Music is a huge part of Puerto Rican life. Sometimes it seems as though the whole island reverberates to a syncopated beat, thanks to the strains of music that waft from outdoor concerts, open windows, barrooms, passing cars, and boom boxes. Nearly every weekend there is a holiday or festival in Puerto Rico , and at the core of its celebration is always music. During a recent stay in Old San Juan , each morning began with the sound of a lone elderly man walking up the deserted street singing a heartbreaking lament that echoed off the 18th-century buildings.
The island has made many significant contributions to the world of music at large, starting with the birth of a couple of uniquely Puerto Rican instruments. The national instrument of Puerto Rico is the cuatro, an adaptation of the Spanish guitar that features 10 strings arranged in five pairs and typically carved from solid blocks of laurel. Several classic Puerto Rican instruments date to the indigenous people, including the popular güiro. Similar in principle to the washboard, the güiro is a hollowed gourd with ridges cut into its surface, which is scraped rhythmically with a comblike object. Other prevalent local instruments that reflect African influence are the barril, a large drum originally made by stretching animal skin over the top of a barrel; the tambour, a handheld drum similar to a tambourine but without the cymbals; and the maraca, made from gourds and seeds.
Some of Puerto Rico ’s earliest known musical styles are bomba and plena, which have roots in the African slave culture. They’re both heavy on percussion and lightning-fast rhythms. Bomba features call-and-response vocals and is accompanied by frenzied dancing in which the dancers match their steps to every beat of the drum. In plena, the emphasis is on the vocals, which are more European in origin and retell current events or local scandals. Local bomba masters include Los Hermanos Ayala, traditionalists from Loíza , and the more contemporary Cepedas, based in Santurce, San Juan . Reviving interest in plena is the band Plena Libre.
Akin in philosophy to the origins of American country music, música jíbaro is the folk sound of Puerto Rico’s rural mountain dwellers, called jíbaros. Performed by small ensembles on cuatro, güiro, bongos, and occasionally clarinets and trumpets, música jíbaro is more Spanish in origin than bomba or plena, although the Caribbean influence is unmistakable. Vocals, which play an important part in música jíbaro, are usually about the virtues of a simpler way of life. There are two types of música jíbaro—seis and aguinalda. Seis is typically named after a particular town, and the lyrics are often improvised and sung in 10-syllable couplets. Aguinaldos are performed around Christmas by roaming carolers. Ramito (1915–1990) is considered Puerto Rico’s quintessential jíbaro artist.
While Puerto Rican slaves grooved to bomba and the farmers played their folk tunes, Puerto Rico’s moneyed Europeans turned their attentions to classical music, eventually giving birth around 1900 to danza, a romantic classical style of music often described as Afro-Caribbean waltz. Originating in Ponce , danza was performed on piano, cello, violin, and bombardino (similar to a trombone) for dancers who performed structured, ballroom-style steps. The form is celebrated in Ponce with the annual Semana de la Danza  in May. Danza’s most famous composers were Manuel Gregorio Tavarez (1843–1883) and his pupil, Juan Morel Campos (1857–1896).
In 1956, renowned Catalan cellist and composer Pablo Casals moved to Puerto Rico , and a year later Festival Casals  was born. The international celebration of classical music continues today in concert halls in San Juan , Ponce , and Mayagüez every June and July. In Old San Juan  there is a museum dedicated to Casals, featuring his music manuscripts, instruments, and recordings.
Of course, salsa is the music most associated with Puerto Rico today. A lively, highly danceable fusion of jazz, African polyrhythms, and Caribbean flair, salsa is performed by large ensembles on drums, keyboards, and horns. When people refer to Latin music, they usually mean salsa. It is the predominant form of music heard on the island, so just stop in almost any bar or restaurant advertising live music and you’re likely to hear it. Watching expert salsa dancers move to the music is as entertaining as listening to the music. Born in New York City but Puerto Rican by heritage, percussionist and composer Tito Puente (1923–2000) was a major influence on salsa music. Other masters include Celia Cruz (1924–2003) and Willie Colón, but there are scores of popular Puerto Rican salsa artists who perform today.
The biggest thing happening in Puerto Rican music now, though, is reggaetón. An exciting blend of American hip-hop, bomba, plena, and Jamaican dancehall, the musical form is Puerto Rican–born and bred, and it’s starting to gain notice worldwide. A big part of its explosive growth is due to the popularity of Daddy Yankee, who grew up in the public housing projects of San Juan  and who’s managed to cross over into the American market. Reggaetón festivals have become a popular pastime in Puerto Rico , but you can also hear it in nightclubs and blasting from car windows. And once again, Puerto Rico’s culture comes back to its Afro-Caribbean roots. Other popular reggaetón artists include Don Omar, Tego Calderón, Ivy Queen, and Calle 13.