Gilberto Santa Rosa
The History Of Puerto Rico Music: Salsa, Tropical, Reggaetón & Beyond
Nearly 50 years ago, the city of New York was rocked to its core by a musical movement that would thrive and expand during the next decade, its powerful ripples eventually reaching the rest of the globe. Nicknamed "the salsa explosion of the '70s," it found a young generation of mostly Puerto Rican musicians blending the roots of Afro-Caribbean dance formats with echoes of R&B, funk, psychedelia, and rock and roll.
In retrospect, it is hard to believe that so many brilliant innovators — all from the same little island — found their creative apex in the same place and at the same time. Keyboardist Eddie Palmieri and his mathematically engineered jams, pumped up by roaring trombones and electronic dissonance. The raucous vocal textures of Héctor Lavoe, coupled with his streetwise gift for humor and improvisation. The velvety soundscapes of epic orchestra La Sonora Ponceña, marked by leader Papo Lucca and his jazz-flavored piano solos. And the progressive tendencies of Roberto Roena, a reckless dancer and self-taught percussionist seduced by dreams of bossa nova, creamy pop orchestrations and melancholy blues chords. Among others.
The salsa explosion arrived wrapped up in a cultural misunderstanding. Given the roots of the genre are Cuban — based on song formats like son montuno, guaracha, rumba and guajira — many people mistakenly thought that '70s salsa was all about Cuba. In reality, the movement was quintessentially Puerto Rican, nurtured at the same time by Nuyorican rebels such as Ray Barretto, Tito Puente and Willie Colón.
If the heyday of salsa showcased the artistry of Puerto Rican musicians at its apex, the island has, in fact, been one of the epicenters of Latin America since the beginning of the 20th century. Puerto Rico has excelled not only in the creation of timeless tropical recordings, but also played a fundamental role in Latin pop, rock and balladry. In recent years, it has also become the capital of urban Latin grooves and their ubiquitous game changer, reggaetón.
"In Puerto Rico, you lift up a stone and you find a great musician," says Gabriel Abaroa Jr., President/CEO of the Latin Recording Academy. "You open up a door, you find another one. You open the window, same thing. The island's creative potential is staggering, completely out of proportion."
Like other Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico assimilated the fusion of African slaves, European colonists and its indigenous population to form its own unique musical style. The elegant danza was already popular in the 19th century, but it was the soulful plena that became the very heart of traditional boricua music. Initially performed by small ensembles, including vocals, percussion and stringed instruments, the plena functioned as a musical newspaper of early 20th-century island life, narrating colorful stories about social scandals and political events. A close relative of the plena is the funky bomba, its roots deeply anchored on Afro-based percussion. Both plena and bomba would later color the sounds of salsa.
By the '50s, Puerto Rico had already found its musical father. Rafael Cortijo, an African-American percussionist and bandleader, combined the earthy joy of the local folk genres with a more cosmopolitan approach. His band, featuring a brass section, jazzy piano lines and virtuoso singer Ismael Rivera — affectionately known as "Maelo" — was, in many ways, the blueprint for all the salsa orchestras that followed. To this day, key Cortijo tracks such as "El Negro Bembón," "Maquinolandera" and "Sorongo" brim with melodic beauty, rhythmic bravado and a never-ending search for experimentation.
The '60s marked a time of cementing the specific qualities that would define the Puerto Rican tropical aesthetic. It was then that key names such as El Gran Combo, Willie Rosario and Tito Rodríguez perfected a sound that rejected the raucous frenzy of most Afro-Caribbean groups in favor of a more restrained approach. Like the subtle taste of a crème brûlée, Puerto Rican salsa favors elegance and sophistication above all virtues. It glides and sways with exquisite arrangements, taking its sweet time to reach a climax of danceable frenzy.
"From generation to generation, Puerto Rico has always been connected with every musical current in the world that you can think of," says Gilberto Santa Rosa, a legendary salsa singer who got an early start performing with Rosario's orchestra. "Here in the island, we have a strong connection with Africa, the rich European legacy, and a relationship with the U.S. that cannot be denied. Our musicians have traveled widely, which explains why you can hear echoes of Asia, reggae and even rich ties with the Brazilian sensibility. When musical geniuses like La Sonora Ponceña's Papo Lucca or Willie Rosario play their music, you can hear all that information in the chords they choose, their approach to harmony."
Even though the tropical genre is at the very heart of Puerto Rican culture, the proximity of both Mexico and the United States guaranteed an affinity for mainstream pop idioms. Two global stars emerged out of the ashes of '80s boy band Menudo: Robi "Draco" Rosa, a chameleonic singer/songwriter with a weakness for darkly hued soundscapes, and Ricky Martin, who would lead the Latin music explosion that took over the U.S. at the tail end of the '90s. In fact, it was Rosa who wrote Martin's smash "Livin' La Vida Loca," the manifesto for all the fun-loving, tropically tinged Latin hit singles that followed. Nearly 20 years later, it was another boricua popster, Luis Fonsi, who generated "Despacito," watched by billions on YouTube, a seamless summation of what a global pop smash should sound like in 2017.
Fonsi's partner in crime on "Despacito" is Daddy Yankee, the San Juan-born rapper who was behind "Gasolina" the 2004 track that launched the reggaetón revolution. Even though its roots lie in the Spanish reggae tracks that artists like El General recorded in Panama during the '90s, it was Puerto Rico that turned reggaetón into an international phenomenon, anchored on the talent and charisma of vocalists such as Tego Calderón, Don Omar, Vico C, Voltio, and Ivy Queen. In 2005 the duo Calle 13 used reggaetón as a springboard for a more ambitious sound that eventually would blossom into a fully realized pan-Latino vision, dizzyingly eclectic and politically corrosive — almost a genre of its own.
At the same time, reggaetón has slowly but steadily become an integral component of the intimate DNA of contemporary Latin music. The genre's voracious appetite for incorporating outside elements is key to its success — a quality that has defined Puerto Rican music since the beginning of time.
"What amazes me about Puerto Rican musicians is their natural ability to cover such a wide stylistic spectrum," concludes Abaroa. "They may play a salsa tune, showing astounding improvisational skills and passionate range. A few minutes later, you see them performing the sweetest bolero on earth. That versatility they poses, it's just the perfect mix."
(Ernesto Lechner has written about Latin music for Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and many other publications. He is the co-host of "The Latin Alternative," a nationally syndicated radio show that airs in more than 50 cities on NPR and affiliated stations.)