Puerto Rico's musical culture is a fusion of different melodic influences from various countries around the world. African culture has had a major effect on the development of music genres on Puerto Rico, creating an Afro-Rican sound and flavor that is unique to the island.
Because sugar production was not as profitable on Puerto Rico as it was on other islands in the region, few slaves were imported to the island. The African slaves who were brought to the island carried with them the culture of their homeland. The Spanish colonists forced the slaves to abandon many of their cultural practices. In response to this repression, the slaves merged some of their traditional practices with those of the colonists', forming new kinds of artistic expressions, especially in music.
Much of Puerto Rico's music has roots in African rhythms and dance, but the main genres of music that have directly evolved from the black slaves on Puerto Rico are plena and bomba.
Rooted in African slave culture, the plena is a narrative song that describes the people's pain and struggles. Although there are several theories about the origins of plena, the most popular says the genre began in Ponce, on Puerto Rico's southern coast. During the early 20th century, the south coast became a sugar-producing area on the island. The slaves and peasants who worked on Puerto Rico's sugar plantation used the plena as a musical expression of their lives. As the plantation workers integrated into other parts of the island, the plena became a part of the island's urban aestheticism and folkloric music. The plena can be performed with or without dancers and is typically played at a very fast pace. The most prominent instrument used during the plena is the pandereta.
Unique to Puerto Rico, the bomba is a musical genre for dancing. Although there is some controversy about the exact ancestry of bomba, most agree that this genre derived from West African culture. Black slaves were imported from West Africa and brought to work at the plantations along Puerto Rico's coast. The African slaves were prohibited from worshiping their gods, so they combined their traditional African religion with the practices of St. James. During their Christian celebrations, the slaves would wear traditional masks called vejigante and dance to bomba music. As one of their only means of religious expression, bomba became a significant way for African slaves articulate their spiritual strength.
There are various styles of bomba that have different rhythms. Some of these variations of bomba, like babú, belén, cunyá, yubá, and more, have names that reflect their African origins, while others are named for the type of dance they accompany, like the leró. More an extravagant event than a simple musical composition, the bomba combines singing, dancing, and music, and is typically performed during community social events. The bomba begins with a female solo, followed by a response from the supporting musicians who play various percussion instruments while dancers move along with the music. Dancing is essential to the performance of the bomba, and the movements of the dancers act as an unspoken dialog, creating a call-and-response with the drummers. The dancers improvise and take turns challenging the drummers, usually in reference to events happening in the community.
The African influences on the music of Puerto Rico are apparent in the soulful rhythms of much of the island's sounds.
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