Pioneer Valley Soundscapes

A Short History of Jíbaros

Jíbaros, the Taíno word for "People of the Forest," are the mountain people of Puerto Rico who created their own distinct musical style.  Jíbaro music evolved from the trovador music brought in the late 16th century by soldiers, farmers, and artisians of the Spanish province of Andalusia.  A mixture of the Spanish influence offered by trovador music and the African and indigenous music styles that existed on the island culminated into what is now jíbaro music.  The jíbaros developed the guitar-like cuatro, a characteristic element of a jíbaro ensemble and now the national instrument of Puerto Rico.

(This text also appears at the beginning of our documentary.)

A Longer History of Jíbaros

Grupo Canela, an extension of Santiago 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?” <http://www.elboricua.com/jibaro.html> 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. http://www.sensemaya.net/LaParranda.pdf  Accessed October 28, 2009.

By: Ashley Soto