History - To 1600

Taíno petroglyph, Caguana, PR
Foto cortesia de Robin Parker Garcia
Very little is known about the music of the indigenous people of Puerto Rico outside of a very few first hand and some hearsay accounts from the Spaniards who came in conquest during the early years of the 16th century.

The people that populated Puerto Rico through this period were the Taíno indians that migrated to the island from northern coast of South America and settled in Puerto Rico around 900 AD. The Taínos referred to Puerto Rico as the island of “Borikén”, often spelled as “Borinquén” in Spanish.

Although Colombus landed on Puerto Rico during his second voyage to the western hemisphere, it was not until 1508 and the arrival of Juan Ponce de León that the Spaniards began colonizing the island. Disease, brought to the island by the Spaniards, such as the small pox epidemic of 1527, and abusive treatment at the hands of the conquistadors, quickly decimated the Taíno population. The remnants of the Taínos intermarried with the Spanish and later, with the slaves that were imported from Africa. Despite this and a lack of written language, the heritage of Taíno people is quite noticeable in the general culture of Puerto Rico and to a limited extent in its music.

Taíno mayahuacán drum
Foto cortesia de Melanio González
One of the earliest accounts of Taíno music came from Fray Ramón Pané, who described a percussion instrument called “mayohavau” that was played during songs that were performed during religeous rituals. This instrument, according to Pané, was made of a thin wood a was shaped like an elongated gourd that measured up to one meter long and half a meter wide. The sound produced by the mayohavau could be heard as far as a “league and a half away” (a league being a distance between 2.4 to 4.6 miles, or 3862 to 7403 meters). Pané reported that these were played by leaders of the tribe as accompaniment to songs which were used to pass on customs and laws to younger generations.

Fray Bartolomé de las Casas was another early reporter. A Spanish monk, he described the use of drums as dance accompaniment, sometimes involving hundreds of dancers at a time. He wrote:

“And on this island what I could understand was that their songs which they call ‘areytos,’ were their history passed from person to person, fathers to sons from the present to the future, as here uniting many Indians… passing three or four hours or more until the teacher or guide of the dance finished the history, and sometimes they went from one day to the next.”

These songs appeared to early reporters as chants, known as “areítos”. Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés described these areítos as songs performed while dancing. He reported that these songs were often a part of a communal celebration, usually religeous and the term areíto, or “areyto”, is often used today to describe these events, which sometimes lasted several days.

Taíno maraca
Foto cortesia de Nelsonrafael Collazo
In addition to the drums, the Taínos also played güiros, made from higüeros (gourds) which vary in size from quite small to about a meter in length. The Taínos used higüeros for many of the artifacts used in their daily life. Another musical instrument they commonly used was the flute that they made either from conch shells or reeds. It is known that the Taínos used maracas, although the design was different from the modern version; using a single large ball instead of many small ones.

According to Nanaturey, which means “Sky Woman” in the Taíno language, a Taíno song could have sounded like this modern interpretation performed by Yucayeke Maguey performing group:  Taíno song. A member of the Taíno tribes Canóbanas and Bayamón, Nanaturey explains that that this performance, led by Guacokio Gua Teketa Maguey, or “Man of Many Drums”, used traditional Taíno instruments, including flute, maracas and drums.

Because the traditional celebrations of the Taínos were fobidden by the Spanish, few artifacts survived. Many of the artifacts were hidden away in caves or other “safe” places and managed to survive the colobial period.