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Music of Puerto Rico

 This article is a supplemental part of the 
Music of the United States series.
 before 1940
 1940s and 50s
 1960s and 70s
 1980 to the present'''
 African-American music
 Native American music
 Latin, Tejano, Hawaiian,
Cajun, Puerto Rican and other immigrants
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.

Table of contents
1 Early history
2 Musical Instruments
3 Improvisation and Controversia
4 Genres
5 References

Early history

The history of the music on the island of Puerto Rico begins with its original inhabitants, the Taínoss. 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 discovered 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 güicharo, or 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 and cuatro, only the cuatro is used with any frequency today. It 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.)

For more information and pictures of Puerto Rican stringed instruments, see the Puerto Rican Cuatro Project/El Proyecto del 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.

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 hightened 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 prespiration.

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", is danza. 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 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.

The rules for the lyrics are complex and particularly difficult to execute since the lyrics are composed on the spot:
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 are 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.


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, including Danny Rivera, perhaps the most popular in Puerto Rico itself, alongside Chayanne, J. Lo, Lucecita 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.

In the 1940s and 50s, the city of New York established itself as a melting pot of Latinos from Puerto Rica, 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 the Venezuelan radio host, Fidias Danilo.

Salsa appears to have arisen in El Barrio of New York City, where emmigrants from the island settled. In the 1970s, Cubans and Puerto Ricans invented the genre by combining rock music with Puerto Rican plena, Cuban son montuno with chachachá, mambo, rumba and Latin jazz. The music was highly rhythmic and eminently danceable. Puerto Ricans in this first phase of salsa included Papo Lucca, Tommy Olivencia, Hector 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, 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 El Topo, 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.


See also: Music of the United States, Latin American music