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Revealing Items

Part One:
One Man's Word
Part Two:
Turning Westward
Part Three:
An African Movement
Part Four:
Part Five:
Part Six:
Puerto Rico
Part Seven:
Borinquen NYC
Part Eight:
Who Owns Salsa?
Part Nine:
Salsa in the UK

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A History of Salsa
Part 6: Puerto Rico - Island Life

The story of Puerto Ricans in salsa is one of migration, permeated with the process of creolisation, and shaped by forces that were not quite under their own control. Unlike in Cuba, circumstances contrived to award Puerto Rico with the dubious honour of having most of its domestic music produced overseas - despite its rich heritage of music-making. To understand how this came to pass and the impact this has had on salsa, we'll begin by painting a picture of Puerto Rico during the Spanish colonial era: a backdrop upon which we'll place vignettes of incidences and confluences that caused Puerto Rican music to develop along such unique lines.

Colonial soundscape
The regional musics of colonial Puerto Rico were very much determined by its geography and economics. Sugar was grown on the fertile plains of the coast, where the weight of the industry was borne on the backs of large numbers of African slaves. These same people lent of themselves to the music and dances of this area giving birth to the bomba and the plena.

The mountainous interior, sometimes referred to derogatively as "la isla" [the island], favoured the less labour-intensive cash crop of coffee. This was the home of the jíbaro; farmers and itinerant traders who would transport their harvests down to the markets of the larger cities. Their music was the seis and the aguinaldo interpreted on the Puerto Rican guitar called the cuatro. This region, a destination for escaped slaves until as late as the nineteenth century, was strongly independent; so much so that both the jíbaro and the cuatro were later to become symbols of cultural resistance.

The economic lifeblood of the Caribbean was trade by sea, bringing cultural influences and wealth from other nations. The ports like Ponce and San Juan formed the island's cosmopolitan hubs, drawing in domestic produce and exchanging them for foreign goods. Prosperity from trade went into the establishment of music academies, sponsorship of touring opera companies and promotion of light theatre entertainment from Cuba - the Bufos Cubanos. Cities evolved as centres of musical intercourse, the progeny from which reached out to resonate in time across the entire island.

Celebrations and the military
As the Wars of Independence spread throughout South and Central America from 1810 to 1830, Spain strengthened her grip on Puerto Rico and Cuba by increasing her military presence. This action had the serendipitous side-effect of incubating Puerto Rican musical talent. Colonisation of the Americas by the Catholic kings of Spain had been legitimised through Papal approval, blurring the boundaries between church and state. The merging of sacred and secular activity in the colonies increased the number of processions, masses, dances and concerts that were celebrated. In order to satisfy the high commemorative activity, the regimental bands took to sponsoring the development of local musicians, "giving Puerto Ricans of different classes, races and regions both musical training and performance opportunities" (Glassner, 1995). The rewards of such an egalitarian, meritocratic approach would be reaped by Boricuas and non-Puerto Ricans alike for generations to come.

U.S. sovereignty and cinema
In 1898 the United States invaded Puerto Rico during the course of the Spanish-American war, foreshadowing a reduction in the power of the Church and the loss of regimental bands. Municipally-based bands arose out of the upheaval as the new centres of music education, but crucially keeping intact the same open access to training and performance opportunities. It became a source of pride for towns to possess a good band, and the civic competition stimulated elevated levels of musicianship - band members could often play more than one instrument, and all of them could read music. At the same time, leaders and composers of these bands tended to be shall we say "exuberant" parents, establishing large families of musicians such as the Tizols, Peñas, Duchesnes, and Maderas.

Under U.S. control, the island's infrastructure improved, greatly simplifying travel and communication. The composition of popular ensembles reflected this as they began to incorporate performers and musics from other regions, continuing the process of hybridisation that had begun in the ports with European and Cuban music. North American music was also added to the mix, its adoption accelerated by the phenomenon that was U.S.-developed mass media. It first took the form of cinema; an unexpected source of work for musicians who were brought in to provide accompaniment for the silent movies. Soundtracks to the films were shipped as music scores for the in-house ensembles to play. And so it was that performers and audiences alike grew familiar with the foxtrot, the waltz, and their styles of arrangement. Cinema became a 'rite of passage' for Puerto Rican musicians, testing their ability to play the right music at the right time at the shift of a scene - an ability that demanded versatility, adaptability and an extensive vocabulary.

Citizenship and conflict
Puerto Ricans were granted the right of U.S. citizenship with the passage of the Jones Act in March 1917, paving the way for large-scale economic migration to the mainland. The rural-to-urban shift of the populace, which began with the hacendados [land-owners] policy of the Spanish and continued as U.S. companies bought up large tracts of rural land, extended into an exodus off-island with the number one destination being the 'Iron Babel' of New York City.

One month after the Act, the United States declared war on Germany entering World War I. 18,000 Puerto Ricans were drafted into the effort and found themselves, doubtless with some surprise, assigned to "coloured regiments" (sic) due to the starkly dichotomous nature of the host culture, where one could only be black or white. So it was that eighteen leading Puerto Rican musicians found themselves recruited into the famous 369th Infantry 'Hellfighters' band led by the black composer and arranger James Reese Europe. That this was a seminal moment cannot be emphasised enough; the point when highly skilled Latin musicians came into contact with Black American music and learned to play jazz over the course of the Great War.

Radio and the Hurricane
In the post-war depression, attendances in cinemas suffered a sharp decline. The movie houses, whose managers would as likely as not be found leading municipal bands and whose performers included women and minors, began to close as even the wealthy tightened their belts. It was a dark period for Puerto Ricans, most of whom were already struggling to earn a living from their day jobs.

Then hurricane San Felipe II struck, making landfall on the feast day of Saint Philip in 1928. With winds of 160mph (260km/h), the first-ever recorded category five storm tore its way across Puerto Rico leaving 312 people dead, several hundreds of thousands homeless, and nearly half a billion (in 2006 US dollars) worth of property damage in its wake. Certainly this natural disaster applied positive pressure on the Puerto Rican migration to New York, but how much has not been fully quantified.

Picture houses took the opportunity to convert to the 'talking movies' format during the reconstruction, finally putting an end to cinema ensembles. However the change served to increase the public's exposure to foreign music: tangos from Argentina; corridos and rancheras from Mexico; jazz and swing from the States; via the soundtracks of the imported films. Fortunately this transition coincided with the rise of radio, which in the 1930s established itself as the new employer and mass media outlet for popular ensembles. Controlled by U.S. companies, radio became a tool of the music industry showcasing rising talents about to depart for New York and heralding the return of established ones.

In précis
The performers of Puerto Rico had more than mere talent; they had a pedigree in formal musicianship dating back nearly two centuries, and this was so of a significant proportion of the population. Not only were they fluent in a range of European and Afro-Caribbean genres, but they were capable of synthesis between them. It can be argued that musicians such as the brothers Jesús and Rafael Hernández, who were already familiar with 'Cuban' music, and who would also learn jazz in Jim Europe's band, would master the synthesis of both - playing a great part in the genesis of the salsa of our today.

However, there are several steps between then and now, and we'll address them next by looking at the life of Puerto Ricans in the melting pot of New York City.


1999 Salsa & Merengue Society