Typical Christmas promise

Typical Christmas promise

Puerto Rican folk music, like many aspects of our culture, is a product of the synthesis of three ethnicities: the Taino, the Spanish and the African. This hybridity is its principal characteristic and reminds us that we belong to the complex world of Caribbean culture.

To try to define Puerto Rican folk music, we may begin by subdividing the music into two areas where they were concentrated. Let’s say, then, that “music of the coast” and “music of the countryside” are the two categories that locate and help us define our music. This is based on the objective and historical process of arrival, development and permanence that rules our folk music within these two frameworks.

Within “music of the countryside” we find a musical expression that is also known as jíbaro music or typical music. This consists of subgenres known as seises and aguinaldos. Within those we find the Fajardeño seis the Mapeyé seis, the Cagueño seis, the Chorreao seis, the Mariandá seis the Milonga seis, the Joropo seis, Cagueño aguinaldo and the Mazurca aguinaldo, among others.

The singing of this music is structured on what is known as the décima: a song composed or improvised in 10 verses, generally of eight syllables, organized in two quartets with two verses of transition in the middle, with a rhyming pattern of ABBAACCDDC. This particular style is known as the Espinela décima, as it was created by a Spanish composer of the 17th century, Vicente Espinel (1550-1624). It is also composed or improvised in quartets structured on ABBA rhymes.

The instruments generally used to create and accompany this music are the cuatro, the guitar, the güiro and bongo drum. Other instruments of Andalusia-Arabic influence that are added on occasion are the tiple and the bordonúa. Modern-jíbaro groups sporadically add congas, cymbals and bass. It is important to note that in addition to being performed by groups for merely musical purposes, there is another element that adds an inherent characteristic and also adds color to the genre: the jíbaro dance.

Within the “music of the coast”, we find two principal musical expressions, the bomba and the plena. The bomba is older. Friar Iñigo Abbad y Lasierra referred to the dance performed by African slaves in their idle time as “calenda.” The plena is more contemporary. It made its appearance at the beginning of the 20th century and initially took root in the working class neighborhoods and the ports of the cities.

Poster La plena from Rafael Tufiño

Poster La plena from Rafael Tufiño

The most characteristic elements of the bomba are the instrumentation and the dance. The song, although also an important element, is developed in a more simple and less rigid form than the jíbaro music in terms of structure, and it is also more flexible in terms of improvisation and rhythm between choruses. This combination of beat and chorus is a primordial part of our African heritage.

Instrumentation for the bomba includes two basic drums, called the buleador, which the drummer uses to play the bass line, and the primo, with which the musician shows off his ability to improvise and interpret the movements of the dancer. Other equally important instruments are the cuá, two sticks used to accompany the buleador, and the maraca, an instrument inherited from the Tainos, and a symbol of the relationships between Africans and Tainos in the era of slavery.

The principal genre of the music and the dance is defined, like that of the jíbaro music, by the seis. Some of the bomba seises are known as: the Calindá seis, the Yubá seis, the Holandé’ seis and the Cuembé seis, among others. It is worth noting that other seises of the Loíza region, such as the bombea’o seis and the rule seis, have characteristics that are very particular to this area, both in the music and in the dance.

The plena was considered “the newspaper of the people” for its story-telling function. It can be divided into four subgenres. According to folklorist, artisan and musician Don Ramón Pedraza, the four subgenres are Poetic plena, the lament plena (slow, with a sober or sad theme), creole plena (with a happy theme) and plena con rumba (a chorus of one line of few words and a short and agile beat). The principal instrumentation used in the creation and/or accompaniment of the song is the pandero, an instrument made of a wooden cylinder (resembling a round cheese box of the kind that arrived on the island in the early part of the century, according to Don Rafael Cepeda) covered with a goatskin on one end. To achieve the characteristic sound of this music, three panderos are combined. They are called the bass or follower, the banao (whose pattern is similar to the Afro-Caribbean oriza rhythm) and the punteador or quinto, who demonstrates skill at improvisation while remaining within the African key inherited by our Caribbean music. Another important instrument is the güiro. Over time, the accordion (due to German influence), guitar and the cuatro have been added.

Like the bomba, the plena song consists of thematic verses that are open to improvisation within defined spaces in combinations of verses and choruses. Also, the singer determines the “call and response” within the rhythmic space, before moving on to the improvisation. The dance is particularly defined and accommodates to the genre, as it is quite different from the bomba and jíbaro music.

Puerto Rican dance Orchestra

Puerto Rican dance Orchestra

After collecting and sifting through this information within the framework of our musical evolution as Puerto Ricans, it becomes clear it is very limiting to try to define Puerto Rican folk music. This limitation is due to the conventional and customary use of the term, which reduces its parameters. That is said without any lack of respect for the importance this category represents in the roots of our musical and cultural expression.

Folklore is defined by the Spanish Royal Academy in its 22nd edition as “the convergence of traditional beliefs, customs, crafts, etc., of a people.” The definition of “tradition” is the “transmission of news, literary compositions, doctrines, rites, customs, etc., done by generation after generation.”

On careful examination, we see that the subcategory of folklore, though used precisely by tradition, can be very limiting, as it does not make room for the historical evolution of our music. This evolution explains how the method for learning to play the cuatro, created by the renowned musician Paquito López Cruz, and still taught today at the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, is based on the fundamentals of written music and not just on oral tradition; that the typical music performed by Mapeyé, Pedro Guzmán, Edwin Colón Zayas, Modesto Nieves and his son, Cristian, adds elements of jazz and other exotic branches, as a result of a more formal investigative form of learning; that the style of dance created by the illustrious master Narciso Figueroa in the 1950s is one that was ahead of its time by adding elements of modal and atonal music, among other forms.

However, if we take from the same dictionary the term “indigenous” – “born or originated in the same place where it is found” – it provides us with a broader range for bringing together time and space in the creation of our music, and in whose birth we always find our origins and roots. This allows us to include the danza as a musical genre that has so much significance and validity in our character as a people. We shouldn’t forget that our national anthem, La Borinqueña, is a danza.

The danza developed in Ponce in the 19th century, influenced, according to historians, by the arrival of la habanera from Cuba at the beginning of this century. It is an evolved version of the European contradanza, through the addition of musical elements within the structure of the African key. One of the greatest composers in this genre is Juan Morel Campos. In his compositions, one can appreciate the progression as baroque, classical and romantic music are transformed within the structure described above. This aspect makes us unique in the world in the classical music form. According to composer Luciano Quiñónez, the traditional danza is divided in two subgenres, the festive (e.g. No me toques) and the romantic (Laura y Georgina). During the decade of the 1950s, the great composer Narciso Figueroa began, with his progressive compositions, the contemporary danza movement.

It is important to mention another genre that is rooted in our people: the Puerto Rican “romantic bolero”. It tells the world of our idiosyncrasies and our attitude toward life, and it has been supported by the work of great composers such as Sylvia Rexach, Rafael Hernández, Pedro Flores, Puchi Balseiro, Don Felo Goyco and others.

For these reasons, I suggested to the Puerto Rican Legislature in April 2003 that they consider substituting the word “indigenous” for “folklore.” Fortunately, this was approved in the law that was passed governing our traditional music.


Author: Jorge Arce
Published: September 11, 2014.

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