tourism entertainment industry fell under its sway. Tourists danced versions of the plena to the big band orchestras of César Concepción and Rafael Berríos.
The problematic Puerto Rican attitude toward the contributions of Afro-Puerto Ricans to the musical culture of the island is seen in the way in which that contribution is identified. The musical combo consisting of black Puerto Ricans Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera, with their new interpretation and re-articulation of the bomba and plena in commercial music, represent a controversial case of Afro-Puerto Rican expression, of what it means to be black and Puerto Rican. Both processes can be seen in the birth and development of salsa in New York City. On one hand, there was no difficulty in recognizing it as an offshoot of the urban and Afro-Cuban tourism genres developed by Puerto Ricans, but it was less readily recognized as an Afro-Puerto Rican genre that was the fruit of the processes of globalization of local practices, as was the origin of the Afro-Cuban genres half a century earlier.
Salsa, rock, the bolero and the ballad show how complex the relationship is between music and the racial imagination in Puerto Rican identity during the second half of the 20th century. Afro-American genres such as rock, rhythm and blues, and rap are adopted with ambivalence. The Puerto Rican diaspora to the United States, which participated in the creation of the hip hop culture, processes these genres born of the African diaspora, makes them their own, and injects them into the current of island creativity. This mix of musical cosmopolitanism and globalization among Puerto Ricans of all social classes since the 1960s is responsible for the Afro-Puerto Rican creations of the late 20thcentury, such as the rumba (played by youths in the streets of Loiza), reggaetón, and Puerto Rican rock. The role of Puerto Ricans in jazz worldwide, which dates to 1900, reaffirms the survival of the Afro-Puerto Rican musical creativity on the world stage.
The death of Rafael Cepeda closed the era in Puerto Rico in which its plenas by Manuel “Canario” Jiménez and those created and performed by Mon Rivera were an existential part of life. This music’s avatar lies in the provocative and moving interpretations of a new generation of Afro-Puerto Ricans such as Vico C, Tego Calderón, Daddy Yankee, Calle 13, etc. Along with young Afro-Puerto Ricans in New York, they are retaking Afro-Puerto Rican music from hip hop and reverting it to the Afro-Puerto Rican music of the bomba. These are the bases of the African influence in Puerto Rican music in the 21st century.
Author: Dr. Noel Allende-Goit
Published: September 11, 2014.
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