Music in Puerto Rico


Music in Puerto Rico: a Reader’s Anthology

Donald Thompson (2002)

Scarecrow Press

Edited and translated by the author of Music and Dance in Puerto Rico from the Age of Columbus to Modern Times (1991) and Concert Life in Puerto Rico 1957-1992 (1999), this neat little volume contains a great deal more information than its 145 pages might first suggest. Thompson, a retired Professor of Music at the University of Puerto Rico, double-bass player and music critic for the San Juan Star, presents a good selection of extracts from a wide variety of sources, with each chapter given its own brief introduction.

Why you might buy it:

Thompson has collected a range of, mostly translated, extracts from sources that for the most part, as far as the ordinary reader is concerned, are simply not readily available. As historical source material the book won’t date and it is something that can be referred to time and time again. Extracts are generally short and have been well selected in order to give the reader real insight into the ears and ears of the original writers, helping to build up a useful picture (though collection of snapshots would perhaps be more appropriate here) of music in Puerto Rico from Post-Columbus to the mid-1990’s.

Why you might leave it:

Material related to anything beyond the mid-1980’s is light and the final chapter on musical criticism in Puerto Rico doesn’t incorporate itself within the book particularly smoothly. The Main reason to leave this one is due to the price – typically around $40. ABSTRACTO considers itself fortunate to have obtained a copy from a sale of ex-library stock and wishes to thank the good people of the Sunnyside Branch of the Queens Borough Public Library, NYC, for offering this book up for sale after a year of lying on their shelves without ever having been checked out by library users.


1. Chroniclers of Conquest: Aboriginal Music Observed and Envisioned
– A Taino musical instrument
– An early chronicler
– The Areito
– Fray Ramon revisited
2. Mountain, Plain, and Town: Traditional Folk and Popular Music
– A Dance
– Slave life
– Puerto Rican dances and native musical instruments
– Carnival
– Folk instruments and the decline of traditional dances
– A professional musicians view
– A folk dance
3. Nineteenth- Century Musical Life
– A visiting virtuoso honored: Gottschalk in Ponce
– Saint John’s Day mass in the cathedral
– An Italian opera company
– A competition: The Ponce exposition
– The Philharmonic Society
– The San Juan municipal theater
– Music and advertising in nineteenth-century San Juan
4. The Puerto Rican Danza
– The danza controversy: an early skirmish
– The dangerous danza
– The danza: the traditional view
– The danza: a socio-political view
5. The Twentieth Century
Concert Life:
–    Musical culture at the turn of the century
–    1898 and the change of government
–    The revival of a tradition: concerts on the plaza
–    A plea for music in the schools
–    A government sponsored symphony orchestra
–    A twentieth century opera
–    The avant garde
The Puerto Rico Casals Festival: Views and Controversies:
–    Early hopes and high deals
–    1957: the inaugural concert
–    A divergent opinion
–    A composer speaks
–    Pablo Casals in Puerto Rico: an overview and a conclusion
Urban Popular and Commercial Music:
–    The songs of Rafael Hernandez
–    “Jibaro” dances
–    Salsa: two early views
–    The passing of a pioneer
6. The Passing Panorama
– Music criticism in Puerto Rico
About the author

Selected extracts (from):

1. Chroniclers of Conquest: Aboriginal Music Observed and Envisioned (- A Taino musical instrument)

Practicing among them are men called bohutis, who perpetrate many deceits and falsehoods as we shall later explain, to make the Indians believe that they can speak with the dead and that they know all  of the Indians’ actions and secrets, and that when the Indians fall ill the bohutis cure them, deceiving them in this way. I have seen part of this myth with my own eyes, although of other things I have only repeated what I have heard from many Indians, especially from the leaders, with whom I have spoken more than others, because the leaders are firmer in their beliefs than the other Indians. As do the Moors, the Indians preserve their laws in ancient songs by which they are ruled, as the Moors are ruled by their scriptures. When they wish to sing these songs they play a certain instrument called mayohavau, which is hollow and made of strong and very thin wood, an arms length long and half as wide. The part which is played upon is made in the form of a blacksmiths’ tongs and the other end looks like a club, so that the instrument resembles a gourd with a long neck. This instrument is so sonorous that it can be heard a league and a half away. To it the Indians sing their songs, which they learn by memory. The instrument is played by the leaders, who learn to play it as children and sing to its accompaniment as is their custom. [ABSTRACTO insert: translated in the book from a 1500’s piece by a visiting Spanish monk]

2. Mountain, Plain, and Town: Traditional Folk and Popular Music (- A Dance)

The favorite entertainment of these islanders is dancing; they will organize a dance with no greater purpose than simply to pass the time, and seldom can dancing not be found in one home or another. The host invites his friends and word travels throughout the entire region; hundreds of people who were not invited may appear from everywhere. As the houses are small few people fit inside; the rest remain beneath the house, which is elevated on columns, or in the yard, ascending the stairs when they wish to dance. To begin the dance some guests station themselves at the foot of the stairway with maracas, guiro, tambourine and a guitar or two; accompanied by these instruments they sing in honor of the host and his family, in a stylized kind of praise. [ABSTRACTO insert: translated in the book from a late 1700’s piece by a visiting Spanish monk]

3. Nineteenth- Century Musical Life (- intro)

Concert life, lyric theater, church music, military music, and amateur music making in nineteenth-century Puerto Rico were centered on the towns. San Juan, the north coast administrative seat of the Spanish colonial government, along with Ponce on the south coast, displayed signs of musical vitality and similar adornments of culture early in the century and in fact developed a serious rivalry in these and other matters. This rivalry was nicely symbolized by a celebrated orchestral duel taking place in 1882 and described in this section. Puerto Rico found a place in the itineraries of touring opera and zarzuela companies early in the century, while receiving the visits of individual artists ranging from cellists to ventriloquists.

4. The Puerto Rican Danza (- The danza: the traditional view)

The Puerto Rican danza is not as old as some believe it to be. It is not to be found in the opening pages of our nineteenth-century history, and even less it should be sought in earlier times. However, its essential features may have been gestating in our settecento, without attaining definite form until it found a favorable environment during the fourth decade of the past century. Nor is it correct to focus on the danza exclusively on the figure of Juan Morel Campos. Besides being historically incorrect, this would be unjust to the other composers who contributed to its development. To arrive at an understanding of the value of the danza as it was cultivated by Morel Campos it is also necessary to study the works of the other figures who took part in its evolution.
[ABSTRACTO insert: translated in the book from a December 1959 magazine piece by Amaury Veray]

5. The Twentieth Century (- urban popular and commercial music: the songs of Rafael Hernandez)

The songs of Rafael Hernandez belong to the type of art which we have described as popular. Hernandez knows music and poetry and has undertaken technical studies in music. However, when composing he imitates (as he himself has expressed it), attempting to capture the spirit of the island’s folk song. That he has succeeded in attaining this perfect union is confirmed by the wide and rapid diffusion of his songs and the popularity which they have attained from the beginning. And if the historians referred to above were correct in affirming that only a “popular” tradition really exists among the folk, we may be witnessing a process of transformation as the songs of Rafael Hernandez become converted into folk music. By this I mean that as time passes by it would not be strange if these songs were to form part of the collective heritage of folklore. Some of his songs have in fact attained that desired state. [ABSTRACTO insert: translated in the book from a December 1939 magazine piece by Margot Arce]

5. The Twentieth Century (- …Salsa!)

Avance: What do you understand by salsa music?

Curet: Simply a mixture of bright and lively rhythms which have really always existed. Salsa as a rhythm in itself doesn’t really exist. Its really just a word which has been applied to this combination of rhythms

Avance: What exactly are these rhythms?

Curet: Well, the guaguanco, the guaracha, the son montuno, the rumba, the mambo, the pachanga, with some new ideas in the arrangements.

Avance: Where did the word “salsa” come from?

Curet: Dominican radio announcers introduced the word “salsa”. Later is was often heard on the Mayaguez stations, and then some orchestras began to use it, like Johnny el Bravo and others.

Avance: How do you think this new idea began to spread?

Curet: Cuban musicians definitely created the music which we now call “salsa”, and it all began with the arrival in New York of some great musicians. The first generation of Puerto Rican musicians, dating from the 40’s, were greatly influenced by the rhythms of Mario Bauza, Machito and his Orchestra and Luis Varona, all Cubans. The mambo which caused a real sensation throughout the United States, was introduced by Perez Prado, another great Cuban musician. After that, and under the influence of jazz and rock, the Cuban groups began to vary the rhythmic and harmonic structure of their tunes. It was then that the great Puerto Rican musicians like Tito Puente, Palmieri and others came onto the scene. As it was easier to record in New York, a market for Antillean rhythms came into being as a kind of musical bridge between there and Puerto Rico. And gradually, Puerto Rican musicians from New York began to flow toward the island. [ABSTRACTO insert: translated in the book from an August 1973 Avance magazine interview]

6. The Passing Panorama (- Music criticism in Puerto Rico)

Despite some performers’ low regard of music criticism (except of course for favorable reviews), press commentary by informed and conscientious writers can serve important purposes in documenting the passing musical scene. Critical comment on musical events began to appear in the Puerto Rican press at the middle of the nineteenth century and has seldom been entirely absent since that time. Preserved newspaper writing on musical subjects is a prime source of historical information everywhere, and has been recognized in Puerto Rico as a valuable window to the past.

[end of extracts]

Other Reviews:

Music Library Association by Mario Ortiz (2003)
Donald Thompson provides yet another valuable reference work on the music history of Puerto Rico, an endeavor in which he has made several major contributions over the last two decades. Music in Puerto Rico: A Reader’s Anthology is a compilation of historical and critical readings, translated into English, concerning Puerto Rican music and covering five centuries of musical documentation from 1495 to 1997. The musical traditions represented include aboriginal, traditional folk, popular – both urban and rural, and concert music. Given such wide chronological and thematic range, it is to be expected that this anthology does not aim to provide a thorough coverage of each historical period or each musical tradition. Instead, it offers an overview of Puerto Rico’s rich musical life and a concise introduction of the subject for music students and scholars.


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