Jorge Arce & Humano

Puerto Rico and Afro-Caribbean Culture

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Jorge Arce


Cover of Jorge Arce & Humano's CD

When slavery was established in the Americas during the sixteenth century, the slave owners never suspected how much the practice would influence the cultural life this area. The many numbers of tribes brought from the African coasts joined the already subjugated Native Americans and adopted portions of their culture. At the same time, they reinterpreted and adopted a great portion of their masters' culture. In the Caribbean region the process of integration in which the African element became predominant was the wellspring of what is now called Afro-Caribbean culture.

The Americas had been settled by peoples from Asian countries perhaps millennia before what is referred to as the European discovery. The three main cultural groups extant in the late fifteenth century were the Inca in Peru, and the Aztec and Mayans in Mexico, each of whom had long since developed an advanced civilization displaying a language, writing, and sophisticated learning in the sciences as well as a functioning economy and a social and political structure.

In the Caribbean region the main native group was the Taino who derived from the Guarani and Aruaco tribes in Brazil. They immigrated through the islands close to Venezuela, and some of them settled there. Others continued north to Boriken (the native name given to Puerto Rico), Santo Domingo and Cuba. The natives living in the islands close to Venezuela were known as Indios Caribes. The region in which they were established and which is located south of the Major Antilles (formed by Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, Haiti, Jamaica, and Cuba) has been designated as the Caribbean sea, deriving from Caribe, a native word.

It was not difficult for the African people brought to the Caribbean to integrate, and their presence transformed the natives' culture, especially in Puerto Rico where evidence was found of the integration. The descendants of Africans and slaves born in Spain, known as Ladinos, fought together with the natives against the Spanish slavers in 1511. It was a confrontation in which the native population was almost exterminated. During the conquest period, a native woman named Yuisa, who was a chief or cacique of a tribe, married a Ladino named Francisco Mejia in the area of Loiza, now a predominantly black town in northern Puerto Rico. After African slavery was completely established in 1518, the fugitives who escaped to the interior of the island mixed with the remaining natives and with numbers of other groups

Musically speaking, the Africans found the maracas (a native instrument) very like the Yoruba chekeres and other African instruments with a similar sound. Another native instrument, the guiro, was easily adopted by them. During the sixteenth century African people were brought first to the Caribbean and then to the rest of the North American continent. To avert rebellions, such as the 1511 rebellion, the masters separated members of tribes so they could not communicate in their own languages. There ensued a parallel dispersion of linguistic, musical, dance forms and instruments. This explains why a Puerto Rican can learn the rock-derived dance and music forms so easily, especially when we take into consideration that rock is mainly African influenced. Marshall and Jean Sterns (1966) wrote in The Jazz Dance, "The music was a throwback, or rather a dilution by white musicians of the third kind of music recorded for the Negro market . . . Known originally as 'race' in the 1920s, then 'rhythm and blues' in the 1930s and 1940s. . . . The twist was employed long ago in Africa and by the Negro folk in the South . . . was used in 1913 routine of a dance called 'Ballin the Jack' . . . blues shouters of the twenties used it . . . and in the twenties was inserted during the breakaway . . . of the Lindy."

The Africans were forced to learn a new language, but they never excluded their own. They learned their masters' dance and music forms but then introduced their own elements into it. More importantly, they were made to profess a new religion, but they then injected it with their own concepts and musical elements blending in a few native elements. This process became the foundation of Afro-Caribbean culture.

The great variety of music and rhythms of the Afro-Caribbean region originated in the diverse tribes and cultural groups brought from Africa. In Cuba, from the Congo-Bantu, Yoruba and from other groups came the rumbas and the comparsas. Together with the Spanish influence there emerged the son and the habanera with its variations that include son montuno, danzon, son guaracha, son guajira, and so on. More modern variations are the songo and the salsa, the latter inspired by the Cuban son and commercialized in New York during the 1970s. In Haiti we find, among others, the Haitian meringue (or compa) and ritmo de palos, the latter developed on the border between Domingo and Haiti.

The Santo Domingo or Dominican merengue is one of the best known music forms in Latin America. In the Virgin Island (which include former Dutch, French, and English Islands, also known as the Minor Antilles or West Indies) the calypso, soca rhythms and others appeared. Jamaica, a former English possession and also part of the Major Antilles produced reggae music and dance. In Puerto Rico African elements appear in such music forms as the danza (derived from the European country dance and the Cuban habanera) and country music. But bomba and plena, manifest the strongest African influence.

(From "Bomba and Plena" African Retention in Puerto Rico, by Jorge Arce, in Beverly Anderson (ed) Music of the Caribbean, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1996 . Illustrations: Jorge Arce ©1997 )

For translations into different languages -- Arabic, Chinese, Italian, French, German, Russian, Spanish or others visit the web site:

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