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Essential Readings: Puerto Rican Contributions to 20th Century American Music

Néstor David Pastor


Throughout the 20th century, from the birth of jazz to hip-hop, Puerto Ricans played a significant role in shaping the musical landscape of the United States, and to an extent, the rest of the world. Though they have not always received the credit. For example, eighteen of the musicians of the 369th Infantry Marching Band, nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters, were Puerto Rican. These young men were recruited by bandleader Lt. James Reese Europe into one of the most famous military bands in Europe during World War I. It was in France that the band first introduced jazz to European audiences, and also where they made their first recordings. Yet in the film Jazz, the Ken Burns documentary miniseries released in 2000, Puerto Rican and Latin jazz musicians are hardly mentioned.

This dismissive approach has also extended to hip-hop music where Puerto Ricans can often be relegated to a secondary role. In New York Puerto Ricans in the Hip Hop Zone, Dr. Raquel Rivera makes a point to reaffirm the contributions of the many Puerto Rican b-boys, graffiti artists, DJs, and MCs who were around for the early years of hip-hop culture. The book also analyzes the racial and cultural identity politics that exist between Puerto Ricans and African-Americans living in New York City. In addition, Rivera examines the marginalized role of Puerto Ricans in the hip-hop industry, noting the commercial success of Big Pun as a significant turning point. Although published in 2003, Rivera’s book lays the foundation for a more inclusive history of hip-hop, a narrative thread which can be seen in the new Netflix series The Get Down, with Puerto Rican characters forming part of the nucleus of the show.

The era of hip-hop covered in Rivera’s book lasts from the 1970s to the 1990s, which is the same period of time when salsa clásica becomes romántica. Yet unlike the birth of hip-hop culture in the South Bronx during the 1970s, the salsa generation has two origin stories. The first of which is preceded by a decade of mixing Cuban popular music into emerging genres such as pachanga, charanga, bugalú, mambo, and so on. In the aptly titled Salsa Rising: New York Latin Music of the Sixties Generation, former Centro director Juan Flores chronicles the early years of what will eventually be known as salsa, from 1960-1975. He begins with the term ‘Latin’ music, introducing the musicians, labels, nightclubs, and producers who each played a role in the ‘rise’ of salsa that the book’s title alludes to. However, in Flores’s retelling, it is a story that ends (or begins again) just as the commercial success of the Fania label in the mid 70s overshadows the creativity and innovation of the previous decade.

Flores also provides a brief overview of the period between 1930-1960, which overlaps with the timeline of Dr. Basilio Serrano’s book, Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz 1900-1939, Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz. Much like the story of the young Puerto Rican musicians who played in the 369th Regiment Marching Band, Serrano works to establish the presence of Puerto Ricans in jazz music decades before it could be conflated with what is characterized as Latin jazz. In his book, Serrano also profiles renowned figures such as Rafael Hernández or Juan Tizol, as well as lesser known musicians that nonetheless made small, yet important contributions to jazz during its formative years. Like Flores, Serrano also provides some background on the musical history of Puerto Rico, drawing parallels between the improvisational quality of bomba and jazz (hence the title reference).

The common thread in each of these books is of course the Puerto Rican diaspora. In discussing the Harlem Hellfighters, for example, Serrano makes reference to the Jones Act of 1917 and the racial integration of Puerto Rican musicians into an all-black army regiment. His profiles of each musician also provide detailed accounts of their lives in the United States from the 1920s and onwards. In Rivera’s book, race and identity politics factor into the second generation of Puerto Ricans living in the South Bronx when hip-hop was created. And in Juan Flores’s book, the Great Migration of the 1940s and 50s predates the generation of salsa musicians and the bicultural Nuyorican identity.

This list is just an introduction to the many contributions by Puerto Rican musicians throughout the 20th century. My Music is My Flag: Puerto Rican Musicians and Their New York Communities, 1917-1940 by Ruth Glasser is one such example. There are also magazine articles, oral histories, documentaries such Our Latin Thing (1972), and other sources to consider. Rivera’s book also touches upon the genre of music known as freestyle which Puerto Ricans played a large in popularizing during the early 90s. Yet more research needs to be done to fill in the gaps and build upon the scholarship now available.

Of course, that shouldn’t take away from the best part: the music. So as you go from decade to decade, consider taking a listen to some of the classics from each era and appreciate the socio-political message of Eddie Palmieri’s Harlem River Drive, the overlooked rhymes of Hurricane G, or the first recordings of American Jazz in France!