History, Styles and Influence of Puerto Rican Music

Jose Feliciano, Puerto Rico. Getty Images

The history of Puerto Rico parallels that of Cuba in many ways until we reach the 20th century. When Columbus landed in Puerto Rico (1493), the island was the home of the Taino Indians who called it “Borinquen” (Island of the Brave Lord). The Taino Indians were wiped out fairly quickly and today there are no remaining Tainos, although their influence can still be felt on the island’s music. In fact, Puerto Rico’s national anthem is called 'La Borinquena’ after the Taino place name.

Afro-Puerto Rican Influence

Both islands were colonized by Spain who, unable to convince the native population to become diligent plantation laborers, imported slave labor from Africa. As a result, the influence of African rhythms on the music of both islands was profound

Music of the Jibaros

The “jibaros” are the rural people from the Puerto Rican countryside, very much like Cuba’s “guajiros.” Their music is often compared to our hillbilly folk music (although they sound nothing alike). Jibaro music is still very popular on the island; it is the music that is sung and played at weddings and other communal gatherings. The two most common types of jibaro music are the seis and aguinaldo.

Puerto Rican Music from Spain: Seis

The Spanish settlers who colonized Puerto Rico came mostly from the Andalusia area in southern Spain and brought the seis with them. The seis (which literally means ‘six’) band usually consists of a guitar, guiro, and cuatro, although today other instruments are added when available.

Puerto Rican Christmas Music: Aguinaldo

Much like our Christmas carols, the aguinaldos are traditional songs of Christmas. Some are sung in churches, while others are part of a traditional “parranda”. Groups of singers (family, friends, neighbors) will go out at Christmas time creating a lively parade that goes from house to house with food and drink as their reward. Over time the Aguinaldo melodies have gained improvised lyrics and some are now indistinguishable from seis.

Afro-Puerto Rican Music: Bomba

Bomba is the music from northern Puerto Rico, around San Juan. Bomba music and dance were performed by the slave population and resound with the rhythms of Africa, much like Cuba’s rumba. Bomba is also the name of the drum traditionally used to perform this music. Originally, the only instruments used for bomba were the drum by the same name and maracas; the melodies were sung in a dialogue with the percussion, while the women raised their skirts as they danced to mimic the plantation “ladies”.

Southern Puerto Rico: Plena

Plena is the music of southern, coastal Puerto Rico, especially around the city of Ponce. First appearing around the end of the 19th century, plena lyrics concentrate on providing information about contemporary events so its nickname became “el periodico cantao” (the sung newspaper). Originally plena was a sung accompanied by Spanish tambourines called panderos; later frame drums and guiro were added, and more contemporary plena saw the addition of horns.

Rafael Cepeda & Family - Preservers of Puerto Rican Folk Music

The name most often associated with bomba and plena is Rafael Cepeda who, with his family, has dedicated his life to the preservation of Puerto Rican Folk Music. Rafael and his wife Cardidad had 12 children and they have carried the torch to promote this wonderful music to the world

Gary Nunez & Plena Libre

Until lately, plena and bomba saw a decline in popularity outside of the island. In more recent times, the music is making a comeback in the rest of the world, most noticeably through the music of Plena Libre.

Through the efforts of the band's leader, Gary Nunez, Plena Libre has caught the imagination of Latin music lovers everywhere and the group continues to evolve as they offer a serenade from Puerto Rico to the rest of the world.

From Plena and Bomba To...

Starting from this rich folk tradition, Puerto Rican music has evolved to become a force in many more modern Latin music genres.

For instance, while salsa cannot be described as having its roots in Puerto Rico, a large number of artists of Puerto Rican ancestry were instrumental in the evolution of a style of music that was refined in New York City. Among these pioneers were Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Machito and many, many more.