The Role of Music in Puerto Rican Popular Culture
What is Puerto Rican music like? Where did it develop, and around when did it develop? What makes it up? These are very valid questions for someone who does not know anything about Puerto Rican music or Latin music in general. To understand Puerto Rican music and what it means to Puerto Rican people in general, you must look at the beginning.
First there are different kinds of music that can be considered Puerto Rican. In general, Salsa is considered to be Puerto Rican music of today, but a famous musician by the name of Tito Puente says he plays Cuban music. (Waxer, Oct., 29). The reason for this is that he believes Salsa originated in Cuba, and Puerto Ricans just play their music. But this is an inaccurate statement and view. Puerto Ricans have helped to develop this style of music as well as others.Order now
Puerto Ricans travel and take and bring different sounds with them wherever they go. This is the way many of the different musics of Puerto Rico have formed and shaped.
“Musicians are workers producing tangibles products, and music itself often follows trade routes and is made up of concrete mixes that we can trace” (Glasser, 8). The island’s music is like its people, a combination of all different elements and this is why you have such styles as Bomba, Plena, and La Danzas. Some of these musical styles unfortunately had the stigma of classicism attached to them, too. But let us begin with the beginning of this century.
At the turn of this century, Puerto Rico had passed as a colony from one country (Spain) to another (United States). It was a small island that was divided by classicism, therefore it seemed like two worlds. You had the world of the wealthy Puerto Ricans who tended to be of lighter skin color, and you had world of the peasant farmers who tended to be of darker skin color. Bomba is a kind of music that originated with the slaves that were brought to Puerto Rico.
Bomba was played on big barrels that were found on the plantations, and any other thing that could be beat upon to keep a beat. In fact the word bomba means “drum”. The people would take goatskin and stretch it over the mouth of the barrel. Some even added nails and screws to be able to tune them like today’s modern drums.
“Supplemented by other percussion instruments, the bomba was generally polyrhythmic and featured a complex interaction between drummers and dancers. It was characterized by an African- derived call-and-response vocal style, in which a lead singer was answered by a chorus singing in unison” (Glasser, 19).
Slaveholders actually outlawed these drums at one point because they were a way of communication for the slaves. These “talking-drums” could be heard from miles around, so the slaves were forced to hide these instruments or to develop new ones.
One can see why the elite of the island did not see Bomba as a typical Puerto Rican music. It originated from Africa and no one wants to be associated with them. But this is clearly racism and classicism at work here, for upon hearing this type of music you can not do anything but feel the powerful beat. You get into the call-and-response interaction, because not too many types of music have interaction between the musicians and the audience.
Plena was another type of music that was associated with the lower class in Puerto Rico. It originated in the city of Ponce and its outskirts, and came to replace Bomba in a way. It came to be a sort of newspaper as well where a chorus was usually sung telling of events that occurred. Plena was also a big hit in New York City when Puerto Ricans moved there in the early decades of this century. This was helped with the invention of the phonograph and records. It is interesting to note that, “During the Depression, for example, when other types of record sales plummeted, sales of Spanish-language and other discs stayed steady and even flourished” (Glasser, 11).
Believe it or not, cinema was a huge contribution to the development of Puerto Rican music as well. In the silent era of films, little bands and orchestras who played in the theaters accompanied the movie. Sometimes the movie was forgotten all together and the audience would applaud for the musicians. Some people would even ask for requests and the band would have to play it right there on the spot (Glasser, 44). The type of music that was played here was usually for the upper class because these were the types of people who could afford them in Puerto Rico.
Unfortunately for the musicians, a huge hurricane hit in the year of 1928. It destroyed many theaters and when the ones that were rebuilt, they were rebuilt with new wiring so that movies could be viewed with sound (Glasser, 45).
Radio was another form that allowed music get to the people, but it took a while. WKAQ was the first radio station in Puerto Rico in 1922, but not many flourished. “In 1940 Puerto Rico still had only 5 operating stations.” (Glasser, 46). A reason for this may have been that not many people could afford a radio at this time. But never the less, the radio and the phonograph were two very important devices for the development of Puerto Rican music.
Ways in which Puerto Ricans were discovered were interesting. Many fought in WWI and played in the bands because they were good musicians. Many formed bands after they left the armed forces. The reason many were good players were because they learned instruments at an early age in schools. Spain had left many instruments behind and the children were taught how to play them. The only problem was that all Puerto Ricans were discriminated against when they joined the army or moved to New York.
Even if they happened to be of a higher social class on the island, they were considered to be Negro and put with them. This also happened with housing in New York. Many had to move into Harlem because of their color and this was the only place that they were allowed to stay. Some hated to be associated with the blacks, whereas some identified with them because that was whom they had to work with. But no matter where they were, music was part of them.
“`Entertainment for Puerto Ricans in New York
was confined to the apartments they lived in,’
those apartments hosted birthdays and weddings,
Christmas and New Year’s parties, celebrated
with friends and neighbors to the accompaniment
of small musical groups” (Glasser, 98).
Because of many of their dark skin color, many could only get certain gigs at certain nightclubs that catered to Latin people, or sometimes to white people when Latin music was in. This brings us back to records.
Records were a big way to get a whole community involved. What I mean by this is that people used the stores that sold records as advertisement. Word of mouth was how many things got around. The record companies would rely on some of these people for their resources as well as their advertisement. They would have record stores act as talent scouts, and the companies would pick and choose whom they wanted.
Many musicians would have to work another job just to support themselves because they could not wait on companies, or even between recording albums. They got paid very little for their troubles, and if it was a big success, there was no money for it. “Royalties on recording were unheard of” (Glasser, 149).
All in all, Puerto Ricans had to adjust to their new surroundings when they came to America. They had learned that it really didn’t matter much about what class they were in on the island, but they were Negro here, not even considered Puerto Rican. One of the few things they had was music. Music was lively and brought back memories of the beautiful island many left. It was a way to connect with other Latinos as well, because many played similar types of music. Remember that they all borrowed from each other. Puerto Ricans were with Cubans, Dominicans, Mexicans, and other Caribbean and Latin American countries.
Music was also a way to express their anger towards their situation with the United States. They were able to “speak out” against this oppression in subtle ways, and also to push the limits with sexual innuendoes in the music. A perfect example of this was Raphael Hernandez’s “Menealo Que Se Empelota” (Glasser, 151).
I believe this quote of Harold smith best says what music meant to Puerto Ricans during the first couple of decades here, “Music means more to them at any time, and the music of their homelands means still more. They love it as they love food” (Glasser, 168).
Ruth Glasser, My Music is My Flag: Puerto Rican Musicians in New York and their Communities, 1917-1940. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
Lise Waxer, “Puerto Rican Music”. Oct. 29, 1998.