Musical Instruments

Throughout Puerto Rico's history, the island's culture and heritage has been heavily influenced by European, African, and American traditions, and these influences can be seen and heard in the island's musical instruments.

Instruments in History

The Taíno Indians were the first inhabitants of Puerto Rico, but aside from a few unsubstantiated accounts by early Spanish settlers, little is known about their music. One such description of Taíno music came from Fray Ramón Pané, who gave accounts of a percussion instrument called the mayohavau. Made of a thin wood, the mayohavau was shaped like an elongated gourd. This resonate instrument was played during religious ceremonies and could produce a sound that could be beard almost five miles away.

According to Fray Ramón Pané, the mayohavau was played by the Taíno's religious leaders, who played along with informative songs that were used to pass on traditions and laws to younger generations during communal festivals, which sometimes lasted for days at a time. In the absence of a written language, the ballads of the Taíno served as a form of oral literature, passing on important historical events. The chants that went along with the music were called areítos. These areítos were performed while dancers, whose numbers sometimes reached hundreds at one time, moved to the rhythmic beat of drums, and güiros, made from higüeros, or gourds. Flutes, made of conch shells or reed, were also used during Taíno musical celebrations, along with maracas, which were somewhat different from the maracas you see today.

After Spain conquered Puerto Rico and the Taíno people, these celebrations were outlawed by the Spanish government. With the banishment of Taíno rituals and music came the loss of most native musical instruments and artifacts. The ones that were preserved and managed to survive the colonial period have been found hidden away in secret places like caves and other hiding spots around the island.

Musical Instruments

Today, Puerto Rican musicians use stringed instruments such as the violin and cello, and from the brass family, the trumpet, trombone, and saxophone are very popular, as well as several others. Although the instruments in the list below may not look as familiar, they are commonly used in Puerto Rican music and are responsible for producing the island's characteristic sound.

  • Bombardino: The bombardino is closely related to the baritone tuba and looks like a smaller version of its brass cousin. Because of its smaller size, the bombardino is one octave higher than the tuba, but below the trumpet and horn. In Puerto Rican music, the bombardino is used mostly in the danza genre of music.

  • Bongos: Derived from African roots, the bongos are a pair of small, but unequally sized, drums that are joined together. The larger of the two drums is called the "female," or major drum, while the smaller drum is known as the "male." The bongos have been an essential part of Latin music and are played while sitting down and holding the drums between the knees.

  • Cuatro: When the Spanish began to colonize Puerto Rico, they brought with them various musical instruments, including guitars, which were very popular during that time period. Throughout history, Puerto Ricans have developed several different variants of the guitar, at least four of which were developed from the classical Spanish guitar. The cuatro is one of these variations and is unique to the island, producing a one-of-a-kind sound. When it was first developed, the cuatro only had four strings, thus the name cuatro, which means four. In 1875, the cuatro was changed from four strings to five sets of double strings, giving it the capability to be tuned in half octaves, or fourths. The cuatro first appeared in Puerto Rico's rural farms and was played by the jibaro, or farmers, who played music of the same name. During the holidays, the jibaro went from house to house singing aguinaldos, or Puerto Rican Christmas carols and playing the cuatro. Generally, most cuatros are made from solid blocks of laurel wood and have a resonant sound. For many decades, this violin-shaped instrument was considered Puerto Rico's national instrument.

  • Güiro: Believed to have originated with the indigenous Taíno Indians, the güiro is a traditional Puerto Rican instrument made from a hollowed-out gourd with parallel grooves carved into its surface. It is played with a scraper, or pua. The güiro produces rasping sounds, which can be both long and short, made by scraping up or down in either long or short strokes.

  • Maracas: Made from the fruit of the higuera tree, maracas were first used by the Taíno people of Puerto Rico. The pair of percussion instruments are used to produce a sound that is common to Latin and Puerto Rican music, especially in salsa music.

  • Panderetas: Also called panderos, panderetas are hand-held drums that look like tambourines, but without cymbals. There is some controversy about whether the modern-day panderetas were derived from the Spanish adufe, or from a similar African instrument. Panderetas have a wooden frame with an animal skin stretched across and come in three different sizes, each of which creates different pitches. Used during the plena, panderetas are played by a group of three, each having their own role in the musical movement.

While Puerto Rican music uses many modern instruments common to Western cultures, the instruments that give the island's music its distinctive sound are unique to the region and are not as well known. Music is an integral part of Puerto Rico's distinct culture and heritage, providing artistic expression through sound, a way to celebrate special events and holidays, preserve lost traditions, and much more.


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