About the Collection
Teodoro Vidal: The Collector
The life and work of the cultural visionary.
Puerto Rican History
Art, artifacts, and archival documents illustrating the island’s history.
Objects, photographs, and aspirations of working men and women on the island.
The art and traditions of the Catholic folk culture of Puerto Rico.
The revelers, masks, and artisans who make the Carnaval de Ponce.
The musical instruments and traditions of bomba, música jíbara, and plena.
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The Great Puerto Rican Family
Portraits of Puerto Ricans during an era of dramatic economic and social change.
The folk music of Puerto Rico expresses many influences and traditions. Bomba, an early form, was developed on plantations by enslaved Africans and their descendants. Jíbaro music, which is considered Puerto Rico’s country music, embodies a mix of the musical traditions of Spain, including Moorish elements, especially in the performance of the seis genre. Plena music was introduced by workers near Ponce around 1898. These three kinds of music are closely related. Performances of plena, bomba, and seis often include instruments from other kinds of music. This mixture of instruments and rhythms illustrates why scholars call Puerto Rico a creolized society—its culture emerged from the mixing of different traditions.
The bomba is one of the oldest forms of Puerto Rican music. It flourished wherever Africans and their many mixed descendants lived and worked in colonial plantations. Bomba provided social, political, and spiritual outlets for people with many burdens in life. Like the Cuban rumba, bomba must include dance in its performance, as in West and Central African musical traditions. Bomba ensembles usually feature three differently pitched drums made from rum barrels, and a single maraca. Two kinds of calls and responses alternate: The singer and chorus respond alternatively to one another, and the high-pitched drum, buliador, alternates with the dancer. Drummer and dancer talk, tease, and challenge each other in their unique language, and when performed well, come together in a sensual duel.
North African Moslems, known as Moors, controlled many parts of Spain between 711 and 1500. The Moors left many cultural influences in Spain, especially in music, language, art, cuisine, and architecture. The Moorish influence is clearly felt in the seis, the most important form of jíbaro music. Seis means many things within the music—not only a type of singing but also a type of rhythm. The seis came to Puerto Rico from Spain in the 1680s. Spanish stringed instruments served as the inspiration for distinctive Puerto Rican instruments such as the cuatro, tiple, and bordonúa.
Of these, the cuatro, a kind of guitar, is most widely used today, not only in jíbaro music but also in plena and others. The back of the cuatro in this case is made out of a native gourd. The cuatro, the guitar, and the güiro form the jíbaro ensemble. Today, many musicians add bongo drums and bass.
Plena was born in the working-class neighborhoods near the city of Ponce about 1898 during the change from Spanish to American colonial rule. Plena is often called el periódico cantao, or “the sung newspaper,” because it comments on contemporary events, scandals, elections, and aspects of everyday life.
Plena instruments include three or more panderetas, handheld frame drums, of different sizes: seguidor, segundo, and requinto, each playing a different rhythm, and a güiro. With roots in West Africa, plena also reflects music from other Caribbean Islands and is a source of national pride and cultural identity for Puerto Ricans.