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African Influence in Music of Puerto Rico Research Paper

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History of Africans in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is a self governing incorporated island of the United States of America. It is located in the northeastern Caribbean and forms one of the Spanish American states and is neighbor to Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Jamaica. Initially the inhabitants of Puerto Rico by 1500s were the Tainos, who were later colonized by the Spanish who were attracted by the gold mines available in the island. Due to oppression by the colonial rule, the Tainos population was greatly reduced and Africans were brought from Africa as slaves in the island. When the gold mines got depleted, Spanish colonizers left and Africans were left as the majority group in the islands. The slave trade which was thriving by the late 16th century witnessed a great number of Africans from West African countries being transported to America and West Indian colonies. The African culture in Puerto Rico is drawn mainly from the Yoruba people of West Africa who ended in the country through slave trade.

For a long period of time Puerto Rico remained under the influence of Spanish culture. Soon after the withdrawal of the Spanish rule in the island, the United States of America took over the possession of Puerto Rico. The Americans introduced English language in the island to replace the former language which was predominantly Spanish. However, after the introduction of Puerto Rico to the commonwealth countries in 1952, Spanish language was reintroduced as the official language. Puerto Rico has since remained a territory of the United States of America with a governor but under the authority of the president of the United States of America (Irizarry, Mills-Torres, Vega, Rivera, n.d, Para 11). The influence of Africans to the culture of Puerto Rico has been felt from the period Puerto Rico was given independence in 1873 (Pariser, 1998, p. 30).

African influence on music and culture in Puerto Rico

Alleyne (2002: p. 125) indicated that the African influence in the culture in Puerto Rico has been absorbed into the national culture and is appreciated and practiced by people across all races represented. This aspect is exhibited by the influence of Africans to music which is played and enjoyed by Puerto Ricans of all color. Further, Alleyne (2002, p. 126) illustrates that the African influence in music is particularly recognized in the musical form of ‘bomba plena’, and also to some extent in danza and salsa. The African influence is characterized by the use of drums and vigorous dancing styles.

The African influence to the music of Puerto Rico has gone beyond the bounders of this island to influence music in the neighboring states. It has been demonstrated that popular Puerto Rico musicians who perform song composed and performed with a heavy borrowing to the African culture have influenced the form of music in the region. Some popular musicians of Puerto Rico including Raphael Hernandez, Juan Tizol, etc have played a major role in spreading the music of Puerto Rico to other parts of neighboring non- Latin nations (Malabe and Weiner, 1994, p. 5).

The influence of African culture to the lives of the people in Puerto Rico has dominated for a long time. The influence can be traced in many ways including the language, music, religious practices, and cultural practices as well as in food. Traditional music with African heritage has been adopted as the identity of the Puerto Rican community. These music forms with African heritage include plena and bomba. The power of influence of these African traditions is not only felt in the island of Puerto Rico but also in the neighboring region. Also, the ability of the traditional music to accommodate other forms of music while maintaining their uniqueness has enhanced the dominance and spread of the African heritage in the region.

Plena dance

Aparicio (1998: p 29) illustrates that by 1930s afro-Puerto Rican musical form had been generally accepted as the form of music for the people of Puerto Rico. Plena genre of music has been brought forward as an illustration of the African influence in Puerto Rico community. Aparicio goes further to illustrate how plena, as a form of focal music was used to document and express the woes of the working class in Puerto Rico. It is estimated that the plena dance became popular in 20th century in sugar growing areas along the south coast.

The African aspect of the plena dance is characterized by a call and response between a soloist and a chorus which sings a refrain that depicts the West African heritage. In addition, the instrumentation in the music performed by the people of Puerto Rico has a lot of African influence, as supported by instruments like panderetas, guitar, cuatro, guiro, maracas, bongos, and conga. Sainsbury and Cavalieri (2008, p. 51) indicate that plena dance is usually locally referred to as a sung newspaper because the song recounted and mocked the ongoing events. One of the famous plena music composer and performer group is the pleneros de la which has maintained the traditions through the traditional folk songs especially in performing plena.

The modernization of plena dance started in the 1960s where artists like Mos Rivera, Daniel Santos and others introduced plena dance of the Puerto Rico into the United States of America. It is demonstrated that some very famous artist like Richey Martins have included plena music in finale of mega concerts in the start of the 21st century and the current Millennium (Broughton, Ellingham and Trillo, 2000, P. 482)

Bomba dance

The other popular form of music with a lot of African influence is the bomba. The traditional fork dance became popular in the sugar growing areas of Puerto Rico. According to Sainsbury and Cavalieri (2008, p. 50), bomba dance is associated with west and central Africa and is characterized by use of drums made from rum barrel and goatskin. Other instruments include wooden sticks, guiro and maracas.

According to Olsen and Sheehy (2007, p. 168), the bomba dance which has its roots way back in 1700s was the most important social event to the African slaves in Puerto Rico. It is illustrated that bomba was performed during such events like birthdays, weddings, after harvesting, and other social events. Due to the mixing of people from different races and origins on Puerto Rico especially after independence, most of the traditions and cultures aligned to a particular race were gradually adulterated by cultures from other places. In this transformation, music was not spared. Olsen and Sheehy (2007, p. 169) demonstrates how bomba dance was gradually affected by other music forms like salsa, whereas until 1960s the bomba dance had greatly been influenced by other musical forms though the African influence in it was still evident.

Candelaria, Garcia and Aldama (2004, p. 83) demonstrate the impact of the bomba dance in the recent times in Puerto Rico where by 1983 a recording by New York based Puerto Rican group Los Pleneros de la 21 (the plena musicians of bus stop 21) formed a song incorporating plena and bomba aspects. Also, it is shown that by 1995 a recording known as ‘somos boricuas’ (we are Puerto Rican) was produced with incorporated two bomba dances. Candelaria, Garcia and Aldama (2004, p 84) indicate that as recent as by 1999, the bomba dance had started entering Puerto Rican dancing clubs where televised dances are incorporated to involve as big crowd as possible. The bomba dance has also changed to incorporate long continuous suits such that there are no breaks between songs. It has been generally accepted that bomba dance has formed a foundation on which much of the Puerto Rican music has evolved. The development of African influenced bomba dance has not only influenced music in Puerto Rico Island, but has spread to the neighboring countries including the United States of America.

The power of influence of bomba music to the Puerto Rican community culture has been consistent courtesy of its ability to accommodate adulteration from other forms of music. This fact has enabled the bomba dance to influence music in a wider region despite Puerto Rico being a small island compared to other neighboring states. Most importantly, bomba dance has accommodated hip-hop music which is famous among the American community.

The performance of bomba dance entails dancers performing in front of drummers where the soloist improvises the song and keeps other dancers in a steady rhythm underneath. Bomba plena is a common term in Puerto Rico which refers to the traditional dances that show the identity of the Puerto Ricans. Though distinctively different in composition and performance, bomba and plena are usually mixed together. The two forms of music are characterized by dancers in front of drummers where a soloist leads while other singers respond with a chorus.

African influence to other cultural aspects in Puerto Rico

The dominance of African influence to the culture of people of Puerto Rico has been felt over a long duration of time. The African influence shows up in religious practices, music, rituals, language, food, crafts and other areas. Some traditional dances have been used as the identity of the Puerto Ricans. Plena dance has been adopted to show the pride of the people of Puerto Rica and their loyalty to the nation. Although salsa dance which gathers its roots from the Spanish culture has been a popular form of music in Puerto Rico, many Puerto Rico natives prefer plena, a form of music that demonstrates their identity.

Although globalization has enabled other forms of songs from other countries to come into their culture e.g. reggae, the influence of the traditional plena is usually added as an ingredient (Winn, 2006, p. 583). The plena dance as a generally accepted form of music in Puerto Rico is highly regarded as a unifying factor between the people of different origins and it is generally used to show the pride of the people to the Puerto Ricans.


Unlike other traditions in the world that have been highly affected by the effects of globalization, the African heritage and its influence in Puerto Rico have remained relatively stable. Although the African heritage has been adulterated by other traditions in Puerto Rico, the influence of music is still remarkably high and felt universal. Music with African heritage has been identified as an identity to the people of Puerto Rico who come from different racial and cultural backgrounds. The African culture can be felt in Puerto Rico especially in El Museo de Nuestra Raiz Africana (the museum of our African roots) and in old San Juan, the island where one can get to learn about the African heritage in Puerto Rico.

Works Cited

Alleyne, Mervyn C. Construction and representation of race and ethnicity in the Caribbean and the world. Kinston 7: University of the West Indies Press. 2002.

Aparicio, Frances R. Listening to salsa: gender, Latin popular music, and Puerto Rican cultures. San Francisco: Wesleyan University Press.1998.

Broughton, Simon et al. World Music: Latin and North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific. NY: Rough guides. 2000.

Candelaria, Cordelia et al. Encyclopedia of Latino popular culture. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group. 2004.

Irizarry, Johnny et al. “Puerto Rico.” Puerto Rico. N.d. 2009. Web.

Malabe, Frank and Weiner, Bob. Afro-Cuban rhythms for drumset. Manhattan: Alfred publishing. 1994.

Olsen, Dale Alan and Sheehy, Daniel Edward. The Garland handbook of Latin American music. NY: Routledge. 2000.

Pariser, Harry S. The adventure guides to Puerto Rico. San Francisco: Harry S. Pariser. 1998.

Sainsbury, Brendan and Cavalieri, Nate. Puerto Rico. Lonely planet. 2008.

Winn, Peter. Americas: the changing face of Latin America and the Caribbean. LA: University of California press. 2006.

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