This playlist pulls from deep in the catalog of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and its acquired labels to provide a glimpse into the rich tradition of Christmas and holiday music of Puerto Rico and its diaspora. You’ll hear a wide range of sounds here emanating from the barriles of bomba to the cuatro of música jíbara, captured on decades-old field recordings and contemporary studio productions, and resonating from the lush mountains of the island to the high deserts of Albuquerque and beyond.
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The Puerto Rican Christmas music repertoire, though constantly shifting and evolving, is intimately bound up with feelings of cultural pride and patriotism as much as with the religious and social festivities of the holiday. This linkage can be explained in part by the seasonal importance of the aguinaldo song form within the música jíbara tradition and, by extension, the centrality of the jíbaro in the social negotiation of Puerto Rican identity in the 20th century. Jíbaro originally referred to the people and traditions of the rural laboring population that emerged in Puerto Rico through the mixture of indigenous Taínos, colonizing Spaniards, and freed or fugitive Africans starting in the 16th century. Though originally used as a term of disdain, the figure of the creole jíbaro would take on new connotations in the mid-20th century as a kind of classed and folkloricized embodiment of the idea of Puerto Rican racial democracy: a vision of a harmonious racial and ethnic syncretism that supposedly epitomized the Puerto Rican condition. The project of installing this capacious formulation of the jíbaro as a symbol of the Puerto Rican nation initially gained traction through a combination of efforts from cultural institutions, popular media, and politicians on the island concurrent with the initiation of "Operation Bootstrap" in the 1940s and 50s, a series of economic and social reforms that, on their face, were intended to "industrialize" the island.
Eventually, this version of the jíbaro — a rural working-class figure that exceeded racial categories and represented a link to Puerto Rico’s past — came to dominate Puerto Rican popular consciousness, particularly because of its implicit opposition to the cosmopolitan urban elite of the island. (For a more thorough history of the rise of the jíbaro as Puerto Rican cultural signifier and its impact on discussions of racial identity in Puerto Rico, refer to the writings of Arlene Dávila, Ileana Rodríguez-Silva, and Judith Rodríguez.) Political considerations aside, the idea of the jíbaro continues to have a real and significant meaning in the cultural imaginary of Puerto Rico today. Even Bad Bunny, international reggaeton star, has discussed in interviews his admiration for the concept of the jíbaro as a touchstone of Puerto Rican musical culture.
The style of music now known as música jíbara is perhaps the most immediately recognizable cultural expression of the idea of the jíbaro. Broadly defined by a type of traditional ensemble (a conjunto típico), a set of song structures (primarily the seis and the aguinaldo), and an emphasis on improvisation in performance, contemporary música jíbara draws on long-standing folk practices and reinterprets them for audiences today. Here at Folkways, we proudly feature recordings by artists like Ecos de Borinquen, Cuerdas de Borinquen, and many others who offer their own take on música jíbara, ensuring that the conversation and evolution of jíbaro identity continues for many years to come.
Most of the tracks in this playlist are aguinaldos, the song form most closely associated with the holiday season in Puerto Rico. The aguinaldo and its cousin the seis, also well-represented in this playlist, are among the core song forms of the Puerto Rican jíbaro music tradition and originally grew out of the festive music for a traditional dance that required six couples (thus seis). Jaime Bofill Calero, in his liner notes for El Alma de Puerto Rico, explains, "… The seis is traditionally sung in the … poetic form of décima (‘tenth’). A décima strophe is made up of ten octosyllabic lines with a rhyme scheme of abbaaccddc. Aguinaldos, for their part, are sung in decimilla (‘little décima’), a hexasyllabic variant of décima distinctive of Puerto Rico. The seis and aguinaldo, though structurally similar, differ quite a bit in their thematic content and purpose: the seis is typically performed within secular contexts … but the aguinaldo retains its links to age-old religious practices, such as the parranda (door-to-door Christmas singing) and promesa de reyes (Three Kings celebrations)."
You can hear examples of this poetic structure in the tracks "Un sol de esperanza," "Hospitalidad," and "Aguinaldo jíbaro." In addition to the skilled improvisations of the trovadores (singers), there are two other sonic hallmarks of música jíbara within the conjunto típico: the cuatro (a small keyhole-shaped guitar with five courses of doubled strings) and the güiro (a scraper traditionally fashioned out of a dry gourd), though the ensembles are usually fleshed out with bongo and guitar as well.
The distinctive sound of the cuatro — somewhere between an acoustic guitar and a mandolin — is so closely tied to the jíbaro and Puerto Rican identity that it is often used as a musical metonym for Puerto Rican-ness more broadly, as in the introduction for the global reggaeton hit "Despacito" by Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi. Similarly, José Feliciano featured the cuatro in his original 1970 recording of the bilingual Christmas anthem "Feliz Navidad" as an homage to his Puerto Rican homeland while he was feeling homesick over the holidays in Los Angeles. Though the cuatro isn’t present in the version of "Feliz Navidad" by Los Reyes de Albuquerque on this playlist, their southwestern twist speaks to the universality of the song’s sentiment. Finally, Sandra Roldan uses the cuatro’s sound and symbolism to great effect on "Le Lo Lai," the closing track of this playlist and a powerful meditation on the erosion of a distinctly Puerto Rican identity on the island and throughout the diaspora.
Beyond its strict musical meaning, the term aguinaldo can also refer to Christmas gifts. This connection to gift-giving is an important one described by Henrietta Yurchenco in her liner notes for Folk Songs of Puerto Rico: traditionally, roving bands of parranderos (carolers) would walk from house to house during the holiday season, serenading neighbors while singing aguinaldos and villancicos (another holiday song form with a simpler verse/refrain structure not as closely tied to música jíbara) as a kind of musical gift while playfully demanding food and libations in return, as on the tracks "Venga ron / agua tiré (medley)," "De las montañas venimos," and "El cañón." The often-impromptu nature of these performances meant that instrumentation could be dictated by convenience and availability rather than adherence to rigid norms, as in the voices and household percussion captured on "Christmas Party: Maria Magdalena," "Christmas Carol – Aguinaldo," and "Aguinaldo (Año Nuevo)."
These parranderos would often take pride in the disruptive qualities of their act, and thus the parranda performance is often referred to as a trulla (literally "commotion") as on the track "Trulla de Navidad" or an asalto (literally "assault"), as on the track "Asalto Navideño." The parranda tradition is not unique to Puerto Rico, but Puerto Rican influence can be seen in the parranda of other Caribbean traditions, as on the track "Parranda Callejera (Street Parranda)", which features a Venezuelan parranda incorporating a mambo break popularized by the late Puerto Rican salsa singer Héctor Lavoe. Not coincidentally, Lavoe’s singing style drew heavily from música jíbara and his body of work continues to be associated with the voice of the jíbaro today. (Listen to his 1973 album Asalto Navideño: Vol. 1 & 2 on Fania Records with Willie Colon and Yomo Toro for an excellent example of the incorporation of the aguinaldo and the sounds of música jíbara into the world of salsa.)
At its core, this music is all about gathering with family and friends, reveling in the joy of each other’s presence, and sharing good food with good company while giving thanks for the ties that bring us together over the holidays. So turn it up, pour yourself some coquito and get a parranda going!
¡Feliz Navidad, próspero año, y felicidad!
Check out the Meléndez-Torres family’s Christmas recipes and traditions in "Our Family Guide to a Puerto Rican Christmas Feast" over at Folklife Magazine.
To learn more about the música jíbara tradition and the Christmas music of Puerto Rico, we have many resources available right here on our Folkways website. Our downloadable liner notes for Jíbaro Hasta el Hueso, El Alma de Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rico in Washington all include extensive discussion of música jíbara and its history. Though bomba and plena styles are not featured as heavily as música jíbara on this playlist, all three traditions are crucial pillars of Puerto Rican music and are in constant conversation with one another. You can learn more about bomba and plena in the liner notes for Viento de Agua Unplugged and Para Todos Ustedes.
We also offer a number of downloadable lesson plans for educators who wish to incorporate Puerto Rican music in their classrooms. You can access them by zooming in on the island of Puerto Rico on our lesson plan map here or by navigating through our full listing of lesson plans.