Music has played a historically crucial role as a means of cultural expression in Puerto Rico. The musical activity that has evolved on the island over the course of five centuries reflects a great diversity of genres ranging from folkloric to classical music, as well as completely new forms. Puerto Rican music and musicians have thus been a pivotal factor in forging and enriching concepts of identity.

The Earliest Developments in Music

The areito was the highest form of artistic expression for the indigenous peoples who lived on the island, combining narrative, dance, ritual and musical traditions. By the late 15th century, the Taino culture had developed various musical instruments that were used to accompany religious ceremonies, as well as for daily enjoyment. Some of the instruments used in the areito, such as the güiro (an instrument made from a hollowed gourd that is played using a scraper), and the maracas (an instrument made from the hollowed gourd of the higüero or calabash tree, which is filled with pebbles or dried seeds and used for rhythmic accompaniment), are still vital parts of Puerto Rico’s musical tradition. Beyond the use of indigenous instruments, it is still uncertain whether Puerto Rican folkloric music preserves any linguistic or musical elements originally borrowed from Taino sources. It is speculated, however, that the way in which the nasal cavity is used as a sound box in certain song forms that developed in the island’s mountainous interior did originate among the Taino.

Upon their arrival, the colonizing Spaniards triggered a chain of events that transformed music in Puerto Rico. Both the Catholic church and the Spanish Armada served as agents of change: Catholicism introduced musical instruments and formal instruction, while the armed forces established small military bands. During the first years of the 16th century, the island’s music was strongly influenced by the Spanish occupation and included a variety of instruments originating from Europe such as the drum, the harp, the hen bell, the vihuela (Spanish guitar) and the clavichord, among others. The most interesting fact regarding religious ceremonies is that during the 1670s an organist and a choirmaster formed an integral part of the services offered in San Juan’s cathedral.

Africa’s Contribution

The establishment of slavery in Puerto Rico brought forth the contribution of Africans and their descendants. Beginning in 1511, King Ferdinand of Spain authorized the mass trade of African slaves to the island. The slaves who arrived on our shores preserved a strong bond with ancestral traditions and beliefs, which were woven into their dances and music. African cultures that formed part of the racial and cultural development of the island were the Ashanti and Fante of Ghana, the Carabali of the southern banks of the Niger River, the Congos of equatorial Africa, as well as the Yorubas and Mendes of western Africa, who arrived from the late 18th century until the mid-19th century.

Africans cultivated their traditions and dances in various seaside settlements that later became municipalities, such as Loíza, Guayama, Ponce and Cataño. African musical heritage has been preserved as an oral tradition in instruments that continue to be used to this day; in the way these instruments are played; and in certain songs, rhythms and dances.

The 18th Century

In 1765, the island’s music was greatly influenced by the arrival of a group of musicians with a Spanish military regiment. These musical groups performed in public concerts and in official, religious and social events, as well as in the traditional recitals in the center of the plaza. Such activities created a favorable environment for the island’s musical development.

By the late 18th century, popular music had evolved through a convergence of ecclesiastic, urban and rural forms, which emerged outside the confines of the city of San Juan. During the 18th and 19thcenturies, Puerto Rican society began to absorb various cultural currents that were primarily imported from Europe. Certain social classes of Puerto Rico embraced French such dances as the minuet, rigaudon and contradanza (contredanse). However, there was little fertile soil at this time for the sustained growth of classical music.

This period also witnessed the rise of José Campeche, the island’s first great painter as well as one of its first great musical maestros. Campeche was educated at the Dominican monastery in San Juan, where he learned to play the organ, oboe and flute.

Juan Morel Campos and his orchestra La Lira Ponceña (1875)

Juan Morel Campos and his orchestra La Lira Ponceña (1875)

The meshing of various cultural traditions was also marked by the fusion of instruments, rhythms, and melodies. By the beginning of the 19th century, rural music was already centered on a core set of instruments: the tiple, the cuatro, the guitar, and the bordonúa (deep bass guitar). During this period, blacks and mixed-race professional musicians also began to perform in more formal venues.

Dances in Puerto Rico, as described by Manuel Alonso in his book, El Gíbaro (1845), were categorized as either society dances or garabato dances (forms that evolved at popular gatherings). Society dances were reserved for the upper classes, and the dominant music involved creolized versions of the contradanza (contredanse), vals (waltz), gallop, polka, mazurka (mazourka), britano, rigadon, and cotillion. People from the middle and lower classes would flock to garabato dances, which combined European and local forms, as displayed in the fandanguillo, the sonduro, and the popular seis. The grand chain dances that are derived from the Andalusian seguidillas were another favorite European-derived popular dance form. The rural poor also cultivated the vals, polka, and mazurka.

In the 1820s, a large number of touring performers began to arrive in Puerto Rico. Opera and zarzuelacompanies from Madrid offered the latest “hits” from Spanish musical theater. A cultural milestone was achieved in 1823, when a group of musicians and enthusiasts founded the Philharmonic Society. Reorganized in 1845 under Alejandro Tapia y Rivera (1826-1882), this society showcased some of the island’s greatest musical talent of the time.

In 1832, the San Juan Municipal Theater (the present-day Tapia Theater) was founded. The theater immediately began playing a decisive role in fomenting classical music. Interestingly enough, the opera Lucia di Lammermoor, by Gaetano Donizetti, debuted in Puerto Rico on September 29, 1842, after enjoying a successful one-year run in New York. On December 14, 1857, the first zarzuela company arrived on the island, debuting at the municipal theater with the work El Estreno de un Artista. Concert orchestras began to emerge from the 1850s onward. There is also evidence that the virtuoso composer and pianist Louis Maurice Gottschalk (1829-1869), who visited the island in 1857, was able to assemble an orchestra for one of his extravagant concerts merely from the expanding pool of local talent.

Church music also started to show signs of change. By the end of 19th century, the standard instrumentation used at the Cathedral of San Juan included three violins, a cello, a double bass, a flute, two clarinets, two French horns, and two singers (a tenor and a baritone). The repertoire that was heard in the cathedral was mostly written by European composers such as Mercadante, Eslava, and Solís, complemented by the works of other minor luminaries.

The Puerto Rican Danza

In the 1840’s, what would come to be considered the island’s own national musical form, the danza, emerged in the southern city of Ponce. The danza is a musical mixture that incorporates European harmonic and melodic elements with African rhythms and Caribbean influences, from Cuba as well as from Venezuela. The greatest performers of Puerto Rican music during the 19th century, and also the most prolific danza composers, were Manuel Gregorio Tavárez (1843-1883), and Juan Morel Campos (1857-1896). The danza, which was originally written for popular gatherings and celebrations, later became suitable for the drawing rooms of high society. The main instrument for the danza is piano, an indispensable piece of furniture in the wealthier homes of the time. The instrumentation for the traditional danza included a combination of the following instruments: violins, bugle, clarinets, double bass, bombardino or bass trombone (featured in an obligatto in the section called the Trío), and the güiro for rhythmic support.

There were three time periods during which the “danza” reached its culmination; these were dominated by the composers Tavárez, Morel Campos and finally José Ignacio Quintón (1881-1925). These time periods are respectively referred to as the formative, mature and later periods. The danza has transcended time, and is now considered one of Puerto Rico’s highest forms of musical expression. It bears noting that Puerto Rico’s national anthem, “La Borinqueña,” is also a danza.

Musicians performing folk music

Musicians performing folk music

Throughout the centuries, Puerto Rico’s folk music has been enriched by Spanish, African and indigenous influences. This legacy of the island’s unique cultural and historic heritage has been preserved from generation to generation through oral traditions and later through scholarly research. Puerto Rico’s folk music is generally characterized by its joy and vibrancy, and by a range of themes that include love, daily life and religion. The folk genres that have the strongest associations for the common people are the seis, bailes de bomba, plena,coplas, guaracha, vals, mazurka, and polka. Villancicos (Christmas carols) and other forms of religious music, rondas infantiles (children’s songs) and aguinaldos are also very important. Puerto Rican folk music is distinguished by the use of local instruments known as the cuatro, the tiple, the bordonúa and the tres. The most representative instrument of the Puerto Rican musical heritage is the cuatro. The cuatro has transcended what is called “jíbaro” music (music of the rural poor of the island’s interior) by filtering into jazz and even classical forms. It is also possible to identify three other instruments that are fundamental to the rhythmic identity of this music, all of which belong to the percussion family: the bomba (a type of drum), the güiro, and the maracas.

According to Dr. Francisco López Cruz (1909-1988), a performer and researcher of traditional music, the seis is “the backbone of folk music.” It is a lively dance variety that is still performed with enthusiasm by the island’s jíbaros. The décima and the copla emerged from the center of the island but they are still predominantly influenced by Puerto Rico’s Spanish heritage. Since it is the foundation for the popular seis, the décima is considered to be particularly important.

The villancico (Christmas carol) is a form of popular music with pastoral themes generally centering around meditations or narratives on the birth of Christ. One of the most renowned and performed villancicos at Christmas concerts is Amaury Veray’s “El villancico yaucano” (1953), an homage to this ancient musical form and to the composer’s hometown of Yauco.

The aguinaldo is another form of Christmas music, but contrary to the villancico, its lyrics focus on secular themes. The parrandas or trullas, when people get together and visit families and friends late into the night for singing and merrymaking, are an important part of this Puerto Rican cultural expression, which takes place until the last weeks of January in a period called the “octavitas.” During the parrandas, these festive songs are at their most spontaneous. Lastly, there is another genre of songs called “rondas infantiles,” (children’s rounds), which are preserved in the collective memory and passed down orally. These typically Puerto Rican musical expressions originally evolved from previous European sources.

Religious songs are also a significant part of the island’s criollo tradition. The most important religious musical traditions include the chanting or singing of the rosary, the songs of the feasts of the Cross in May, and the baquiné or florón, during the wake of a departed child. The singing of the rosary is considered one of the earliest forms of criollo music. The tradition of the Rosario de la Cruz de Mayo originated in 1787. On May 2 of that year, an earthquake struck the island on the eve of the feast of the Holy Cross. Since the island was spared any major damage, the tradition evolved as a way of giving thanks to divine providence. The baquiné, or rosary to departed children, originally developed in Puerto Rico’s African settlements, eventually gaining popularity throughout the island. Seen as a community ritual, the baquiné celebrates the “arrival of a new angel in heaven.” This celebration features choral arrangements with solo interludes, as well as antiphonal sections marked by call and response, thus evoking rituals and traditions of both African and European Catholic origin.

The bomba, a dance form that is also part of Puerto Rico’s African heritage, is performed outdoors and is dominated by the two drums that give name to this dance, the burlador, a large drum, and the subidor, the smallest of these instruments. These drums revive old beliefs in terms of the influence that their sounds have upon people, creating a trance-like state among dancers and spectators. The burlador has a deep sound, while the subidor is higher in pitch. Among the oldest forms of bomba brought to the island by the Africans are the cocobalé and the yubá. Slaves from neighboring islands also brought other bomba forms, namely the gracimá, leró, cuembé, and sicá. The music is marked by continuously repeated short phrases, a pattern of call and response between chorus and soloist, with the rhythm serving as the main unifying element.

The plena originated in the poorest sections of the island, probably in urban centers of the south. Some researchers claim that the plena first emerged in the early 20th century in a neighborhood of the southern coastal city of Ponce. Some of the themes that give life to the plena include pledges and scorned love, as well as teachings and advice. The plena was also used for narrating significant events in the daily life of the people. Since the beginning, the plena was meant to be danced, and there are three different ways in which performers and musicians developed: (1) groups of musicians that play alone or in duets, (2) other groups of amateur pleneros, or plena musicians, that travel from venue to venue performing for gratuities, (3) and other more specialized groups hired as professional musicians.

Pleneros use two different percussion instruments in their compositions, which are referred to as either the “pandero” or the “plenera.” The largest drum (the segunda) sets the rhythmic foundation, while the smaller drum (the requinto) weaves in counterrhythms and ornamental motifs, which are colloquially termed “golpes” and “piquetes.” In recent years, plena groups have experimented by incorporating other elements, using the güiro, piano, electric bass, guitar, the “sinfonia” or local hand accordion, trumpet, flute, clarinet, and even the trombone.

Another music form, the guaracha, evolved in the 19th century as a fusion of African and Spanish dance elements. The guaracha originally used traditional rural instruments to which were added palillos (castanets), maracas, cow bells, claves (rhythm sticks) and bongos.

Reception for Rafael Hernández

Reception for Rafael Hernández

When the United States’ Army invaded in 1898, the songs and dances that were performed on the island were the product of local songwriters, adaptations of folklore, and any innovations almost always imported from Spain or Havana. The last remnants of Spanish military bands evolved into municipal bands, as is the case in Ponce, while others became a fixture of the school curriculum. An institution of musicians and music instructors arose from these bands, such as the renowned Peña-Plaza family of Humacao, which greatly contributed to the evolution of the island’s musical culture.

Tenor Antonio Paoli (1871-1946) was the first Puerto Rican artist to achieve international renown in classical music with his debut in the Paris Opera House in 1897 with Gioacchino Rossini’s William Tell. Among the musicians, the pianist and composer Manuel Gregorio Tavárez and his daughter, Elisa Tavárez (1879-1960), achieved considerable fame abroad. Elisa Tavárez was one of the first Puerto Rican musicians to create her own music rolls for player piano. During the early 19th century, a particular interest developed for the zarzuela, and both visiting and local companies gained popularity.
In the early 20th century, local musicians tried to adopt some of the American dance steps like the “one-step, two-step” and the “rag.” The arranger and performer Juan Tizol (1900-1984) who was part of the Dizzy Gillespie’s original orchestra, and the “Mingo y sus Whoopi Kids” orchestra, which also included the legendary contralto Ruth Fernandez (1919)—called by many “the soul of Puerto Rican song”—are the best examples of this new trend. During World War I, a new more tropical mode of the vals took hold, even though its acceptance was limited. The 1920s witnessed greater interest in American jazz and the Argentine tango. The great acceptance of this latter genre was confirmed by the huge welcome given to the immortal tango singer Carlos Gardel (1890-1935) when he arrived in Puerto Rico on June 2, 1935.

The new ruling class from the United States showed disdain for Puerto Rican folkloric forms. As a result of their cultural prejudices, many of Puerto Rico’s local musical genres, such as the seis and the plena, which had achieved a lukewarm following among the island’s upper classes, were banished from casinos as well as family venues. Subsequent efforts by José Enrique Pedreira (1904-1959), Elsa Rivera Salgado (1908-1998) and the director and founder (1954) of the Puerto Rico Philharmonic Orchestra, Arturo Somohano (1910-1977), fostered local genres through performances in upper class community functions, as well as academic events, not always with the desired outcome.

Some of the most important music-related activities that occurred during these decades include: The founding in 1925 of the Municipal Symphonic Orchestra by Manuel Tizol Márquez (1876-1940). This orchestra would remain active until 1935. In 1933, Dr. Bartolomé Bover established the “Masa Coral” (choir) at what was then the Puerto Rico Polytechnic Institute (now the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico) in the southwestern town of San Germán. In 1936, the Choir of the University of Puerto Rico would be organized under the direction of Maestro Augusto Rodríguez (1903-1993), who continued to hold this honor until 1970. By mid-20th century, the Coro Luterano Sión (Zion Lutheran choir) would emerge in the city of Bayamón, on the outskirts of San Juan. This choir, which was founded by Dr. Angel M. Mattos (1918), would later be known as the Bayamón Choir (1950-1980). It featured the talented pianist Lidia Morales.

During the Great Depression, the Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical de Puerto Rico (Pro-Arte Musica Society of Puerto Rico) was launched on July 16, 1932, with a concert held at the auditorium of Central High School in Santurce. The society was headed by the renowned family of scholars and performers, the Figueroa-Sanabias, the children of Jesús Figueroa Iriarte (1878-1971)—founder of the first symphony orchestra of Puerto Rico (1926)—and Carmen Sanabia von Ellinger (1881-1954). From this point onward, the name Figueroa would become associated with Puerto Rican as well as international cultural endeavors. The Quinteto de los Hermanos Figueroa (1945), which was composed of José (1905-1998) and Kachiro (1910-2003) on violins, Guillermo (1916-2001) on viola, Rafael (1917) on cello, and Narciso (1906-2004) on piano, went on to become the “official quintet of Puerto Rico” in 1968, a world-class outfit that would perform across the globe.

Other major stars of 20th-century Puerto Rican music scene include pianist Jesús María Sanromá (1902-1983), who achieved international fame as a soloist. Sanromá served as official pianist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra for twenty years, working under such immortal directors as Serge Koussevitsky and Arthur Fiedler. In 1943, he left this prestigious organization when he signed a recording contract with Columbia Artists, which led him to tour the United States, Canada, as well as other parts of the Americas. After collaborating on projects in San Juan between 1932 and 1934 with Augusto Rodríguez, Sanromá eventually returned to the island, where he would be instrumental in founding the Music Conservatory in 1960. Sanromá continued to teach piano at this institution until the time of his death.

In the 1930s, live performances by traditional music groups began to decline in popularity. Nevertheless, according to various media historians, such as José Luís Torregrosa (1916-2001) and Gilbert Mamery (1927-2003), these groups gained greater acceptance with the rise in popularity of radio programming. Musicians such as Ladislao Martínez Otero (“Maestro Ladí, “1898-1979) and Felipe Rosario Goyco (“Don Felo,” 1890-1954) were responsible for broadening the audience base for the traditional string and vocal duet, with a wide-ranging repertoire that featured danzas, mazurkas, valses, boleros and ballads. Along with “Ladí” and “Don Felo,” another talented performer of ballads, Plácido Acevedo (1904-1974), also achieved great recognition.

The 1930s witnessed the initial emigration to the United States of many popular musicians and composers, either due to the extreme economic hardship Puerto Rico was suffering at the time, or to broaden their artistic horizons. Among the great luminaries of this group were the “National Singer of Puerto Rico” (1970) Pedro Ortiz Dávila (“Davilita,” 1912-1986). Others, like the agronomist, attorney and composer Gilberto “Gil” Martorell, preferred to stay on the island, forming groups that evidenced a range of talents in composing, directing, virtuosic musical arrangement, and sometimes showcasing world-class performing artists. These groups attracted a devoted following, with fans often tagging along as they toured from town to town (despite the difficult transportation conditions of the time), playing at public events, as well as on local radio programs.

Various Puerto Rican ensembles that went on to achieve fame were formed in New York in the 1930s and 1940, such as Plácido Acevedo’s Cuarteto Mayarí, the Cuarteto Victoria, and the Sexteto Flores. Two of the greatest figures in 20th-century Puerto Rican music would emerge from this pool of talent: Rafael Hernández (1892-1965) and Pedro Flores (1894-1979). Their importance was based on attractive compositions with great popular appeal, featuring lyrics that deftly captured the hopes, joys and sadness of the Puerto Rican people.

In Puerto Rico, the 1940s also saw the promulgation of a law establishing the island’s first public music schools in San Juan, Ponce and Mayagüez. Talented dance hall orchestras also began to appear, some imitating the “big band” phenomenon that had swept the United States. An important example was the Escambrón Beach Club orchestra, the initial venue for the meteoric rise of vocalist José Luis Moneró (1921). The band was directed by Rafael Muñoz (1900-1961) and Ramón “Moncho” Usera (1904-1972). Some of the major popular composers of the time were Noel Estrada (1918-1979)—composer of the immortal melody “En mi viejo San Juan”—as well as Roberto Cole (1915-1983) and Sylvia Rexach (1922-1961). Other multi-talented composers and performers include Felipe “La Voz” Rodríguez (1926-1999), Daniel Santos (1916-1992), Myrta Silva (1927-1987), Manuel Rodríguez “Bobby” Capó (1922-1989) and Puchi Balseiro. Balseiro is credited with creating an interpretative style referred to locally as “feeling.”

Popular composers such as Tito Henríquez (1920-1992) and Angel “Lito” Peña (1921-2002), provided a link between traditional songwriting and the new styles and genres that took hold mid-century. Henríquez’s compositions reflect the urban influences of radio, theater, and television, while also nurturing more traditional roots.

Ismael `Maelo` Rivera (1931-1987), also known as `El Sonero Mayor` (premiere improviser)

Ismael `Maelo` Rivera (1931-1987), also known as `El Sonero Mayor` (premiere improviser)

Social and economic conditions began to improve in Puerto Rico in the 1950s, as did the island’s cultural offerings. Certain key events greatly helped in fostering and developing Puerto Rican music. The first government radio station, WIPR, was launched in 1949. In 1955 the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture was created. That same year, WIPR expanded its facilities, offering educational programming on both radio and television. The Ballets de San Juan dance company also appeared on the scene in 1954.

A different sort of musical event occurred in 1956, with the arrival of Catalan musician and composer Pablo Casals, triggering an immediate response from the island’s cultural circles. On April 22, 1957, the Puerto Rico Casals Festival was created, which brought in a variety of international artists, vastly enriching the island’s classical music scene. Casals also spearheaded efforts to create a symphony orchestra (1957-58) and the Puerto Rico Music Conservatory (1959). These institutions, along with the San Juan Children’s Choir, founded in 1967, would serve as the island’s musical ambassadors.

In the 1950s and 1960s, various contemporary musicians began to apply their talents to symphonic repertories. These include the famed photographer Jack Delano (of Ukrainian-American origin), Héctor Campos Parsi, Amaury Veray, Luis Antonio Ramírez and Rafael Aponte-Ledeé. The American Francis Schwartz has also been very active as a composer since the mid-1970s, creating experimental works that are referred to as polyartistic. Classical music has continued to grow in popularity over the past thirty years. Some of the most distinguished Puerto Rican composers to emerge on the international scene during this time include Roberto Sierra and Esther Alejandro.

Popular music has also enjoyed tremendous growth and development since the 1960s, with such composers as Francisco “Paquito” Fonfrías, Tite Curet Alonso and Guillermo Venegas Lluberas. By the mid-1940s, Latin-based bands and orchestras were taking New York by storm. One of the most pivotal figures to emerge from this movement, which eventually would become salsa, was Tito Puente, who introduced new orchestrations based on modern jazz elements. By the late 1950s, salsa had invaded the dance halls, ballrooms and clubs of New York. Although salsa was in fact born in New York, it was almost entirely performed and created by first-generation Puerto Ricans who were attempting to connect with their cultural roots through music. Rafael Cortijo, the pioneer of salsa in Puerto Rico, incorporated traditional forms such as the bomba and plena. Later on, Cuban rhythms would also be fused with the tremendously popular salsa. These included the charanga, pachanga, bugalú (boogaloo) and guaguancó. The greatest salsa bands, however, have traditionally been based in New York: Ray Barreto, Tito Puente, and Eddie Palmieri. The most important groups in Puerto Rico include the Apollo Sound, Sonora Ponceña and El Gran Combo.

Other genres, from a range of international sources, have also had a tremendous impact on Puerto Rican music. Over the past decades, nueva trova, rock, ballads, bolero, and merengue have all found local adaptations and a strong base of fans. Some of the more recent trends among young performers have included experimentations with such genres as rap. Reggaetón, a form that developed over the past few years in Puerto Rico, has become popular throughout the world.

Puerto Rican music continues to have a tremendous influence, with many world-renowned performers and composers. Educational programs and institutions have also evolved, providing support and direction for new generations of musicians.

Author: Dr. Gary Morales
Published: September 04, 2014.

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