There are three primary folk music genres indigenous to the Island of Puerto Rico. These are the Spanish-derived jibaro music associated with the small farms and interior mountain communities, and the bomba and plena styles identified with the coastal towns with larger African populations.
Because Puerto Rico’s agricultural economy was centered in coffee and tobacco and not the labor-intensive sugar industry that dominated most of the Caribbean, fewer African slaves were imported and the influence of Spanish culture remained strong. The jibaros, the Spanish descendents who worked the interior farms, developed their own song and dance forms based heavily on Spanish traditions. Elite dance music and poetry, imported from Europe by the wealthy landowners, or hacendados, along with Spanish folk traditions, found their way into the jibaros repertoires. The seis is song set in 10-line verse form with lyrics dealing with idealized love, motherhood, the suffering of the jibaro farmer, and the beauty of the Puerto Rican countryside. Another song form, the aguinaldo, is associated specifically with the Christmas season. The seis and aguiandlo may be sung in a slow, ballad style, or played in a livelier tempo when used to accompany dancing at jibaro fiestas. A typical jibaro ensemble consists of guitar, cuatro (a guitar with five doubled strings), maracas, and guiro scraper, backing a trovador (singer/poet) who sings stock verses and improvises decimas (10-line text stanzas) on the spot. Jibaro singing is characterized by a high, tense, dramatic vocal delivery.
In coastal towns like Ponce, where African slaves were brought to work the sugar plantations, bomba and plena music developed. Bomba, the most African-influenced Puerto Rican folk style, features exuberant call-and-response singing between a leader and a chorus, interlocking drum patterns, and intense drummer/dance interaction (the latter responds to the lead drummer’s improvised rhythms). A typical bomba ensemble consists of a pair of sticks known as fúa or cua that provide a steady ground beat when struck on a hard surface; a maraca; and two or more barrel-shaped drums. The lyrics to bomba songs usually refer to everyday work and social events.
Plena is a creolized folk song that combines African-derived call (leader) and response (chorus) singing, drumming, and dance with European-derived melodies and harmonies. A traditional plena ensemble includes several handheld frame drums called panderetas (similar to a tambourine but without the metal jingles), the güiro (scraped gourd), and one or more melodic instruments such as the accordion, harmonica, or cuatro. Often referred to as “el periodico cantado” (the sung newspaper), plena songs relate current and historical events of community life. In recent years the plena ensembles have incorporated horns, keyboards, electric bass, and extended percussion to produce a more modern dance sound.