The island was Spanish until 1898 and one of the oldest musical traditions is that of the 19th-century Danza, associated particularly with the name of Juan Morel Campos and his phenomenal output of 549 compositions. This is European-derived salon music for ballroom dancing, slow, romantic and sentimental.
The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture sponsors an annual competition for writers of danzas for the piano during the Puerto Rican Danza Week in May. The peasants of the interior, the Jíbaros, sing and dance the Seis, of Spanish origin, in its many varied forms, such as the Seis Chorreao, Seis Zapateao, Seis Corrido and Seis Bombeao. Other variants are named after places, like the Seis Cagueño and Seis Fajardeño. Favoured instruments are the cuatro and other varieties of the guitar, the bordonúa, tiple, tres and quintillo, backed by güiro (scraper), maracas, pandereta (tambourine) and bomba (drum) to provide rhythm. One uniquely Puerto Rican phenomenon is the singer’s ‘La-Le-Lo-Lai’ introduction to the verses, which are in Spanish 10-line décimas.
The beautiful Aguinaldos are sung at Christmastime, while the words of the Mapeyé express the Jíbaro’s somewhat tragic view of life. Many artists have recorded the mountain music, notably El Gallito de Manatí, Ramito, Chuito el de Bayamón, Baltazar Carrero and El Jibarito de Lares. A popular singer is Andrés Jiménez, ‘El Jíbaro’, whose rustic songs of Puerto Rican folklore were honoured at Christmas 1993 by a concert with the Symphonic Orchestra of Puerto Rico and the Choir of the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico, in which many traditional instruments were used. There are several music festivals each year, celebrating different styles & forms, including a Jazzfest in May & the Casals Music Festival in Jun.
Puerto Rico’s best-known musical genre is the Plena, ironically developed by a black couple from Barbados, John Clark and Catherine George, known as ‘Los Ingleses’, who lived in the La Joya del Castillo neighbourhood of Ponce during the years of the First World War. With a four-line stanza and refrain in call-and-response between the ‘Inspirador’ (soloist) and chorus, the rhythm is distinctly African and the words embody calypso-style commentaries on social affairs and true-life incidents. Accompanying instruments were originally tambourines, then accordions and güiros, but nowadays include guitars, trumpets and clarinets. The Plena’s most celebrated composer and performer was Manuel A Jiménez, known as ‘Canario’.
There are relatively few pure black people in Puerto Rico, although the majority have some African blood, and the only specifically black music is the Bomba, sung by the ‘Cantaor’ and chorus, accompanied by the drums called buleadores and subidores and naturally also danced. The Bomba can be seen and heard at its best in the island’s only black town of Loiza Aldea at the Feast of Santiago in late July. Rafael Cepeda and his family are the best known exponents.
For a modern interpretation of traditional music, recordings by the singer/composer Tony Croatto are highly recommended, while Rafael Cortijo and his Combo have taken the Plena beyond the confines of the island into the wider world of Caribbean salsa.
The Jíbaro, mentioned above, is a common figure in Puerto Rican literature. The origin of the name is unknown, but it refers to the campesino del interior, a sort of Puerto Rican equivalent to the gaucho, native, but with predominantly hispanic features. The Jíbaro, as a literary figure, first appeared in the 19th century, with Manuel Alonso Pacheco’s El gíbaro emerging as a cornerstone of the island’s literature. In 29 ‘scenes’, Alonso attempted both to describe and to interpret Puerto Rican life; he showed a form of rural life about to disappear in the face of bourgeois progress. The book also appeared at a time (1849) when romanticism was gaining popularity. Prior to this period, there had been a definite gulf between the educated letters, chronicles and memoires of the 16th to 18th centuries and the oral traditions of the people. These included coplas, décimas, aguinaldas (see above) and folk tales. The Jíbaro has survived the various literary fashions, from 19th-century romanticism and realismo costumbrista (writing about manners and customs), through the change from Spanish to US influence, well into the 20th century.
One reason for this tenacity is the continual search for a Puerto Rican identity. When, in 1898, Spain relinquished power to the USA, many Puerto Ricans sought full independence. Among the writers of this time were José de Diego and Manuel Zeno Gandía. The latter’s series of four novels, Crónicas de un mundo enfermo (Garduña – 1896, La charca – 1898, El negocio – 1922, Redentores – 1925), contain a strong element of social protest. As the series progresses, a new theme is added to that of local economic misery, emigration to New York, which booms after 1945. For a variety of domestic reasons, many fled the island to seek adventures, happiness, material wealth in the United States. While some writers and artists in the 1930s and 1940s, for example Luis Lloréns Torres, tried to build a kind of nationalism around a mythical, rural past, others still favoured a complete separation from the colonialism which had characterized Puerto Rico’s history. For a while, the former trend dominated, but by the 1960s the emigré culture had created a different set of themes to set against the search for the Puerto Rican secure in his/her national identity. These included, on the one hand, the social problems of the islander in New York, shown, for example, in some of the novels of Enrique A Laguerre, Trópico en Manhattan by Guillermo Cotto Thorner, stories such as Spiks by Pedro Juan Soto, or plays like René Marqués’ La carreta. On the other there is the Americanization of the island, the figure of the ‘piti-yanqui’ (the native Puerto Rican who admires and flatters his North American neighbour) and the subordination of the agricultural to a US-based, industrial economy. Writers after 1965 who have documented this change include Rosario Ferré and the novelist and playwright, Luis Rafael Sánchez. The latter’s La guaracha del Macho Camacho (1976), an alliterative, humorous novel, revolves around a traffic jam in a San Juan taken over by a vastly popular song, La vida es una cosa fenomenal, a far cry from the Jíbaro’s world.