Musicking and Jibaro Historical Background Blogs

Submitted by Ashley N. Soto on Tuesday, 11/3/2009, at 5:06 PM

[I didn't realize I couldn't upload 2 files at a time/don't know how to do it/got confused, so I'm just pasting both.]


             Ritual, reality, and relationships are the Three Rs of Small’s discursion.  Disguised as Grupo Canela, the Santiago family is a living example of these ideas.  After a hard week at work, Santiago’s Family Restaurant sets off the weekend with fun and relaxation.  Every Friday night, the owner and father Ismael, son Gego, daughter Beatriz, percussionist Pinchi, and other family members and bystanders provide the music for customers to enjoy.  People who go to Santiago’s on a Friday night are not just going for the food, as delectable as it is, but expect to get a free show while at it.  In retrospect, the way my heart sank to find a desolate Santiago’s on the rainy Saturday night that Tom and I visited shows that I too assimilated into this mindset that associated Santiago’s with simultaneously consuming food and good music.   This Friday night ritual has begun to sink so deeply into my weekly routine that a Friday night without Santiago’s involved seems unnatural—and this is only after two months.  I can only imagine what this ritual means for people who have been living and been involved in it for the past ten years that the restaurant has been around. 

            Walking into the restaurant brings about this aura that makes you feel right at home, even if you aren’t Puerto Rican.  It’s like walking right onto the island: home for some, vacation for all.  The gloomy Massachusetts weather is masked by this ever-present memory of Puerto Rico that covers the walls, rings in your ears, and tickles your nose.  By embodying what it means to be Puerto Rican, Santiago’s Family Restaurant keeps people in touch with their roots.  Ismael’s nephew John shared his dilemma in being Puerto Rican.  In school, he was never Puerto Rican enough to be Puerto Rican or light enough to be considered White, but the restaurant gives him this sense of comfort with the Puerto Rican inside him.  He truly believes that this restaurant, an icon representing Puerto Rico outside the island, is his connection to his heritage.  He feels at ease being able to play the clave with his family and an honor to occasionally play the congas, considering that Pinchi is the best at it.  This fine-line between the myth and reality of Santiago’s as a connection to Puerto Rico is blurred when the parties involved are invested and whole-heartedly believe in this idea.

            John and Caucasian waiter Scott like to joke around about their identities and claim to be stuck in each other’s bodies, as John enjoys listening to country music and Scott listens to reggaeton and anything related.  Scott was even branded his own nickname “White-a-Rican”—a name I’d always associated with him until I learned on my last visit that his name is actually Scott—and feels this connection with Puerto Rican culture through his relationship with the Santiago family.  The name of the restaurant itself gives an indication of the role it plays with each other and the community.  The family is the musician, the cook, the waiter, the waitress and everything in between that consummates into Santiago’s Family Restaurant, which they then share with the community as an embodiment of an iconic Puerto Rican family.  Eating at the restaurant feels like home because the larger Puerto Rican family fostered by the restaurant is a direct reflection of the family that runs it.  This constant ritual of Friday night music and food that takes everyone back in time creates this relationship with each other that would have never existed had Santiago’s Family Restaurant not been opened ten years ago.  The reality of this ritual relies on the relationships that ensue by becoming a part of this Friday night jam session and food fest.

            Small’s Three Rs could never be more relevant and more applicable than in the case of Santiago’s Family Restaurant.   As the family continues musicking, the Three Rs will continue to cycle and intertwine—and it doesn’t look like they’ll stop musicking any time soon.


Jibaro Historical Background

            Grupo Canela, an extension of Santiago’s Family Restaurant in Westfield, MA is a Puerto Rican band that’s known for playing jibaro music.  This music dates back to the 1800s and was created by the mountain people of Puerto Rico, where the word “jibaro” translates to “People of the Forest” in the Taino, or Arawakan, language (2).  During Spanish occupation in Puerto Rico, the government prohibited schools, newspapers, and books and deliberately prevented the jibaros from any intellectual advancement that could potentially present a threat to its establishment(1). Hence, jibaros were by default poor and ignorant with sole experience in day labor (1). 

The jibaros were not allowed to leave the plantations without receiving permission from the owner.  The government had such a hold on the jibaros that they were required to keep libretas, or notebooks, that strictly outlined their daily activities.  In these libretas, the jibaros were required to document their every action, from work to expenses to issues of morality.  The ironic part of all these decrees was that jibaros were considered “free” laborers.  In theory they were free, but in practice, jibaros were feudal serfs.   In his essay “The Day Puerto Rico Became a Nation,” pro-independence activist Juan Antonio Corretjer writes about the Liberation Army that consisted of slaves and laborers and cites the event that catalyzed Spain’s abolition of the notebook system: On September 23, 1868, members of the Liberation Party stacked up all the libretas and lit them on fire in the center of the Lares Plaza.  That was the end of the constant surveillance represented by the libretas, but that by no means ended the oppression experienced not just by jibaros but by all Puerto Ricans. (1)

Even so, the music played by the jibaros emitted a sense of pride in their national identity, in being Puerto Rican.  This music, along with bomba, parrandas, and other forms, has helped shape the cultural heritage of the Puerto Rican people.  Jibaro music is said to have evolved from the trovador music of Andalusia, an autonomous community of Spain, that was brought by soldiers, farmers and artisans in the late 1500s.  From the Spanish influence offered by trovador music and African and indigenous music styles that existed on the island was born jibaro music.  The cuatro, a guitar developed by jibaros, is the national instrument of Puerto Rico and is characteristic of a jibaro ensemble.  This instrument is still thriving today, as William Cumpiano has customers from all over the globe buying cuatros made at his guitar workshop situated in Northampton, MA.  The most basic jibaro ensemble consists of a cuatro, a guitar, and a guiro, but it is also common to see bongos, congas, maracas, and a cow-bell in jibaro ensembles.  There are four jibaro music styles: cadena, caballo, seis, and aguinaldo, and these styles are often categorized based on the poetic structure of the lyrics.  Cadena and caballo lyrics usually follow a copla format that rhymes ABAB or ABCB, and the seis and aguinaldo lyrics follow the decima format, which consists of a ten line poetic structure that originates from medieval Spanish poetry. (3)

            To think that this music is not just preserved but still thriving today in Puerto Rican communities such as the one in Westfield is pretty amazing.  The fact that the Santiago family and Grupo Canela keep this ongoing tradition reflects their attachment to and true pride for the Puerto Rican roots, and by virtue of the fact that William Cumpiano has ongoing sales of the cuatro shows that this attachment and pride is not exclusive to the Santiago family.


1)   Ed. By: Wagenheim, Kal & Jimenez de Wagenheim, Olga.  The Puerto Ricans: A Documentary History.  Updated and Expanded Edition. Markus Wiener Publishers: 2002.

2)   El Boricua: Un Poquito de Todo.  “What is Jibaro?” <> Accessed October 29, 2009

3)   Gleason, David G.  “La Parranda Puertorriquena: The Music, Symbolism and Cultural Nationalism of Puerto Rico’s Christmas Serenading Tradition.”  2003: David Gleason.  Accessed October 28, 2009.