Puerto Rican Traditions

Valerie Walawender, M.A.

A Puerto Rican Christmas
The Puerto Rican Christmas is unrivaled in its long, fun filled season from early December to mid-January.  Food, music and parties create an overflowing festive atmosphere. People visit friends and relatives in the asaltos in which they go from house to house. They sing Aguinaldos (traditional  songs), and play lively music with traditional instruments such as the güiro, the cuatro and the guitar. The hosts provide food and beverages for their guests and later join the group as they travel to the next house. Usually the asaltos visit homes, with singing and merry making late at night and carry on till sunrise. In past times families would not realize they would receive a visit from an asalto or trulla in any specific night, but now the asaltos may be completely planned.

Many Puerto Ricans go daily to Church the nine days prior to Christmas for the Aguinaldo Masses, in the early mornings (5-6 a.m.). Religious and Christmas music is sung.  On Christmas Eve, the family joins together for dinner. Special holiday food includes Rice with Pigeon Peas (Gandules); Pasteles, made with a dough of grated green bananas and plantains stuffed with meat, and the roast pork typically prepared “a la varita”( pig roasted over a charcoal pit). Coquito, a type of flavorful egg-nog contains rum and coconut milk. Coconut-based custard, tembleque, makes an appetizing dessert. Music and partying continue the celebration. Many people will attend Midnight Mass (Misa del Gallo). Puerto Ricans usually trim a Christmas tree. On Christmas morning children look under the tree for presents brought by Santa. Christmas Day is a time to spend with family. Eating and partying continue throughout the day. Parties and the holiday spirit carry on to New Year’s Eve. Families say farewell to the old year and greet the New Year with more food and music.

For the next 5 days Puerto Ricans and children prepare for Three Kings’ Day on the 6th of January, the Feast of the Epiphany. This holiday observes when the Magi (The Three Kings) brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh from the Far Eastto present to Jesus. The night before, children cut some grass and place it in a small box.  The box is placed under their beds to feed the horses of the Three Kings. The Kings bring the children gifts in exchange for the grass. Many Puerto Ricans go on to celebrate through las octavitas, eight more days of festivity, and many prolong the season with las octavonas, eight more final days of holiday fun. Many Santos carvers, like traditonal artist Maria DeJesus, depict the Three Kings in their art work.

 Puerto Rican Music   Puerto Rican folk music is part of the legacy of the jíbaro, originating in the Andalusia region of Spain. The folk songs and romantic ballads of 18th and 19th-century Spain provided the basis for several musical traditions that developed throughout Puerto Rico’s colonial period. In time, these folk songs merged with music either introduced or native to the Hispanic New World. The décima is the core of jíbaro or country music. Originating in Southern Spain, jíbaro is perhaps the earliest example of the combination of native rhythms to the lyrics and tunes of Spanish music. The heart of Puerto Rican music is the idea of improvisation in both music and lyrics, in which one performer responds to another. A 16th century Spanish poetic form led to the development of décimas, ten improvised couplets of eight syllables each, used in the songs. Two of the most common song types based on the décima, are the ‘aguinaldo’ and the ‘seis’. ‘Seis’, literally means ‘six.’ However, many different musical motifs can be used as a starting point for sung poetic improvisation. These simple melodies and harmonies are accompanied by a cuatro, guitar, and güiro. Danced by six couples, men and women would divide into two lines, facing each other and crossing  each other during the dance.

‘Aguinaldos’ are traditional Christmas melodies, based on an old form of Spanish Christmas carol. During the Puerto Rican Christmas season parrandas, a group of family, friends or neighbors sing and play ‘Aguinaldos,’ going from house to house where they are invited in for food and drink. Aguinaldos came to be used for the improvisation of décimas and now are often switched with the seises.

   Traditional  Puerto Rican instruments include the bongos, cuatro, conga, cowbell, Güiro, Guitar, Tambora, and Timbales. Bongos consist of  two unequal sized small attached drums. Arising from African roots, and Cuba, bongos first made their appearance around 1900. Made from wood with pork or goat skin, bongos are mainly used in salsa and slow songs. The Cuatro  is a guitar-like instrument played with a flat pick. The cuatro originally had 4 strings, but in 1875, changed to 5 strings. Carved from a single block of laural wood, the cuatro has a graceful shaped body and steel strings. The Conga is an ancient drum adapted from Africa. It began as a solid hollowed out log with nailed on animal skin. Modern ones are usually made of fiberglass or wood and have a tunable skin and can be played with heal of hand or fingers. The Cowbell is the instrument of the “jíbaro,” the rural farmer, which is also the name of the music played on it.  The Cowbell is also used to sing ‘Aguinaldos,’ traditional Christmas melodies. A notched hollowed-out gourd from the native marimbo tree, the Güiro has lines carved into it, from small to large. The right hand scrapes the pua (scraper) across the grooves in the güiro to produce rhythmic rasping sounds. The pua is made from bamboo or wood with metal tines attached. Modern ones are often made of steel. The güiro originated in Santo Domingo.
 
Many artists pass on their art forms to their children and grandchildren, nieces, nephews and friends. Raymond Rosas, a member of La Krema, echos the importance of family in continuing their musical and cultural traditons, My family is really into music. My dad really influenced me. I used to follow my dad. I’m self-taught. I used to play every day after school. I was lucky because my dad bought me every percussion instrument. (I am) lucky my dad had a band. I started to play with the band (when I was) 11 years old. I used to be called the mascot of the band growing up. “

Musician Jesse Pabon shared, “I used to play with a band that came from Puerto Rico. I was a percussionist. From there I was a percussionist for 8 years. (I did) vocals, chorus. I put La Krema together in 1996. We play salsa, meringue, Latin Jazz. . . .. played inPuerto Rico. My parents were also into the music. I listened to radio. My dad used to have 75 records. My parents are from Aroro, Puerto Rico, the other side of the island, on the west coast, near San Juan. (My children want to) follow in my footsteps.

 Perspectives on Folklore
Though a perfect definition of folklore is yet to be established, in 1938 Benjamin A. Botkin offered the following description: Folklore is a body of traditional belief, custom, and expression, handed down largely by word of mouth and circulating chiefly outside of commercial and academic means of communication and instruction. Every group bound together by common interests and purposes, whether educated or uneducated, rural or urban, possesses a body of traditions which may be called its folklore. Into these traditions enter many elements, individual, popular, and even “literary,” but all are absorbed and assimilated through repetition and variation into a pattern which has value and continuity for the group as a whole.

Puerto Rican Music
Puerto Rican folk music is part of the legacy of the jíbaro, originating in the Andalusia region of Spain. The folk songs and romantic ballads of 18th and 19th-centurySpainprovided the basis for several musical traditions that developed throughout Puerto Rico’s colonial period. In time, these folk songs merged with music either introduced or native to the Hispanic New World. The décima is the core of jíbaro or country music. Originating in Southern Spain, jíbaro is perhaps the earliest example of the combination of native rhythms to the lyrics and tunes of Spanish music. The heart of Puerto Rican music is the idea of improvisation in both music and lyrics, in which one performer responds to another. A 16th century Spanish poetic form led to the development of décimas, ten improvised couplets of eight syllables each, used in the songs. Two of the most common song types based on the décima, are the ‘aguinaldo’ and the ‘seis’. ‘Seis’, literally means ‘six.’ However, many different musical motifs can be used as a starting point for sung poetic improvisation. These simple melodies and harmonies are accompanied by a cuatro, guitar, and güiro. Danced by six couples, men and women would divide into two lines, facing each other and crossing each other during the dance.

‘Aguinaldos’ are traditional Christmas melodies, based on an old form of Spanish Christmas carol. During the Puerto Rican Christmas season parrandas, a group of family, friends or neighbors sing and play ‘Aguinaldos,’ going from house to house where they are invited in for food and drink. Aguinaldos came to be used for the improvisation of décimas and now are often switched with the seises.

References:

Giovannetti, Jorge L. “Popular Music and Culture in Puerto Rico: Jamaican and Rap Music as Cross-Cultural Symbols.” Musical Migrations: Transnationalism and Cultural Hybridity in the Americas Frances R. Aparicio and Cándida F. Jáquez (eds.)New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. pp. 87-88

Manuel, Peter, Kenneth Bilby and Michael Largey. Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae (2nd edition).Temple University Press, 2006.

Sweeney, Philip. “Not Quite the 52nd State” World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India,Asia and Pacific, Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books, 2000. pp 481-487.

  Los Sublimos . . .
Eddie Rosas is the leader of the Los Sublimos traditional Puerto Rican band. “Christmas inPuerto Ricobegins in November and ends in March . . . At Christmas time (the musicians) go from house to house. (The family) brings rum out, beer out, food out. Then (the musicians) play there for two to three hours. Its all friends and relatives. (They say) ‘I’m going to wake up my friend.’ It’s 9:00 (p.m.). Everybody does it. It’s very traditional. They have pastellas, made out of green banana, moonshine, a pig roast. They go all the way to the morning. They do it for fun . . . The songs are ‘Aguinalilos, dicemas.’ I invent as I am singing. I say, ‘Here I am. Get ready . . .’ The people sing and dance. . . There is also a “Women’s Choir.” They are singing the first verse (of the Aguinalilos, dicemas) over and over.” My father played the guitar. That’s how I learned. My grandfather played the guitar. They used to do it on horses then . . . go from house to house. My brothers always had a group. They passed away the time (playing music). I was always watching them. I started my own group in 1977. I bought some instruments, got some musicians together and we started to play. My father (Raymond Rosas) was a musician. My mother was Julia (Vega) Rosas. It was in the family. He (my father) sang and played guitar. He learned from my grandfather, my father’s father. My son plays for La Krema.

  La Krema . . .
Jesse Pabon “I used to play with a band that came from PuertoRico. I was a percussionist. (I did) vocals, chorus. I put La Krema together in 1996. We play salsa, meringue, Latin Jazz … My parents were also into the music. My parents are from Aroro, Puerto Rico, the other side of the island, on the west coast, near San Juan. Their names are Jovito Pabon and Doras (Figura) Pabon. (My son) Nino wants to be a singer and follow in my footsteps.

Raymond Rosas
My family is really into music. My dad really influenced me. I used to follow my dad. I’m self-taught. I used to play every day after school. I was lucky because my dad bought me every percussion instrument. He provided me with congas, timbales, bongos, güiro, maracas. He forced me to practice every day. He said, “Practice every day” Music was everywhere I went. I’d bang on my desk, bang pots and pans. My fingers are always moving, in the car, on my knees, my leg. (I am) lucky my dad had a band. I started to play with the band (when I was) 11 years old.

Calvin Rice I’ve been playing trumpet since the fifth grade. Igrew up hearing this (Puerto Rican) music. It was something I wanted to do. Playing was in school . . . at dances, parties, with a live band playing. My mom’s dad was born in Puerto Rico. Her mom was from Mexico. My grandparents (were from) Puerto Rico. My interest in native culture came from my family. This is me wanting to understand my roots, background better. I love this music which is part of my culture.

Carlos Day I’m a piano player, bass, trumpet, Latin percussion. I play congas, timbales, bongos. My mother played the guitar. She (Rosa Rodriguez) was a singer. My dad (Stanley Day) was a drummer and musician. All my aunts and uncles are guitar players and singers. I started playing at 5. Grandfather started teaching me chords. I started picking up the trumpet . . . (My family is) musically inclined. My grandfather, Jorges Rodriguez, was from Bayamon,Puerto Rico. He played the cuatro, a guitar from Puerto Rico. He knew acoustic chords, chords to teach me. I picked up acoustic guitar. My grandmother (also played) the cuatro.

Albert Valderrano My family members are musically inspired. My uncle sings and plays guitar in Puerto Rico. When holidays came, he was the one who got the family together at Christmas and New Year’s. (We) would go house to house. Everybody would randomly show up at people’s houses. If you had a girlfriend, you would want to meet her parents, you’d show up at her house with a little band. I was six when I came to the U.S. The (tradition) continued with people around us. Music was always in me. I learned to play drums at age 7 through a Christian church.

Other members of La Krema are Tyler Skelton, Juan A. Betancourt,Orlando Nunez, Rico Tribuzzi, Jose O. Maldonado, Miguel Mitchell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TRADITIONAL INSTRUMENTS

Bongos – Two unequal sized small attached drums arising from African roots, and Cuba around 1900. Made from wood with pork or goat skin. Mainly used in salsa and slow songs.

Cuatro – a guitar-like instrument originally had 4 strings, but in 1875, changed to 5 strings. Carved from a single block of laural wood, the cuatro has a graceful shaped body and steel strings. Played with a flat pick.

Conga – an ancient drum adapted fromAfrica. Began as a solid hollowed out log with nailed on animal skin. Modern ones are usually made of fiberglass or wood and have a tunable skin. Can be played with heal of hand or fingers.

Cowbell – the instrument of the jíbaro, the rural farmer. Also the name of the music played on it. Also used to sing ‘Aguinaldos,’ traditional Christmas melodies.

Güiro – a notched hollowed-out gourd from the native marimbo tree. Lines are carved into it, from small to large. The right hand scrapes the pua (scraper) across the grooves in the güiro to produce rhythmic rasping sounds. The pua is made from bamboo or wood with metal tines attached. Modern ones are often made of steel. Originated in Santo Domingo.

Guitar – 6-stringed instrument brought by Spanish colonists, considered “number one” instrument in Puerto Rico. Used for trios; very important at Christmas time.

Maracas – first created and used by Taino Indians from the dried fruit of the higuera tree. Pebbles are placed inside each and a handle is fitted.

Tambora – drum made in Santa Domingo out of goat skin, rope, and wood. Used for merengue, not anything else.

Timbales – a salsa drum set consisting of two tunable drums that differ in pitch; two cowbells, cymbals and possibly a wood block. Played with a stick or bare hand. Developed inCuba, based on the tymponi from Europe.

 Resources:

Siegel, Daniel J. The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain interact to shape who we are New York, London: The Guilford Press (pp.159-160)

 Giovannetti, Jorge L. “Popular Music and Culture inPuerto Rico: Jamaican and Rap Music as Cross-Cultural Symbols.” Musical Migrations: Transnationalism and Cultural Hybridity in the Americas Frances R. Aparicio and Cándida F. Jáquez (eds.)New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.  pp. 87-88

 Manuel, Peter, Kenneth Bilby and Michael Largey. Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae (2nd edition).TempleUniversity Press, 2006.

 Sweeney, Philip. “Not Quite the 52nd State” World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books, 2000. pp 481-487.

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