Hispanic Heritage Month, Focus on Puerto Rico

Plena Libre
Photo by Angel Romero
World Music Central‘s celebration of Hispanic Heritage month continues with the music of Puerto Rico, a tropical island in the Caribbean. Puerto Ricans and their descendants are one of the largest Hispanic groups in the United States. Puerto Rican music is characterized by the fusion of Spanish and African-rooted music. Some of the best known musical styles include rural music known as música jibara (usually called jibaro music in English), bomba and plena. Although Afro-Cuban music provided a major component of salsa music, Puerto Rican musical genres and musicians based in the island and in the New York City area also played a major role in the development of salsa music.


El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico is an institution in the island. This large salsa orchestra has been around for 50 years and is still touring worldwide. Many famous salsa musicians and singers developed their careers with El Gran Combo. Recommended albums: 30th Anniversary, Sin Salsa No Hay Paraiso, Arroz Con Habichuela, Aqui Estamos y De Verdad. Another recommended album is a tribute album to El Gran Combo that features top salsa artists: Salsa: Un Homenaje a El Gran Combo.

La Sonora Ponceña is another essential salsa group from Puerto Rico. They evolved throughout the years and were influenced by psychedelia, progressive rock, fusion and other genres. In 1979 La Ponceña released La Ceiba, an album recorded with the Queen of salsa, Cuba’s Celia Cruz. In 1980, the band released the Latin Jazz album New Heights. Fania Records has reissued many of La Ponceña’s recordings. Recommended albums: Desde Puerto Rico A Nueva York, La Ceiba, Fuego En El 23, Algo De Locura, Hacheros Pa Un Palo.

Hector Lavoe (born Héctor Juan Pérez Martínez) was one of Puerto Rico’s most famed salsa singers. Hector Lavoe performed with Orquesta New York, Kako All-Stars, Fania All stars and Johnny Pacheco. Recordings: Asalto Navideño, The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, La Voz (1975), De Ti Depende (1976), Comedia (1978), Feliz Navidad (1979), Recordando a Felipe Pirela (1979), El Sabio (1980), Que Sentimiento (1981), Revento (1985), Strikes Back (1987) and the two CD anthology A Man And His Music.

Tito Rodriguez was a famous mambo singer who influenced numerous salsa singers. Fania recently released a 2 CD anthology titled Tito Rodriguez: El Inolvidable (Fania, 2009)

Other salsa greats include vocalists Cheo Feliciano, Adalberto Santiago, Tito Allen, Luigi Texidor, Papo Sánchez, Sammy González, “El Cano” Estremera, Luisito Carrión, Tito Rojas (El gallo), Wichi Camacho, Hermán Olivera, Víctor Manuelle, and Andy Montañez, and percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo.

Musica Jibara

Música jíbara is Puerto Rico’s country music. It has deep Spanish influences. Musical instruments include the cuatro guitar, Spanish style poetry, and less percussion than other Puerto Rican styles.

Edwin Colón Zayas is renowned internationally as the maestro of the cuatro. He has recorded nearly 20 solo albums, has performed on, arranged, or directed more than 250 recordings for Puerto Rican artists. His collaborations have incorporated classical music, South American and Latin popular music, and jazz. Recommended recordings: ¡Bien Jibaro!: Country Music of Puerto Rico, Cuatro y la Danza Puertorriqueña, Cuatro Mas Allá de lo Imaginable, Siguiendo Hacia El Infinito, 100 % Puertorriqueño, Morel En Tiempo De Cuatro, Descarga, Este es tu Taller Campesino

Cuatro master Yomo Toro passed away a few months ago. He was one of the musicians who introduced Puerto Rico’s jibaro music to New York salsa. In 2009 he became a NEA National Heritage Fellow. Recommended recordings: Asalto Navideño, El Espíritu Jíbaro (The Jibaro Spirit), Herencia, Celebremos Navidad, Funky Jibaro, Greatest Hits.

Ramito was known as the King of jibaro music. He died in 1989. Recommended albums: Raices Borincanas, Ramito: Puerto Rico’s Favorite, Ramito y sus Jibaros, 78 Pueblos Borincanos, Retorno De Ramito

Other popular jibaro music acts include La Calandria, and Chuito el de Bayamón.

The Puerto Rican Cuatro Project has extensive information about the cuatro and its most important performers. http://www.cuatro-pr.org/node/142


Don Rafael Cepeda and his family have dedicated their lives to the preservation of Puerto Rican folk music, especially Afro-rooted Bomba and Plena. Composer and arranger William Cepeda plays trombone and many other instruments. He is the grandson of Rafael Cepeda is one of the best known musicians of the Familia Cepeda. He has researched traditional Puerto Rican music and developed combinations of bomba and plena with jazz. Recordings: My Roots & Beyond, Bombazo, Branching Out, Unity, Live at Montreux Jazz Festival, Ando Vacilando


Plena combines African rhythms with Spanish harmonies and melodies. The lyrics include themes of everyday life, patriotism, social protest, passion, and humor. The main musical instrument is the pandero frame drum, which comes from the Spanish tradition.

Plena Libre is an ensemble of virtuoso musicians known for their high-energy shows and pandero-driven native Puerto Rican folkloric rhythms, which are infused with salsa, jazz, other Afro-Caribbean rhythms. In addition to panderos, Plena Libre uses congas, timbales, trombones and the call and response of their vocalists. Recommended albums: Plena Libre, Juntos y revueltos, Evolución, Mi Ritmo, Regalo de Navidad, Estamos Gozando, Mas Libre, Plena Al Salsero

Atabal is a band from Puerto Rico that plays contemporary plena and tropical music. The ensemble combines various Aftrican-rooted rhythms. It was originally a drum and vocals group. Currently it is trpical music orchestra. Albums: Música morena, Atabal: Voces y Tambores

Puerto Rican Jazz

Saxophonist Miguel Zenon has been exploring Puerto Rican roots music within the context of jazz. He has dedicated albums to plena and jibaro music: (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2001), Ceremonial (Marsalis Music, 2004), Jíbaro (Marsalis Music, 2005), Awake (Marsalis Music, 2008), Esta Plena (Marsalis Music, 2009)

José Feliciano

Singer-songwriter and virtuoso guitarist José Feliciano deserves a category of his own. He is one of the most famous Puerto Rican performers. His music combines Puerto Rican folk music, Spanish guitar, adaptions of rock classics and blues. Some of his best known hits include Light My Fire and Feliz Navidad. His discography is extensive. To get a taste try Light My Fire: The Very Best Of José Feliciano.

Nueva Cancion

Nueva canción

Like other Spanish-speaking countries, Puerto Rico’s singer-songwriters were influenced by Cuban nueva trova and the nueva canción momevement in South America. Puerto Rican musicians folk singers incorporated música jíbara (jibaro music), salsa and other native elements into their sound. The leading Puerto Rican acts in this genre include Haciendo Punto en Otro Son, Roy Brown and Aires Bucaneros, Moliendo Vidrio, Andrés Jiménez, Antonio Cabán Vale (El Topo), Nicole Pérez, Zoraida Santiago, Lourdes Pérez and Antillano. Recommended albums: Son Que Te Traigo Yo, Cancion Sublevada, Del sueño al hecho, Casi Alba


Although many people think that reguetón (also spelled reggaeton) came from Puerto Rico, it originated in Panama. This popular pop style in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean is influenced by Jamaican dancehall, Spanish language reggae, dub, electropop and hip hop. Vocalists sing or rap.

Calle 13 are international stars. Although they were originally associated with reguetón, they have branched out into other musical genres, incorporating global music elements such as cumbia, jazz, ska, rock, etc.

Some of the bigger names in reguetón are Daddy Yankee, Baby Rasta, Don Omar, Arcángel, Plan B, Zion & Lennox, RKM & Ken-Y, Lobo, La Formula.

Read other Hispanic Heritage Month stories: Hispanic Heritage Month, Focus on Mexico

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.


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