Much of Puerto Rico’s folk music evolved from Spanish folk songs and romantic ballads that blended with native rhythms and Afro-Caribbean influences during the Spanish colonial period from the 16th to the end of the 19th centuries. “It is obvious on first hearing Puerto Rican music that it is Latin music,” explains Luis Torres of San Antonio, Texas, about the music of his homeland. “But, where music is concerned, Latin America has very porous borders. My generation grew up in Puerto Rico with Cuban danzones, Dominican merengues, cumbias from Panama, joropos from Venezuela, Argentine tangos, corridos and rancheras from Mexico, and so on.”
Torres is director of the cuatro group Ecos de Puerto Rico, which he and his colleagues formed to help preserve and further the appreciation of the traditional music of Puerto Rico in their San Antonio community. “We definitely consider ourselves ambassadors for some of the richest aspects of Puerto Rican culture and traditions,” he says.
The backbone of Puerto Rico’s traditional music is jíbaro music, the music of the island’s peasant population, an amazingly complicated and sophisticated music tradition cultivated by people who had, at best, a rudimentary education.
The décima, for example is a sung form with verses of 10 lines of eight syllables per line, a form that was common in 16th century Spanish poetry. Décimas are generally improvised at performances, where the singer (or trovador) creates the verses on the spot after being handed a slip of paper with a topic or asking the audience to suggest themes. The lyrics then must follow complex décima structure and rules. Often two trovadores face off in a controversia each representing a different side of a topic.
Other Puerto Rican jíbaro music genres are the seis and the aguinaldo. Seises, a dance form, originated in 17th century southern Spain and its name, meaning “six,” may have come from the custom of having six couples perform the dance. There are dozens of variations of the seis on the island, many carrying the name of the town or region where they originated. Aguinaldos are especially popular at Christmas, but they can be either religious or secular. Aguinaldos are often sung in parrandas, groups of friends who move from house to house asking for food and drink in return.
The musical instruments of Puerto Rico evolved in the same way the music did, from European models with an original island twist. String instrument variants, include the tiple, the cuatro, and the bordonúa, once the base of the orquesta típica that accompanied jíbaro music. Each had its unique tone and pitch. The small, high-pitched tiple (about the size of a ukulele) nearly died out, but is now going through a revival. The larger, bass bordonúa has all but disappeared in Puerto Rican music, mainly replaced by the guitar, which is one of the most popular instruments on the island.
The national instrument of Puerto Rico is the cuatro. Traditionally carved from solid blocks of tropical woods, the cuatro originally had four strings. The modern version has a shape reminiscent of a violin and five sets of strings tuned in fourths (B, E, A, D, G). It is played with a pick and sounds like a cross between a 12-string guitar and a mandolin.
“Today the cuatro has gained entrance into all sorts of music, from popular music to jazz to the concert hall,” explains Torres. “Although its origins are as a folk instrument, there are some amazing virtuosos playing the instrument today.”
Common percussion instruments include a scratch gourd called the güiro, several members of the drum family, and maracas. The guiro is a notched gourd and is played with a wood and metal scraper called a pua to make a rhythmic rasping sound.
Ecos de Puerto Rico features eight cuatros, and one person each on guitar, güiro, and minor percussion. All members are originally from Puerto Rico and range in age from their mid-40s to 73.