Music of Puerto Rico

From Academic Kids


The music of Puerto Rico has been influenced by African and European (especially Spanish) forms, and has become popular across the Caribbean and in some communities worldwide. Native popular genres include bomba and plena, while more modern innovations include the hip hop fusion reggaeton.


Early history

The history of the music on the island of Puerto Rico begins with its original inhabitants, the Taínos. While very little of their culture is left, perhaps traces of it can be found in some of the percussion instruments currently in use, particularly in the countryside. Some sporadic attempts have been made to revive this native music, but they are neither sustained nor convincing.

Christopher Columbus arrived to the island in November of 1493, but the indelible mark of Spanish culture wasn't felt until Juan Ponce de León invaded the island in 1508 and established a colony near the current capital of San Juan. The colonists brought with them the musical instruments of their mother country, notably the guitar, a love of infectious rhythms and even some of the scales left in the Iberian peninsula by the Moors.

Musical Instruments

The güiro is undoubtedly native to the island. It is a hollowed gourd with ridges cut into one side. A wire fork is rhythmically dragged over the ridges to produce an unusual percussion sound. It has found its way into many forms of Latin music.

The Spanish guitar with six strings underwent several changes on the island, owing the lack of native materials and craftsmen to produce authentic instruments. Of the derivatives, namely the requinto, bordonua, tiple, cuatro and tres, only the cuatro and the tres are used with any frequency today. The cuatro has five double strings and produces a unique, rather hollow sound. (A linguistic note: cuatro means "fourth" and refers to the tuning of strings which are a half octave (a fourth) apart.) The tres has three double strings and has a simlar sound to the cuatro.

From Africa came the tambou, a hollowed out tree trunk covered with a taut animal skin, and the maraca, which is a gourd filled with pebbles or dried beans and shaken to produce rolling sound.

Please read folks if you want to know the truth!

Mistake No.1 : "The güiro is undoubtedly native to the island."

This is not true, the Guiro was imported from South America by the Native Americans. History proves this. A type of guiro is still used in Peru.

Mistake No.2 : "The Spanish guitar with six strings underwent several changes on the island, owing the lack of native materials and craftsmen to produce authentic instruments."

1st of all The famous 6 string Spanish Guitar wasn't even invented until the 18th century! The old 4 string Cuatro is much older than that! 2nd of all the Cuatro is NOT a guitar, it does not belong to the guitar family. It is a Lute. It belongs to the Spanish Lute family, along with the bandurria (which is also used in PR for La Tuna music) and like instruments. Also In PR, very high end instruments were made very early on. However this only happen in the cities. Only the peasants had to make do with what they could. The modern and by that I mean 19th century Cuatro Aviolinado aka violin-shaped cuatro was designed in Arecibo which at the time had many violin makers which inspired its design. Please do not make it seem like PR was nothing but peasants who couldn't created proper guitars, that is a bunch of BS!

Mistake No.3 : "Of the derivatives, namely the requinto, bordonua, tiple, cuatro and tres, only the cuatro and the tres are used with any frequency today."

This is all messed up. The Requinto was NOT created in PR. The Tres was based on the famous Cuban instrument. The Bordonua involved from the old 16th century Spanish Bajo de Una. The tiple involved from the tiny Spanish Guitarros. Tiples are still used, you can buy many new CDs that focus on the tiny Tiple by the likes of Edwin Colón Zayas, Modesto Nieves, Pedro Guzmán, and Willie Torres to name but a few. You can buy Tiples as well. The Bordonua is starting to make a comeback and Modesto Nieves recorded an album with it. You can also buy Bordonuas.

Mistake No.4 : "From Africa came the tambou, a hollowed out tree trunk covered with a taut animal skin, and the maraca, which is a gourd filled with pebbles or dried beans and shaken to produce rolling sound."

The Maraca did not come from Africa! It was created by the Taino Indians. These type of instruments are common to all Native Americans.

Get your facts straight Please!

Improvisation and Controversia

The heart of much Puerto Rican music is the idea of improvisation in both the music and the lyrics. A performance takes on an added dimension when the audience can anticipate the response of one performer to a difficult passage of music or clever lyrics created by another. This technique in Puerto Rico is called a controversia. A similar dialog creates a heightened appreciation in the classical music of India, or in a lively jam session in jazz.



Bomba is a style of music and dance imported from West Africa during the time of slavery, with its modern development beginning in Loíza and Ponce. Bomba was played during the festival of St. James, since slaves were not allowed to worship their own gods, and soon developed into countless styles based on the kind of dance intended to be used at the same time; these include leró, yubá, cunyá, babú and belén.

Bomba often begins with a laina, or a female singer who is answered by the chorus and musicians with a 2/4 or 6/8 rhythm before the dancing begins. Harmony is not used. Dancers interact with the drummer, who is usually solo and dance in pairs without touching each other.

The dancers challenge the drummers in a kind of competing dialog, like the controversia mentioned earlier. The drummers respond with a challenge of their own. Sometimes one group of dancers will tempt another group to respond to a set of complicated steps. As the bomba proceeds, tension rises and becomes more excited and passionate. It's not unusual for a bomba to end with all the performers thoroughly soaked with perspiration.

The instrumentation is simple: usually the main rhythm is maintained by a low-pitched drum known as the buleador, while the high-pitched drum or subidor dialogs with the dancers. More complicated counter rhythms are created with sticks beaten on any resonant surface. A third set of rhythms is maintained by a maraca.

Rafael Cepeda and the rest of the Cepeda family have long dominated the genre, while Paracumbé and others have achieved moderate success.


Danza is a very sophisticated form of music that can be extremely varied in its expression; the Puerto Rican national anthem, "La Borinqueña", was originally a danza that was latter altered to fit a more anthem-like style. Danzas can be either romantic or festive. Romantic danzas have four sections, beginning with an eight measure paseo followed by three themes of sixteen measures each. The third theme typically includes a solo by the bombardino and, often, a return to the first theme or a coda at the end. Festive danzas are free-form, with the only rules being an introduction and a swift rhythm.

The first part of the romantic danza had 8 measures of music without rhythm, when the men circled the room in one direction, and the women circled in the other. This afforded young couples the opportunity to face each other, if only briefly, and to conduct some serious flirting. The second part, called the merengue, grew from the original 16 measures to 34, in 1854, and up to 130 even later. Here the couples held each other, in a proper stance and executed turns that looked very much like a waltz. Like the tango in Argentina, the danza was considered rather naughty and was outlawed for a time.

While the origins of the danza are murky, it probably arose around 1840 as a sort of reaction against the highly codified contradanza and was strongly influenced by Cuban immigrants and their habanera music. The first danzas were immature, youthful songs condemned by the authorities, who occasionally tried ineffectively to ban the genre. The first danza virtuoso was Manuel Gregorio Tavarez and his disciple, Juan Morel Campos.


The décima has its roots in 16th century Spain and represents the earliest examples of the combination of native rhythms and the lyrics and melodies from the mother country. Décima is derived from Andalusian ballads that came to Puerto Rico in the late 17th century. Décima (meaning tenth) usually consists of ten improvised couplets of eight syllables each; the form quickly became popular among jibaros, or peasants. Note that a décima is also the name of a very specific type of verses in Spanish poetry.

The rules for the lyrics are complex and particularly difficult to execute since the lyrics are composed on the spot:
  • The song is composed of 10 lines, consisting of 5 couplets of 2 lines each
  • Each line of the couplet has 8 syllables
  • The syllable count is complicated by rules covering adjacent sounds
  • The rhyming structure has the form: A B B A A C C D D C

Vicente Martinez de Espinel was a Spanish writer and musician who revived the décima, using Andalusian jibaro traditions and midieval Moorish influences. The two varieties are seis, a dance music, and aguinaldo, derived from Spanish Christmas carols.


The seis originated in the latter half of the 17th century in the southern part of Spain. The word means six, which may have come from the custom of having six couples perform the dance, though many more couples eventually became quite common. Men and women form separate lines down the hall or in an open place of beaten earth, one group facing the other. The lines would approach and cross each other and at prescribed intervals the dancers would tap out the rhythm with their feet.

The melodies and harmonies are simple, usually performed on the cuatro, guitar, and güiro, although other indigenous instruments are used depending on the available musicians. The 2/4 rhythm is maintained by the güiro and guitar.


The Aguinaldo is similar to Christmas carols, except that they are usually sung in a parranda, which is rather like a lively parade that moves from house to house in the neighborhood, looking for holiday food and drink. The melodies were subsequently used for the improvisational décima and seis. There are aguinaldos that are ususally song in churches or religious services, while there are aguinaldos that are more popular and are song in the parrandas.


Plena is a narrative song from the coastal regions of Puerto Rico, especially around Ponce. Its origins have been various claimed as far back as 1875 and as late as 1920. As rural farmers moved to San Juan and other cities, they brought plena with them and eventually added horns and improvised call and response vocals. Lyrics generally deal with stories or current events, though some are light-hearted or humorous. Manuel A. Jiménez, or El Canario, is the most highly-celebrated of the original plena performers.

In the 1940s and 50s, artists like Cesar Concepción and Mon Rivera made plena slicker and made some hits internationally, but the music's popularity sunk drastically by the mid-1960s.

Plena's popularity blossomed in the 1990s, and the revival has survived and influenced foreign genres from Jamaica, Cuba, Brazil and other Latin and Caribbean countries. Artists like Willie Colón united plena and bomba with salsa music to great critical acclaim and popularity, while other important bands of this revival include Plena Libre (long-time leaders of the genre) and Plenealo.

Pop music

Several international pop-stars have come from Puerto Rico or are of Puerto Rican descend, including Danny Rivera, perhaps the most popular in Puerto Rico itself, alongside Chayanne, J. Lo, Lucecita Benitez and Ricky Martin. Boy bands like Menudo and Los Chicos also topped charts worldwide for a period, and began the careers of Martin and Chayanne, respectively. Menudo has been recognized by many around the world to be history's greatest boy band; but this title is debatable nowadays, with the success generated by The Backstreet Boys and NSYNC. Menudo's phenomenal fame reached the United States, the rest of Latin America, Europe and Asia. During the group's golden era of the early 1980s, the terms Menudomania and Menuditis were invented.

In the 1940s and 50s, the city of New York established itself as a melting pot of Latinos from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. The result was a series of big band groups becoming major stars playing rumba, mambo, Latin jazz and chachachá. The Morales Brothers, Rafael Cortijo and Tito Rodríguez are probably the best-known Puerto Rican stars of the period.

Out of Cortijo's band came Rafael Ithier, who formed El Gran Combo in 1963 in order to create a popular dance music based on Cortijo's plena roots. The band was successful within a few years when "Akangana" became a major hit.

In the 1970s, Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants to New York City produced salsa music by adding rock elements to native forms like plena.


Latin music on the island today is most widely represented by salsa, which in English means sauce. The music is of Afro-Caribbean, especially Cuban, origin and the term was probably coined first by Ricardo(Ritchie)Rey and Bobby Cruz.

Salsa appears to have arisen in El Barrio of New York City, where immigrants from the island settled. In the late 1960's, Cubans and Puerto Ricans invented the genre by combining rock music with Puerto Rican plena, Cuban son montuno with chachachá, mambo, rumba, cumbia and Latin jazz. The music was highly rhythmic and eminently danceable. Puerto Ricans in this first phase of salsa included Johnny Pacheco, Ricardo(Ritchie Rey)and Bobby Cruz Papo Lucca, Tommy Olivencia, Héctor Lavoe, Bobby Valentin, Luis "Perico" Ortiz and Tito Curet Alonso.

The 1980s saw the rise of the salsa romantica stars like Frankie Ruiz and Eddie Santiago softened salsa's beats and made it smooth and romantic.

New York remained salsa's capital for years, but San Juan is also a contender. In Puerto Rico, the debate between the rockeros, who prefer rock, and the salseros has became part of a class antagonism between the growing middle class on the island, who prefer rock music from the mainland or the "Spanish rock", and the poor who look upon salsa as their personal heritage.

Tito Puente's is an extremely influential salsa musician, and is often regarded as the best of the field. He studied percussion at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City before he going on to form his own band, which first introduced its audiences to the salsa sound and beat. In many respects salsa is a catch word that covers all contemporary music with a Latin beat and a big band sound.

As to instrumentation, salsa music needs primarily a large battery of percussion instruments, like güiros, maracas, bongos, timbales, conga drums, claves and even a cowbell for the jíbaro sound. Horns play a large part in creating the authentic salsa sound.

Nueva canción, hip hop and merengue

Chilean nueva canción was popularized in the end of the decade, producing stars like El Jibaro and Antonio "El Topo" Caban Vale, both of whom were connected to the Puerto Rican independence movement. Hip hop stars like Vico C made Puerto Rico a center of Latin rap in the 80s, and saw Dominican merengue spread across the island. Many of the biggest stars of the genre in the 90s were Puerto Rican, including Elvis Crespo, Grupo Manía and Olga Tañon. Bomba influences among Puerto Rican merengue stars led to the invention of merengue-bomba, which then incorporated elements of electronic house music.

Son and mambo

Son (music) and mambo are types of Cuban music that became very popular in Puerto Rico in the 1930s. Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants soon brought the music to New York City, where it evolved into salsa music in the early 1950s.


Reggaeton is a type of latin rap music and very big popular type of music in Puerto Rico that is very popular among the latino youth. It started in Panama with rapping in spanish and reggae but it originated in Puerto Rico with its influence of hip hop music and reggae. Putting in its music style and sound of american hip hop, reggae with Plena and Bomba rhythm and other spanish music such as Salsa and Dominican Merengue and Bachata. Vico C became one of the first reggaeton artists of Puerto Rico and also recorded the first spanish rap record. The popularity of reggaeton has hit all of latin america and with popular reggaeton artists such as Vico C, Tego Calderon, Daddy Yankee (one of the most fastest reggaeton rappers today), Don Omar, Ivy Queen (the first female and Queen of reggaeton), Wishin Y Yandel, Nicky Jam, Trebol Clan, Don Chezina, Baby Rasta y Gringo and Zion Y Lennox. Even though Puerto Rico claims to be the birthplace of Reggaeton it has hit and become very popular in countries all across Latin America such as the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Mexico, Chile, Cuba and all of Central America and South America. Reggaeton has also hit cities in the U.S. such as Miami, New York, Los Angeles or wherever there is a major latino population or big club scene. Reggaeton has also been brought to mainstream in the U.S. with the hit "Oye Mi Canto" by rapper N.O.R.E. with Nina Sky and Daddy Yankee, Big Nato and Gem Star which the video has been shown on MTV and BET.


  • Download recording of "Le estrella del Oriente" aguinaldo from the Library of Congress' California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collection; performed by Cruz Losada on April 10, 1939 in Oakland, California

See also

External links


  • Sweeney, Philip. "Not Quite the 52nd State". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, pp 481-487. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0

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