Music and musical practices on the island of Puerto Rico developed from the complex, dynamic and uneven social processes that resulted from demographic diversity.

At the time of the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, the musical practices of the various chiefdoms on the island were related to the cycles of agriculture and life. In the era of Juan Ponce de León, the word areito was used to refer to the wide variety of Taino celebrations related to music and dance. After the first decade of the 16th century, the term was used to refer to any activity of this type, regardless of whether it was related to life cycles or their view of the world.

The various Puerto Rican rhythms are mainly the result of African and European influences. Their presence in the music is due to two complementary factors. Through Spanish colonization, European rhythms were introduced to the island, both ecclesiastical and popular celebratory. Both the songs of the priests in the masses and in worship and the sounds of drums and guitars in popular songs were heard.

The second influence arrived through the trafficking in slaves, brought to Puerto Rico from the coasts of western Africa. The Africans’ contributions to both religious and popular musical forms became part of the island’s general culture. The existence of African or African-descended music and dance became a part of society.

Artists of mixed race, such as Domingo Andino and José Campeche, represented an artistic class that took responsibility for the professionalization of local musicians during the 19th century. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Puerto Rican society went through a long process of creating and developing its own musical genres. Genres such as the contradanza, the danza, the waltz, the polka, the mazurka, local songs and the urban serenades of romances underwent an authentically Puerto Rican development by singers and musicians ranging from formally trained professionals such as Manuel Gregorio Tavárez and Juan Morel Campos to local neighborhood musicians with their guitars, who formed duos and trios to sing island songs. Popular music, such as the aguinaldos, the seises, thecadenas, the caballo and the sandurro, developed on dual routes as urban and rural music, and sometimes as mixed forms of rural music.

Over the last hundred years, Puerto Rican music has been dominated by the parallel development of several forms. On one hand is the professional musician, with formal training in music, who distances himself from those who prefer European and American traditions of concert music. On the other hand is the development of popular traditional music, tied to orchestras and dance halls.

The musical tradition that runs from Arístides Chavier Arévalo and Amaury Veray to our times with Roberto Sierra is long and rich and has its own history of uneven development and unusual support from the government since 1952 [the creation of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra and the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music are significant].

In popular music, there are prolific musicians such as Rafael Hernández Marín and Pedro Rivera Toledo, along with formally educated, technically proficient musicians such as Tomás “Maso” Rivera, Víctor Guillermo “Yomo” Toro Vega and William Colón Zayas. The local music form called the plena (which transformed and enriched the Latin American bolero), salsa, local rock ‘n’ roll (from the nueva ola to Fiel a la Vega), nueva canción, Puerto Rican rap and reguetón are examples of the radical changes that have occurred in the process of the birth and development of musical forms.

Changes in political organization and global relationships and the emergence of new media for generating and storing sound have brought about new ways of creating music. Increased migration and immigration point toward the continuation of a process of local adaptation of musical forms and cross-pollination that create new Puerto Rican music.

Author: Dr. Noel Allende Goitía
Published: February 21, 2012.

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