The history of African influences in Puerto Rican music begins long before 1508, the year in which the Spanish settled the island, and 1492, when Christopher Columbus made Europeans aware of the New World. The African influence in Puerto Rican music began with two earlier human processes that converged on the island that the Tainos called Boriquén. The first was the millennial economic, cultural and human encounters and clashes between the European peninsula and the northern and trans-Saharan regions of Africa in the years prior to 700 AD. The second process was the birth and development of enslavement of western Africans, their insertion into Iberian society and, later, their use as labor in the Americas. The combination of these two processes created the basis for the two main ways that Africans arrived in Puerto Rico: from the Iberian peninsula itself and from the coastal regions of western Africa.
The human interaction that arose through the trade routes extended from the region that consists of what is now Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo and Benin, crossing to the capitals of the Christian kingdoms: the Franco kingdom that is today France, and the Christian kingdoms on the Iberian peninsula, which today are Portugal and Spain. The African presence was consolidated on the Iberian peninsula in the year 711. The Muslim occupation of the peninsula not only opened the European continent to Arab influences, but also, and more importantly, the Mediterranean world to northern Africa. It was through this region that the first influences from western Africa were established on the Iberian peninsula.
Direct contact between the western African kingdoms and the Iberian peninsula during the period between 1415 and 1492 created the conditions that made inhabitants of the region permanent elements of Portuguese and Spanish society. By 1508, the beginning of the occupation of the island of Puerto Rico, free North Africans and slaves from Andalusia (the south of Spain, which was dominated by Muslim North Africans) had spent centuries under the Christian kings of the peninsula, and between 1415 and 1492, their mark on Andalusian society was already permanent. Under the reign of the Catholic king and queen, Fernando and Isabel, the West African population grew in the city of Seville. The Catholic monarchs put this population under their direct supervision, and in 1475, prominent West African Juan de Valladolid, known as “the black count,” was named mayor of the black community of Seville and answered directly to the crown.
The Spain of the Conquest was mulatto
The Spain that discovered, conquered, occupied and Christianized the Americas was mulatto. Spanish subjects from various social strata arrived on the island: black Spaniards such as Francisco Mexías, his wife Violante González and his son, Antón Mexias, encomenderos of indigenous Tainos and owners of Taino and black slaves; Juan Garrido, soldier, and Francisco Piñón, miner, slave owner and encomendero; Francisco Gallego, merchant; Diego Hernández, domestic servant; Juan Medina, miner; Juan Blanco, pirate; Iseo Rodríguez, a dark mulatta accused of practicing witchcraft; Cristina Hernández, a black woman accused of living as a concubine with a sexton in the city of Caparra; Marina, a domestic worker and cook accused of hitting a white woman while washing clothes in the river.
This first branch of African culture on the island, the Spanish blacks, or Afro-Andalusians, began the musical traffic between the Caribbean and Europe and produced the first known global and trans-Atlantic musical genres: the zarabanda, the chacona, the guineo, the ye-ye and the zarambeque. By the end of the 16th century, at least 100 years after the beginning of the occupation and settling of Boriquén by the Spanish, a bishop, Dr. Francisco Naranjo, rejected the offer to be bishop of Puerto Rico, saying in his letter that he is too old for the post because if he accepted it he would have to dance the portorrico, and at his age he could not do that. The candidate for bishop referred to one of the first Afro-Caribbean dances that were popular in the first century of colonization: a dance popular among blacks and named for its origin, portorrico. These dances and music dominated theater, religious festivals, civic celebrations, and private and community parties during the 16th and 17th centuries.
The presence of enslaved Africans brought directly from the western part of the continent added the second branch of Puerto Rican musical culture. These Africans, like their peers, made melodic musical instruments and drums. During the 17th century, black Puerto Ricans were known for playing the harp and other string instruments, such as the vihuela and guitar. Construction of these instruments by Afro-Puerto Ricans in the 18th and 19th centuries is documented, but historically their contribution to Puerto Rican music has not been recognized.
From the 18th century to the early 19th century, the figures of Domingo Andino and José Campeche demonstrated music as a work of artistry. Andino was an organist at the Cathedral of San Juan, as well as goldsmith. Campeche was a painter, as well as an oboist, organist and music teacher. These Afro-Puerto Ricans are examples of the professional musicians who developed in Puerto Rico. They developed deep professional ties among themselves, sharpened with family ties. Domingo Andino was not only José Campeche’s organ teacher but also his brother-in-law. An effort to restrict the participation of mulattoes in the orchestra of the Catholic Church of San Juan in 1749 reveals a strong presence of Afro-Puerto Ricans among the ranks of professional musicians. The importance of that date is due to the death of an outstanding Afro-Puerto Rican after a cruel persecution by the local white aristocracy. During the second half of the 18th century, attitudes toward Afro-Puerto Ricans became harsher.
During this same time period, descendants of Africans escaped to our shores and were able to live as free people. Also, additional numbers of enslaved Africans arrived by different means: through land owners who settled on the island, new shipments of slaves sold here, and through smuggling. Over time, this mixed population of free blacks, slaves and others from various places (Haiti, Curaçao, Saint Thomas, Jamaica, and others) established the bases for the dances and music that was performed in civic celebrations in 1749 in San Juan and, less than a century later in 1831, in Ponce.
Singing and dancing groups wearing traditional costumes were part of every occasion when the state declared a festival, as well as in the patron saint festivals and carnivals. The festivals where the Afro-Puerto Rican displays dominated, with different levels of importance, for three centuries from the 17th to the 19th, were Corpus Christi, San Juan, Three Kings Day and Saint Michael. Both private parties and popular religious activities were graced with various arrangements of musical instruments, drums, guitars, string instruments, and small percussion instruments such as güiros and maracas. From a report by Pierre Ledrú in 1795, the descriptions of government festivals in 1831, to the narratives by Manuel Alonso in 1849, Afro-Puerto Rican music was described as poly-instrumental. The beat of the drum is just one form of Afro-Puerto Rican music.
The 19th century was the time frame for four processes that created the foundation of the Puerto Rico of the early 20th century. First, the arrival of black slaves from Haiti and Curaçao. Second, Puerto Rico, after the independence struggles of Latin America, entered into a period of political and social repression of Afro-Puerto Rican influences, both free and slave. Third, the liberal ideology of the local white ruling class built a concept of Puerto Rican nationality that did not include blacks. Fourth was the social and cultural whitening of the nation.
During the second half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, we find several significant historical events: Alejandro O’Reilly prohibited employment of black or mixed-race musicians in regiments in 1765; and during the early years of the 1800s, police prohibited gatherings of blacks to dance bomba. Just as important were the expressions of the white ruling class Puerto Ricans in 1831. On the one hand, they praised the performing groups of black Puerto Ricans from the Playa de Ponce area as well organized, because they followed the municipal rules, but on the other hand they criticized the conga festivals and celebrations (by people from the Congo region) of the second half of the 19th century, which were held in the public plazas of San Juan in honor of San Miguel. Through the cruel repression of slave rebellions, we can document the development of the bomba in the slave barracks and the black neighborhoods in Puerto Rico.
Additionally, it is the attention of the white Puerto Rican ruling class that allows us to trace the development of the danza as a musical meta-genre that covers various popular forms – danzonetes influenced by guaracha and Puerto Rican danzones – as middle class and upper class forms of songs without lyrics and ballroom music. Professional musicians such as Julián Andino, Juan Ríos Ovalle, Juan Morel Campos, Adolfo Eraclio Ramos and Manuel Rodríguez Arreson were part of the contingent of blacks and mulattoes who transformed the Puerto Rican contradanza into the Puerto Rican danza it is now: an artistic song, a rhapsodic piece for piano, without lyrics, an aristocratic ballroom dance and a piano piece for the middle classes. But the melodic twists and rhythms not only show the creative abilities of these Afro-Puerto Ricans, but also demonstrate their ability to reproduce aristocratic and refined art forms from western Africa. The class differences expressed by the black and mulatto artists, in addition to reproducing the social customs of the Europeans, also reflected those that blacks from different social origins practiced in their home nations.
Racial prejudice and music after 1898
The 20th century, the century of new U.S. imperialism, added in Puerto Rico its particular racial prejudice to the whirlwind of global capitalism. The occupation of Puerto Rico by the United States brought two ways of addressing racial differences into contact. The record companies turned the musical work of the Caribbean islands into merchandise. African-American and Afro-Caribbean musical genres exposed African cultural practices in Puerto Rico and their connection to the trans-Atlantic cultural African diaspora. Puerto Rican danzones, danzonetes, guarachas, seises, waltzes and the bomba became related to other Afro-Caribbean musical genres. Afro-Puerto Rican musicians such as Rafael Hernández, his brother Jesús, Rafael I. Duchense, Sixto Nieves Benítez, among other professional musicians, actively participated in the domestication of jazz. The same occurred in Cuban, Spanish and Mexican musical genres that dominated commercial music (in demand in urban centers such as New York, Paris, Havana, Mexico City and other metropolitan centers; and via European and U.S. tourism that arrived through Havana and Veracruz).
The birth and development of the plena dominated the first 40 years of the 20th century. This Afro-Puerto Rican genre was born and developed just when Puerto Rican intellectuals were redefining the Boricua national identity. The danza had ceased to be the genre that held together the national imagination and the plena arose just when the cultural machinery of the mass communications media made urban music and the tourist attractions of the island of Cuba into the musical paradigm of the region. The plena captured the Puerto Rican popular imagination – port workers and people from poor neighborhoods, mostly – but the tourism entertainment industry also gave way to it. Tourists danced versions of the plena to dance orchestras and big bands led by César Concepción and Rafael Berríos.
The problematic Puerto Rican attitude toward the Afro-Puerto Rican contribution to the musical culture of the island is seen in the way that contribution is identified. The musical group of black Puerto Ricans Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera, with its new interpretation and rearticulation of the bomba and plena in commercial music represented a controversial case of Afro-Puerto Rican expression, of black Puerto Rican identity. Both processes are seen in the birth and development of salsa in New York City. On one hand, there was no difficulty in recognizing it as a branch of urban and Afro-Cuban tourism genres developed by Puerto Ricans, but on the other hand there was a reluctance to recognize it as an Afro-Puerto Rican genre that was the fruit of the globalization process and local practices (like the origin of the Afro-Cuban genres half a century earlier).
Salsa, rock, bolero and the ballad showed the complexity of the musical relationship and racial imagination in Puerto Rican identity during the decades of the second half of the 20th century. U.S. African-American genres such as rock, rhythm and blues and rap were adopted with ambivalence. The Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States, participating in the creation of Hip Hop culture, processed these Afro-diasporic genres, made them their own and injected them into the creative current of the island. This mix of musical cosmopolitanism and globalization of Puerto Rican music of all social classes after 1960 is responsible for the Afro-Puerto Rican creations of the late 20th century, such as the rumba (played by youths in the streets of Loíza), reggaetón and Puerto Rican rock. The role of Puerto Ricans in world jazz since 1900 reaffirms the survival of the Afro-Boricua musical creativity on an international level.
The death of Rafael Cepeda ended the era of a Puerto Rico in which the plenas sung by Manuel “Canario” Jiménez and those created and sung by Mon Rivera, were an existential experience. The music continues with provocative and moving interpretations from Afro-Puerto Ricans of a new generation, such as Vico C, Tego Calderón, Daddy Yankee, Calle 13, etc. Along with young Afro-Puerto Ricans from New York, they return to the Afro-Boricua Hip Hop and revisit the Afro-Puerto Rican bomba. This is the foundation of African influence on Puerto Rican music in the 21st century.
For more information:
Alegría Gallardo, Ricardo. “La herencia africana”. San Juan: Museo de las Américas, 2012.
Allende, Noel. “Las músicas Otras: Puerto Rico, el Atlántico Afro-diaspórico y otros ensayos de estudios culturales de la música”. San Juan: Ediciones
Clara Luz, 2014.
Álvarez, Luis M, Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Puertorriqueña. “La Tercera raíz: presencia africana en Puerto Rico: catálogo acompañando
la exposición”. San Juan: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, 1992.
Author: Dr. Noel Allende Goitía
Published: September 11, 2014
Revision: Dr. Lizette Cabrera Salcedo, February 17, 2021