Folk Instruments of Puerto Rico: Their Origins, Roots and Influence in Puerto Rican Culture

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Westminster Choir College of Rider University

Princeton, NJ



Luis F. Rodríguez

MH 631 - Introduction to Musicology

Prof. Mirchandani




Historical Background3

Musical Genres4

Musical Instruments

Taíno Heritage6

African Heritage8

Plucked String Instruments (“Spanish Heritage”)9

Their Relationship with Folk/Popular Music and Art Music

and their influence in Puerto Rican Culture13




The history of Puerto Rican music in general is incomplete and inaccurate. There is little documentation available from the 16th through the 18th-century, due to the lack of attention that the Spanish authorities paid towards Puerto Rico. During this gestation time, educated people considered it not interesting to write about culture and music –especially jíbaro music– in Puerto Rico during the first centuries of the colonization time; it was more interesting to be a philosopher, for example.

It is possible the exposure of other European cultures (and thus their music and instruments) brought to Puerto Rico by contraband during this time, but there is no concrete evidence[1]. The only true fact is that the music of the jíbaros is the basis of the Puerto Rican’s shaping; to say jíbaro is the same as to say Puerto Rican. Thus, it was the jíbaro that first began to give shape to Puerto Rican culture, and with it the music and musical instruments.

This paper will explore the Puerto Rican instruments and how are they related to the history and culture of Puerto Rico.


Puerto Rican culture is part of a Hispanic civilization. It is the result of the Spaniard’s encounter with the Taíno Indian and the African–with the Hispanic element remaining decisive and dominant. This creates an autonomous culture and music with national characteristics of its own and a variety of forms.

Various foods and many names of towns are of Taíno (Indian) origin in Puerto Rico. And so are some musical instruments, like the maracas and the güiros. Drums from hollow tree trunks with a thin skin are Indian, too. The rhythms themselves are Spanish or African.

During colonization times in Puerto Rico (around 1508) began the Golden Age of the vihuela de mano in the courts of Spain; it had 6 courses. There was also the vihuela del pueblo with four courses, the vihuela de plectro and the vihuela de arco. The documents of the Real Hacienda in Puerto Rico tell us that the first vihuela entered Puerto Rico in 1512, and in 1516 entered the first Spanish guitar.[2]

The Spanish tradition makes itself strongly felt in the melodies of Puerto Rican folk music. The melodies are carried usually by the Spanish guitar or by the Puerto Rican’s own string instruments: the cuatro, tiple, tres and bordonúa[3].

During the 19th century, Puerto Rican musical tradition had been developing, as the Spanish heritage was slowly assimilated into Afro-Caribbean folk music.

In 1898, during the Spanish American War, American troops invaded Puerto Rico and raised the American flag. To many Puerto Ricans, it was apparent that the almost 400 years of cultural exchange with Spain had come to an end. According to some musicians and writers, the arrival of Americans announced the beginning of a period of decline. Curiously, after Spain ceded sovereignty over Puerto Rico to the United States, Puerto Rico retained its Hispanic character and culture. Evidence shows that the musical culture did not decline. Musical activities continued on the island throughout the first decade of the era.


There is no doubt of the importance and transcendence of the orquesta jíbara (folk ensemble), which began to take its shape in the 16th-century...
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