What is the common denominator among Puerto Ricans?

What is the common denominator among Puerto Ricans?

The culture of the Three Kings:
A national culture of inclusiveness and democracy

Puerto Rican culture has always been characterized by a certain kind of dynamism and creativity where, not free from contradictions and internal conflicts, inclusion has taken priority over exclusion. As a result of this inclusive characteristic in its cultural dynamic, particularly in its most prominent artistic expressions, music and dance, Puerto Rico could serve as an enlightening example in a world of growing interrelation and communication, ironically complicated by regrettable and limiting fundamentalisms.

Being a conformist Caribbean society, due to the unequal encounter of diverse cultures, Puerto Rico endured a colonial process which consisted of radical elements of ethnocide (or cultural genocide) since it was discovered. Very soon, this process was economically cemented into an exploitation system based on the slave trade (which undervalued the cultural roots of a considerable segment of its population, ideologically “segregated”) and alternative cultural practices began to develop at the popular level on the island, away from the institutional channels of colonialism.

A space for exchange and coexistence was created at the edge of Western expansion. Puerto Rican society shaped some cultural practices that value resistance over imposition, an ingenious capability to adapt due to changing (and usually forced) powerful and adverse conditions, respect for and wealth of diversity, and consensus of unity vis-à-vis that heterogeneity. These values have been carved by artisans symbolically in the shape of The Three Kings – our most carved saints, even though the church does not consider them saints. Saints only in the plural form; nomads of different origins, different looks (ethnic features that were “racially” identified) and with different gifts (offerings to Baby Jesus); immigrants united by the adoration of the Baby Jesus; in other words, by the hope of a better, shared future. Puerto Rican culture canonized the Magi Saints with populist fervor in its lexicon and arts: The Three Saint Kings, led by Melchor, the king of wisdom, whom we differentiate with white hair, which contrary to Europe and the Church, is in the Caribbean the Black King, segregated ethnicity undervalued by colonialism.

Puerto Rican music is a rich and grand expression of this inclusive, dynamically creative culture. Opposing a colonial domination that expected to impose its music and dance on our values, we developed our own musical language, combining the diverse cultural roots of our multi-ethnic origins and the living experiences that come with history, into its endogenous processes as well as its impositions, influences, and external lessons. This musical language lies beneath the various forms of sound expressions that, as a complex society, coexist in present-day Puerto Rico. At the same time, it allows (and I highlight Allows, because it is not about an automatic process without the mediation of a political will) those heterogeneous forms to communicate with and feed each other. Let us study some of the elements of that shared “language”.

Western scales on African claves

The musical language that we Puerto Ricans share could be considered, metaphorically speaking, a dialect of the mulatto musics* of America (*NOTE: though the plural of music is “music, musics is a plural form used today to denote music of different cultures). These musics basically represent “western” sounds in their melodic and harmonic expressions. They build up, as “western” music does, over a universe of twelve sounds organized on a Septatonic scale, combining the masculine (associated with the sun) and feminine (associated with the moon) aspects of the organization of time. The organization of those twelve sounds in 7-note scales, and its main harmonic combinations (the dominant or “the perfect 5th”, four chords over the tonic and three chords ascending, and the subdominant, “the perfect 4th”, an inversion of the perfect 5th), express the principal importance of the man-woman relationship in the tonal alphabet of “western” music.

But, different from the temporary linear succession of musical tones by which “western” melodies and harmonies are organized – that is to say, its predominant scale of 3/4 and 4/4 (addends of 7 and multiples of 12) formed by the combination of equal units with a regularly recurrent accent on the first beat of each group, as defined by the Harvard Dictionary of Music -, the “mulatto” musics of America adopted the rhythmic meter from its other constituent tradition: the African. This system is created by patterns of units– beats or silences- of diverse temporal dimensions, where the beats are not necessarily found at the beginning of the pattern, since they are scattered according to the different types of tempo combinations. The simple triple beat 3-2, which defines the metric of most of Puerto Rican music, and is part of our musical language, is represented as follows:

This meter, in different tempos, is rhythmically present in some of the most classic “danzas” and romantic ballads, as well as in the most raucous “guaracha“, festive “plena”, melancholic “seis mapeyé” and in the majority of the polyrhythmic combinations of “salsa”. Another example of a rhythmic meter, among the numerous variations, and which analysis and transcriptions I owe to
my colleague, ethnomusicologist Luis Manuel Alvarez, is the 2-3 meter  

used in the Puerto Rican “bomba holandé” – from our Afro-Curacao’s heritage-, in the guaguancó habanero and matancero, and in most of the music of Cuban-Santeria.

Contrary to the western linear tempo, meters organize the temporal development of melodies, or its harmonic progressions, into a heterogeneous concept of time: not in the flow structure of a wave pattern, but based on units composed of a variety of pulses, expressing the multiplicity of temporal intersections. This syncopated concept of time, inherited in Puerto Rico (as in other places in America) from African music, better represents the historical everyday reality lived by societies in the “New World”. Two of the most important cultural Latin American movements in which Puerto Ricans participated in, the Latin American literary Boom and its signature style known as magical realism and the most outstanding sociology of dependence, are evidence of the simultaneousness of historical times.

Rhythm, dance and percussion

All musical styles have rhythm, but in some languages of sound, the production of rhythm plays a more important role. During Bela Bartók’s research on Eastern European folk music, he would separate the original sound expression by incorporating words (singing) and body language / movement (dance) as the central instrument of expression . If dance is, among other things, a way of physically expressing the relation between time and space, to the extent that it manifests through chains of movements where expressive figures or configurations are produced (not a mere multiplication of immediate, isolated corporal reactions to specific sounds), then it requires interrelations. In fact, we’re talking about interrelations closely attached to the successive and diachronic dimensions of time in music- that is to say, the rhythm- instead of to the synchronic dimension of scales and melodic expression. Specifically, music styles in which the rhythmic element plays a primary role, evident in Puerto Rican music, are generally those inseparable from its spatial danceable expression.

The multiplied continuity of life in time being one of the basic dimensions of the relationship between music genres, danceable erotism is inherently related to the rhythmic sound structure. On the other hand, tensions between the male – female relationship, representative of western scales (of its melodic-harmonic alphabet), are particularly expressed in the synchronicity of the romantic feeling. Songs are, then, more romantic, while dances between man and woman are rather erotic. Generally, “mulatto” music, both its songs and dances, unites both the romantic and erotic spheres of the genre, a complex combination that enriches our musical language.

Seeing that clave meter stimulates the production of rhythm, the African American musical heritage was not only present in the rhythmic variety that separated “mulatto” music from its “western” roots, but also in erotic dance pieces and the tones produced by percussion instruments (agents of rhythmic production par excellence). Drums were part of the three important cultural families in America; yet, while they were relegated to a supporting role or accompaniment in the European tradition (which emphasizes simple tempos organized in metric regularity), the African tradition considered them fundamental to its musical production. It is no surprise that in the vastness of America, places so far apart from each other like New Orleans, the Caribbean, Ecuador, Brazil and Paraguay, would denominate their traditional musics using words that are attached to the African heritage. These words are etimologically derived from terms used to denominate African drums (i.e. bámboula, tumba, bomba).

From Uruguay to the Caribbean, the traditional afrodescendent profane musics are, to a great extent, a communication ritual between drummers and dancers, in which a drum marks the basic rhythm or beat, and others create sundry variations of the basic rhythm using improvised beats; in the meantime, dancers collectively follow the beat and individually, or in couples, “communicate” with the drum that is improvising, as in the case of the “bomba” in Puerto Rico. The languages of the “mulatto” musics inherited its rhythmic and choreographic diversity and wealth from its African roots.

What is the common denominator among Puerto Ricans?

What is the common denominator among Puerto Ricans?

Unbalanced dialogues between melody, harmony and rhythm

As for the practice and structure of music production, the American “mulatto” cultures developed their own set of unique yet shared elements, distinctive from the traditional ones. The conflictive hybrid nature of its formative colonization and multiplicity of temporary crossings in their daily life and historical future, progressively shaped an unbalanced cultural constitution. This structure was strengthened by the polytheistic animist beliefs prevalent in many Afro American religious practices (mainly in Cuba, Haiti, Trinidad and Brazil), and a popular Catholicism in which, as is the case in Puerto Rico, diverse virgins and various saints are not venerated as mere intermediaries between God and parishioners but as cult figures to be worshipped – a peculiarity that relegates God the Father . Such sentimental anticentralist structures resulted in certain musical production practices, in which a unique voice was granted to the element of harmony, and especially, to the element of rhythm, due to the strength of its African musical heritage, in addition to the melody’s already present voice.

In other words, musical production was not conditioned, as in the “western” world, to a one-dimensional arrangement principle: the melody. Rather, communicative practices were established among the diverse sound elements. On questioning the centralized pretension, the unbalanced dialogue between melody, harmony, and rhythm represented- opposite the systemic universe, as an integrated group of reciprocal relations that could be repeated infinitely- an exploration of the complexities between the state of being and transformation; which brings us to the importance of the seductive characteristic of dance, as suggestive invitation without a fixed ending in our musical expression.

Previously, I mentioned how the “mulatto” musics were basically “western”, melodically and harmonically speaking. But if they were formed with the same units of tones and semitones, with the same alphabet of musical tones, why describe them as basically “western”? When units of said alphabet are combined in phrases and musical themes, the “mulatto” musics often turn to blue note, a characteristic found in jazz. This characteristic creates a certain type of harmony (of toned down sevenths) and melodic structure around it that produces the sensation of an incloncusive expression, which permanently “invites” consecutive chords. The sensation of harmonic chains, which could continue without end, strenghtens the off-centered characteristics of these musics; prevents the force from reaching a full close in the tonic, opening itself to the indefinition of the closing’s moment.

Another way in which these musics melodically emphasize its unbalanced character is by the frequent use of the slide movement; that is to say, slipping like a fish between notes (ascending and descending) in all possible scales of tones, and allowing them to play with what in “western” music would be considered semantic imprecision.

Conversation between musicians

The traditional music of Afro-descendants in Latin America is shaped around what ethnomusicology calls open sound events. During these events, as in the remembering ritual, various players initiate an improvised musical exchange of unpredictable duration, similar to the traditional “bomba” in Puerto Rico. Its development depends on the intensity of the interaction. The “mulatto” music integrates the vibrancy of this traditional spontaneity to the dramatic intensity of the composition, applying musical practices that combine “open” sounds with traditional forms. Let us examine some examples of these shared “mulatto” practices.

As in “western” music, composition is part of our musical languages, but it is not intended for the composer to determine everything. The practice of composition is based on the recognition of the presence of other performers and, intrinsically linked to the former, on a vision of the music, not only as an individual expression but also as multidirectional communication. The “mulatto” composition encourages active participation between musicians and singers who are allowed to integrate different spins and phrases to manifest their skill and the individuality of their own unique styles. The rehearsed understanding of the score is broken when faced with the revelation of spontaneous embellishment and improvisation. But these musics not only allow for improvised embellishment. Combining open and traditional forms, they include specific segments that are dedicated to the talent manifestation of the different musicians (soloists) of the ensemble; in jazz this is known as jam sessions and in Puerto Rican music as discharges (descargas) and vocal improvisations (soneos), at an instrumental and vocal level, respectively.

In these types of practices, improvisation is like a conversation between musicians- a communication phenomenon, since soneos are produced over the foundation of what the composer wanted to express and the discharges (descargas) between choruses. Also, improvisation of other instrumentalists is combined into the session, generating a chain of improvisations that triggers a dialogue between all musicians, not only with the composer. These spontaneous creations are not individual manifestations, but expressions of individuality in a group. Therefore, composition is not an individual effort. It is a collaborative practice, an interactive relation that expresses reciprocity; in this case, individuality is not about what’s looked for or received, but what is offered. The collective does not absorb individuality, and only makes sense in its context.

A dialogue with the drum (Esa pareja está pidiendo piquete)

The communication resulting in “mulatto” music does not only occur among those who produce music (for example, composers, singers and musicians) but also between them and their recipients, who use or consume it. Manifesting a different kind of sociability, the audience of “mulatto” music- contrary to classic “western” traditions – is hardly ever passive. It constantly communicates with the musician in various ways, but most of all, through dancing (as a result of its African heritage). A famous bongo player called Maniní once said the following to me at a dance: This couple wants the beat of the drum (Esa pareja está pidiendo piquete). They requested it without saying a word, only with the movement of the body.

This kind of communication with the audience (frequently corporal) is very important for the spontaneous development of improvisation, since musicians respond to the vibrations surrounding what they are playing and singing. In this sense, there’s a categorical division between producers and “consumers” in the production of music. This practice also shatters the concept of composition as a predetermined universe, infinitely reproduced through the score, in view of the continuous integration of the element of surprise. Being able to combine the knowledge of traditional sequences with unexpected innovative creativity is one of the most valuable attributes musicians and dancers possess in these sound-body events of shared communication.

Musical participatory democracy

One last practice of shared musical production between the “mulatto” musics in America and their language is found in the importance they give to the heterogeneity of the tones; that is to say, to breaking the hierarchy between the different sound agents.

The “mulatto” musics take advantage of the polivocal tradition and the wealth of music instruments developed by “western” music, but break the hierarchy established by it. The concept that some instruments were protagonists and others played a secondary role began to change. Instead, they developed a set of sounds based on the integrated muliplication of off-center tones, generating a unique voice for each one. The direction of these sets, in contrast to the concertino tradition of “western” music (where the first violins lead the orchestra), could be performed with a leading bass, trombone, percussion, piano or voice. Therefore, in the virtuoso-like production of musical discharges, one can incorporate historically melodic instruments respected by modern “western” tradition, such as the violin or piano, as well as underestimated instruments such as the bass, cuatro, and percussion instruments outside the tonal universe.

The valuation given by the mulatto musics to the heterogeneity of their tones involves fundamental implications regarding the concept of sociability: it reinforces the utopia of what is communal and of a social democracy that respects diversity.

In light of the powerful, increasingly more Euro-centered view of music, dancing represents the possibility of a different kind of human relationship. Actually, the body language between two beings, following the anti-order order of syncopated rhythms, its spatial manifestation of heterogeneous tempos, is testament that body and culture are not opposites but, on the contrary, intrinsically intertwined “spaces”. From this space materializes the utopian seduction of dance in our musical language.

Historical crusade in the composition of a shared musical language

The conformation of a shared musical language has entailed numerous struggles, negotiations, condescension, and arduous consensus in the history of Puerto Rico. During the creation of our civil society, around the mid-19th century, spokespeople from the leading social classes, considering themselves to be at the forefront of the civil struggles for the nation’s institution, tried applying excluding definitions of what our music represented. This phenomenon occurs when a culture that has been evolving for centuries starts to question the need to shape its own institutional frame, to channel its future – a future valued as peculiar and shared, through ideological battles (and it is convenient to remember that, in Puerto Rico, pro-independence, pro-autonomy, assimilist tactics were employed in said battles).

In 1849, El Gíbaro by Manuel Alonso, the first literary work emphasizing the Puerto Rican national character and customs and considered a “classic” in Puerto Rican literature , divided “our” irreverent music in two types: society balls that were, as written by author, “a copycat of European balls”; and the garabato balls (garabato, which literally means scrawl, dance refers to a dance that included different types of dances) and its folk music, which he identifies as local , mentioning in passing a third type:

African and Afro-Caribbean dances that do not deserve to be included in this local stage, because even though they’re seen in Puerto Rico, never have they been universalized. 

In other words, the ostracized bomba dances are not accepted as part of Puerto Rico’s traditions, in what the book conceived to be as the country during the mid-19th century.

However, subsequent ethnomusicology studies of a more rigorous nature (carried out by Luis Manuel Alvarez and yours truly ) clearly demonstrate that the bomba rhythms were already so important and universalized that they were present, camouflaged by its “melodization” through the Hispanic-folk tone of the cuatro, in many of the garabato folk music dances.

Moreover, during Alonso’s time, there was a ballroom dance in the making that was not “a copycat of Europe’s.” It was a type of music and dance that was initially called contradanza del país ( a “danza” variant) or merengue, which was later known simply as danza, and clearly went to the bomba rhythm. As shown in Amaury Veray’s pioneer works,

(between 1840 and 1850),…the contradanza started to gain local recognition and manifest the Puerto Rican character. The guitar accompaniment will soon be enriched with the puntilleo and semicorchea, which is the first glimpse of the rhythmic pattern of the future tresillo (a type of standard syncope).

But the populist qualities typical of those first danzas, such as La Sapa (1848), Siña María la colorá, Menéndez boca é covachaEl Merengazo, El macetazoRabo’e puerco, and ¡Ay, que no quiero comer mondongo!, among others, which incorporated numerous sounds (rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic) of folk and “bomba” music – a music language in the making – into a formal European style, led many to reject their evident Puerto Rican character. According to a Ponce journal published in 1854:

Call it contradanza, merengue, upa or whatever you want to call it, there’s no other danza as gracious and chaste as the one at hand. Angry I get, oh Lord, when I hear experts talk of the need to dismiss this or that tradition because it does not match the ways and customs of educated Europe and as such, these experts would like to demote the place where the contradanza del país was born, simply because someone insists on calling it merengue…

As a result of Luis Manuel Alvarez’s research, one of the first danzas – originally titled La almojábana, which was later changed to La Borinqueña (1868) and is now our official national anthem since 1952 and more traditionally since The Cry of Lares (El Grito de Lares) – starts offs its merengue (its dancing music) and lyrics with a phrase that transfers one of bomba’s rhythms at a melodic level. The ethnomusicologist and folklorist Emmanuel Dufrasne says:

…the beat of the two sticks (“cuás”) that corresponds to the “bomba” rhythm known as “guembé” is identical to the “bombardino” (close relative of the tuba) section of “La Borinqueña”. 

Even as the “bomba” composes part of the national anthem, many, highlighting its African heritage, continued to swear by the rulings of “El Gíbaro” and, in the same way as Alonso, were reluctant to include it as part of our music. It is no coincidence that being the “danza” one of our oldest music genres, it was not until the 1950’s that “bomba” recordings were produced for commercial purposes and introduced in radio and dance halls.

As seen in El Ponceño journal, five years after the publication of El Gíbaro, the “danza”, considered today classy and noble, had serious difficulties finding acceptance as a national tradition precisely because of the rhythmic characteristics it transferred from “bomba”. Alejandro Tapia, the most prominent Puerto Rican intellectual during the mid-19th century, openly suggested the “danza” be eliminated.

Some composers today still abuse … giving it an effiminate and distinctive rhythm so the African influence stands out. It should get rid of all that, as Tavárez did… and modify the way it is danced when played for the right people… since by stripping it of its sensuality, forever remains the poetry… a characteristic of the way we feel. 

As it still frecuently happens with new genres- such as the reggaeton and its doggystyle-like movement (known as perreo), one of the reasons to exclude the “danza” was the sensual way it was danced. In 1882, Luis Bonafoux, known mostly today as Betances’s first biographer, made Puerto Rican “society” tremble with the publication of the following description of the “danza” on a Madrilenian newspaper:

Wet and happy couples loose themselves with the the sensuality of satyrs to an orgasmic dance called “merengue”, named like that for its tasty flavor. And as I see in it the brazen and sensual mulatta… swinging the root of her hips with erotic movements, panting, sweaty, passionate, only thiking of pleasure and living for pleasure, to embark on this dance…nothing like this one…

Of course Tapia proposed “to modify the way the “danza” is danced” to the way it should be danced! Manuel de Elzaburu, founder and former president of the cultural authority Puerto Rican Athenaeum, also criticized the “danza” as music of the senses, as the damnation of our African heritage.

Oh Danza!… Be silent!!… How voluptuous you are…you were only born as a punishment! Slow punishment! And more punishment!…the more you softly invade our senses like the devil, to silence our dormant energy… 

Conservatices such as the colonial government of the time or members of the Unconditional Spanish Party like Carlos Peñaranda proposed the abolition and prohibition of the “danza” because of its “demoralizing sensuality”. Liberals such as Tapia intendend to “whiten” it. Similar concerns about what foreigners might say were unleashed by the relatively recent popularization of the “salsa” song “En un viejo motel” (In an old motel) by David Pabón, the 19th century liberal José Pablo Morales stated:

Either the reinvention of the “danza” occurs, that voluptuous “danza” of the country in a way that better fits our moral traditions,… or the foreginers that visit us from now on will have the right to suspect us and the habits that have infiltrated our behavior… 

As demonstrated at this juncture, music, especially dance music, has been a fiery battlefield regarding conflicting visions about what we consider, or would like to consider, “national”.

Fortunately, in our opinion, this battle has finally declared a winner: our culture’s characteristics of inclusiveness and democracy. Today, both the “danza” and “bomba” are considered fundamental genres of our musical culture. To what extent do we have to freeze in time these valuable, wonderful, inclusive, and democratic qualities of our culture? Are we going to accept, for our future’s sake, the excluding arguments discussed herein, and which today are presented to us as absurd, arbitrary and ludicrous?

What is the common denominator among Puerto Ricans?

What is the common denominator among Puerto Ricans?

Embodiment of our dynamic folklore

In understanding the intricate development of the Puerto Rican musical language, there’s no doubt that variations of the seis de bomba, seis campesinos and aguinaldos (another style of folk genre) make up our fundamental historical roots. Not because they represent the African or Spanish in each genre, as argued decades ago and as imprinted in the official seal of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, but for being the first native fusions regarding our heritage. The “bomba” is not African; it is our native folk music closest to the musical heritage of Africa. Traditional Puerto Rican folk music (música jíbara) is not Spanish, but a native creation where different sound traditions are disguised using the tonal proximity of our Spanish heritage.

Interestingly enough, the two founding pillars of the Puerto Rican musical language have not been cemented into our folklore. In addition to their altered presence as new genres, these are living musics that are played, danced, restructured and continuously transformed.

The “Puertoricanization” of genres

1. On Folk music (“Música jíbara”) and “Bomba”

Especially since the beginning of the 20th century, with the “mechanical reproduction” of the arts (and what it has entailed in terms of the massive commercialization of music and globalization of this market), musical production in Puerto Rico, as in any other place nowadays, has been influenced by international exchanges. But contrary to other more exclusive cultures that have tried to preserve the purity of their roots (with the purpose of “folklorizing” their native music, in our opinion), our inclusive cultural dynamic has integrated sounds, initially imported but “nationalized” with time, into our own musical language that has been progressively transforming throughout our history.

As benchmark, there was the “puertoricanization” of our folk music by way of Central European mazurkas, polkas and pasodobles, and of the North American foxtrot, one-step or two-steps; as well as the “puertoricanization” by the bomba of the Afro-Caribbean rhythms of Curaçao, like the bomba holandé, or of the French-speaking Caribbean traditions like the “leró”, the “rose”, or the “balancé”, among many other sounds or different variations of the seis de bomba. Few people in Puerto Rico would dare to argue the “puertoricanization” of such patriotic two-steps as Clodomiro Rodríguez’s Alma Boricua (Puerto Rican Soul, 1932).

I was born in the countryside of my beloved motherland, my dear land, my island of Eden…(Nací en los campos de la Patria mía, tierra querida, mi islita del Edén…)

Moreover, his music was adopted as the official anthem of an old political party that called itself in 1968 The People’s Party or Partido del Pueblo.
2. On Classic Ballads or “Música del ayer”

In view of the simplification of music’s “mechanical reproduction” (brought about by the emergence and popularization of radio, recordings, and later TV and cinema), the process intensified and even incorporated Puerto Rican sound in the formation and consolidation of new transnational genres. In this fashion, almost all classic ballads or “música del ayer” (literally translated as yesterday’s music), goes back to the music of the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s.

For example, Rafael Hernández is undeniably one of the most important composers in the history of the classic ballad (a Latin American genre which includes Puerto Rico that cannot be ascribed to a particular country). We do recognize that the “guaracha” is indeed of Cuban-Puerto Rican origins and not strictly Cuban, as they have often claimed. It is no coincidence that three of Rafael Hernandez’s most famous classic ballads providing social commentary- Lamento Borincano (Grieve for Puerto Rico), Preciosa (Beautiful) and Campanitas de Cristal (Crystal Bells), use the harmonic sequence known as Andalusian rhythm as its compass, so instrumental in the language of folk music or jíbaro music, as well as in Temporal (Hurricane), his most famous social plena.

3. On Salsa, Hip-Hop and Reggaeton

The massive migration of Puerto Ricans to New York, particularly those taking place during the 1950’s, is an influential part of Puerto Rico’s national history; Newyorican musical productions being a very important element of our culture. A new way of making music emerges from the Puerto Rico-New York relationship until the 1960’s, one which transformed popular music all around the world; a task in which musical fusions are one of the main characteristics. I’m talking about salsa. This genre integrates rhythms and styles from Cuba, Colombia, Panama, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and from the Afro-American traditions, into fusions in which its open-minded style of production fundamentally respond to the Latin migratory reality in the United States and to the inclusive democratic characteristic of our native musical and cultural tradition.

As evidenced in important and rigorous studies , hip hop originates from a unique relationship between Newyoricans (Puerto Ricans born or raised in New York) and African Americans- an important sociological fact that would veer our line of discussion here. Like salsa, rhythms and sounds of this cultural tradition have spread throughout the world. Contemporary dance music reggaeton was influenced by hip hop, and has transformed into its own sound, largely influenced by our musical language. The leading interpreters of this genre are internationally celebrated young Puerto Rican artists.

4. On the New Balladry (“la Nueva Trova”) and Latin Rock

The New Balladry or Nueva Trova movement flourished during the late 1960’s and beginning of the 1970’s in various Latin American countries, all of which share some of its main characteristics. But each individual country develops and incorporates elements of its native sounds into this movement. The New Balladry of troubadour Pablo Milanés is clearly Cuban, while Roy Brown’s is Puerto Rican without a doubt.

Similarly, we could argue about what we label in Latin America as Latin Rock, a movement that in Puerto Rico has been closely linked to the New Balladry. The Spanish Rock period known as “The New Wave” or La Nueva Ola was mostly dominated by plain translations of the music of the English-speaking world which later translated into original compositions, sharply focused on native musical language, as is the case of the band Fiel a la Vega. Latin Pop is a case of a complex music genre that would require a series of studies. Although such studies would call for much more responsible thought, we could maintain that musical compositions like the ones created by Robi Rosa, better known as Draco, penetrate the elements of our musical language.

5. On classical music and Latin jazz

“Classical” music as we know it is evidently a product of European society. But as it became an international musical expression, composers across the globe integrated their own sounds to this style. In Puerto Rico, this process started during the 1950’s in a widespread and significant manner with composers such as Héctor Campos Parsi, Amaury Veray and Jack Delano. In more recent years, the presence of the Puerto Rican musical language in classical music can be more appreciated in sound production practices than in stereotyped sounds, opening its creativity and dynamism to broad and new horizons.

In the same way, we could study jazz- a music genre originated in African American communities of southern United States that was launched internationally six or seven decades ago. The Latin jazz we know today is a cultural movement of musical development in which the Puerto Rican sound and many local music artists have played a fundamental role. From its likely creator, Juan Tizol, to some of the most distinguished salsa musicians like Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barreto, “Perico” Ortiz and Papo Lucca; in addition to other prominent musicians educated in diverse national traditions, like William Cepeda’s folkloric form bomba, Miguel Zenon’s folk music, and David Sanchez’s ballad, among others.

It is not my intention to produce an exhaustive list of these references, but to present examples of the ways an inclusive cultural tradition has been able to integrate different types of sound production, originated in other societies, into our practices of artistic musical creation.

The proposal of utilizing our native musical language as “common ground” among Puerto Ricans for potential collaborative projects needs to be researched and studied in depth. I trust these observations regarding the continuous restructure and transformation of music generate buzz in the much-needed development of the socio-cultural processes it embraces.


Author: Ángel G. Quintero Rivera
Published: September 28, 2010.

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