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May 22, 1904



An Amiable Trait of Character that Needs No Americanization—

The Music of the Country


San Juan, Porto Rico, May 9.—

The Americanization of Porto Rico is a thing of years. There is much to be done before the majority of the people here, uneducated and simple as they are, can be made successful American citizens. But there is no doubt that these particular descendants of the Latins and Indians have some peculiar attributes which we in our zeal to reform should neither make over nor endeavor to better.

One of these is the inherent love and talent for music which one finds in every man, woman, and child on the island, no matter what their station or advantages.

This is just as purely a general trait as are many others perhaps less laudable. The music of Italian opera is as familiar to these people as it is to the graduate of a musical conservatory in the States, and more so in a great sense. The first lullaby a child hears is likely to be a stirring solo from "Trovatore" or snatches from a difficult Italian sextet. This is the class of music that the small boys whistle and the girls sing to their dolls. The mass of the people are unfamiliar with the music of the Anglo-Saxon nations, but know to a greater or less extent the lighter music and more recent operas from Spain and Italy.

At intervals Italian opera companies, usually direct from South America, have come to the elites of San Juan and Ponce and played for one or two weeks in both places. The last company which came comprised some fifty members. They played all the more familiar Italian operas and what they lacked in costumes and stage settings they made good in enthusiastic and appreciative interpretations and really excellent voices. The baritone in the company took the city of San Juan quite by storm, and Americans and Porto Ricans alike joined in his praises. The theatre here was filled to overflowing every night—that, too, at prices to equal those of similar occasion in the States. The gallery was filled with peons and people of the lower classes, many of whom had very likely had nothing more to eat that day than a piece of sugar cane and a bread crust.


Sold His Clothes to Get There.

One instance came to the writer's notice at this time which illustrates the enthusiasm and love for music in the merest hombre of the streets. Angel, the very black cousin of our housemaid, sells dulce for his mother. All day long he tramps up and down the glaring white streets and screams a shrill, musical monotone: "Dulce, yo vendo dulce!" and at night his mother takes all the money away from him; he gets his dish of rice, red pepper and beans and then he goes to bed.

Angel wished very much to hear some of the operas which were being sung in the theatre at the time. The necessary funds were not forthcoming and, to his consternation, Angel could not induce his mother to give him any money though he wept copiously and even flew into a terrific peon temper. Since he is honest, as he understands it, he did not keep any of the juice money, but carefully turned it in each night the result of each day's labor. But his busy little brain was at work, and after many plans had been formed and rejected as impracticable, he entered into negotiations with country fellow whom he met one day. It seems that the "gibaro,” after purchasing an appetizing cake, expressed himself as delighted with the particular colors in Angel's neckerchief, which he wore loosely knotted in a careless style. As every well-trained poor boy should Angel, his mind just then in a ferment over his undeserved woes and his longings for the unattainable, immediately offered to sell the neckerchief. A bargain could not be made that would bring the amount Angel desired.  So, after much bickering, much loud and angry talking and many arguments from a sympathetic group of listeners, Angel proceeded to sell all of his scanty wearing apparel, including his hat, to the country fellow, who gave in exchange his own clothes and some money.

This is a discreet place to end this story, since there were rumors of later difficulties which Angel had with his mother. However, it was quite worthwhile to know the story and to see Angel's shining, perspiring, but eager, rapt face, as he leaned over the gallery rail at "La Traviata" that night

The Porto Ricans have their own distinctive music. Of course, it is similar to the Spanish, but still the danza, as it is composed and played here, is quite distinct from any similar form of Spanish music. It is difficult to describe. It is written in two-four time, and Americans find it makes a good, slow two-step. But the rhythm is quite different. There is no comparison between this music and that of a lively ragtime two-step. In general, one measure is written with the first count to a triplet in the bass, and with two-eighth notes for the second; the second measure Is in even time—four-eighth notes—treble and bass together.


The "National Song."

Of this type is "La Borinqueña" which is the island's "national" song. The original words written for the song compare the island to a. beautiful Indian maiden. The song was written by Felix Astol, a Spaniard, but a Porto Rican by adoption, at the opening of a rebellion in Cuba many years ago. Some time later another verse was written, giving expression to Porto Rico's dislike and disapproval of Spain, and also sympathy for Cuba. The Spaniards here, at this, wrote their own words to the music, which, as may be imagined, were scarcely in praise of the Porto Ricans. A little later Spain suppressed the song altogether, and the singing of it was made a grave offense. Later, since the American occupation, the song has been arranged by B. Dueno Colon, and Mr. Fernandez-Juncos, a poet and writer, of Porto Rico, has written some patriotic words to it. These are the ones now sung in the schools.

The danza is always written in the minor, at least so much of it is that the effect of the whole is a very musical minor melody that will bear fifty times the repetition an ordinary popular song In the States will bear. Danza music is of a distinctly high order. That it is difficult any American will admit who has tried to play it. There is a certain swing and inimitable rhythm that is only to be gained by great familiarly with the music, and the advantage given in hearing it played by native Porto Ricans. To them it is as simple and as easy to understand, as are any of our most popular "coon" songs to us. But the stranger who can read and play a danza successfully, as it was meant to be played, is rare indeed.

The dance for which the music is written is most graceful, and especially adapted to such a warm climate, since at regular Intervals there is a " paseo," or short promenade, to interrupt the dancing.

Mostly the danzas are love songs, and those which have no words have such titles. Some of the prettiest ones are called "Tu y Yo," (Thou and I), "Mis Amores" (My Loves), "Margarita," "El Deseo" (The Wish). These are, with scarcely an exception, written by composers on this island.


Waltz and Two-step Popular.

Next to a danza, the most popular music here is a waltz. These are composed mostly for dances and are played very fast indeed, so that it is uncomfortable enough to keep step. The two-stop, by the way, has been taken up by the Porto Ricans and occupies much space in every dance programme.

To write of musicians and musical organizations throughout the island would take too long. The City of San Juan is rich in such talent. Every young woman takes music lessons. Her education is considered incomplete without a fair knowledge of piano music and perhaps some training in voice culture. Many of the most promising or more wealthy young women go abroad to finish their musical education, and the result is most gratifying to every one.

The members of the local bands are, of course, Porto Ricans, and all show the greatest enthusiasm for their occupation. The Insular Police Band is under the leadership of Señor Francisco Verrar and the Porto Rico Regiment Band is directed by Señor Luis R. Miranda. The regiment band plays on the Plaza every Sunday night and the Insular Police Band furnishes music to the promenaders in the same place on Wednesday nights. The Boys' Charity School has a band also, which is remarkable. It is made up of small boys ranging from twelve to fifteen years of age. They are drilled and directed by Juan Vinolo, and play with the skill and musical training of men.

The island possesses many wandering minstrels and troubadours--at least the modern representatives at these romantic figures. The present-day troubadour in Porto Rico lacks much that one holds in one's imagination for these same individuals of an olden time, but there is still something about him essentially the same.

The peons are fond of serenading or in gathering in groups, with a guitar for an accompaniment, some times in the small hours of the night, to sing, in their sad minor melodies, songs which are impossible to remember or to set down. This music, it is only fair to say, sounds much better a good distance off.


Minor Mood the Natural One.

During important fiestas here, such as Christmas and saints' days, large crowds of children will gather and sing for hours at a time, usually at night. Their voices rise and fall in simple Minor melodies. They sing the same song—half chant, half hymn—over and over again, and yet it does not grow tiresome. The minor key is perfectly natural to the peons. It is the form they use for all melody. The street vendors cry their goods in a minor sing-song. Often one hears the music of some well-known American patriotic song sung entirely through in a minor key. One case was that of some boys of sixteen, members of a large American school here. They sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" quite through, alto and soprano, with never a lapse from a perfect minor. It was certainly remarkable. Yet they were as thoroughly unconscious of singing it differently than they had been taught as they were that they had an invisible audience.

The peon cuts out of wood and fashions for himself a small musical instrument resembling a guitar. It is surprising what melody can be gotten from one of these crude guitars, used, as they are, for accompaniments. Beggars use these and they are also made and sold to tourists as souvenirs. There is an old half-witted man about the city, who, in lieu of a harp such as some ancestor may have possessed, wanders through the streets strumming with an old wire the bent cut tin in the bottom of an old tin box. He is a well-known figure and very popular with camera fiends. Needless to say, there is absolutely no music to be gained from his queer instrument.

Mention should be made of the "guichero." This is a long, hollow gourd. On one side two small holes are cut. The surface of the other side is cut or ribbed so that when a. piece of strong wire—often a piece from a parasol frame--is passed over it vigorously, the sound is unusually loud and far-reaching. This "guichero," or "scratcher," as the Americans call it, is always used in orchestra music and in all music of the streets. It is used to mark the steps in a dance and to accompany the music. It is even used in the bands when a danza is played, so essential is it considered to the music of the band. It can be heard above the music, of course, and often, at a distance, quite drowns the other instruments. In the country it is used alone for the dances. I believe it is typically Porto Rican and is undeniably an interesting part of Porto Rican music.