S3, E19: From Bomba to Bad Bunny: Searching for the Sounds of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is one of the most musical places in the Caribbean. On this week’s episode of Unpacked, we tune in.

This week on Unpacked, host Aislyn Greene travels to Puerto Rico in search of what makes the island so phenomenal when it comes to music. She salsa dances in Ponce, learns the bomba style of drumming in San Juan, and meets the musicians, past and future, that have influenced the world.


Pilot: And on behalf of Delta Air Lines, we’d like to welcome you to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Correct local time here is 1:55. The captain has requested that all passengers remain seated with your seat belt securely fastened and keep all cabin luggage stowed until the aircraft has been parked at the gate and the fasten seat belt sign has been turned off. We have enjoyed having you on board. Have a great rest of your day, a great stay here in the San Juan area, and thanks so much for flying Delta.

Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene, and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel each week. And that, what you just heard, is the soul of Puerto Rico. As part of our “Unpacking” series, I traveled to the island recently to take a deep dive into one of the most crucial aspects of Puerto Rican identity: music.

Angelina Villapiano Luna: Puerto Rico in general is known for our music and dancing. It’s, like, the pride and joy of being Boricua, as we say—is anywhere I’ve ever been in the world, I will hear Puerto Rican music on the radio, in the club. It doesn’t matter where I’ve been, you know, in places like Switzerland, and they’re singing Daddy Yankee at the club, you know? So it’s something that we’re very proud of, and it’s a huge part of our culture.

Aislyn: That is Angelina Villapiano Luna, a musician and dance teacher who leads salsa classes in San Juan. We’re going to hear more from her in a bit, because salsa is such a huge part of Puerto Rican culture. It’s what many people now associate with Puerto Rico, along with reggaetón artists like the explosively popular Bad Bunny, one of the world’s most-streamed musicians. And we’re definitely going to talk about him. But those musical styles wouldn’t be possible without some earlier influences. So today, we’re going to start with some early Puerto Rican music and end with the Bad Bunny era of reggaetón and the young stars that are carrying it forward. And we’ll learn how music has been a source of joy and power while also being a tool of resistance.

Let’s start with two of the oldest and most important kinds of music on the island: bomba y plena.

Margarita “Tata” Cepeda: Mi nombre es Margarita Sanchez Cepeda, pero todos me conocen como “Tata” Cepeda.

Aislyn: That is Tata Cepeda, the sixth generation of the Cepeda family that’s been safeguarding the traditions of bomba y plena. I’m sitting in a small mirrored dance studio. There are framed newspaper cuttings on the wall featuring Tata Cepeda dancing in brightly colored dresses. Two drummers are seated to my right, and in front of me, intermediate dancers are practicing for an upcoming show, led by Tata Cepeda’s granddaughter, Carrie, the eighth generation of the Cepeda family.

Bomba and plena are slightly different musical styles, with plena evolving out of bomba. Both are percussive musical styles, but tonight we’re hearing the bomba drums and rhythms. There are at least 16 different bomba rhythms, each communicating a different emotion. And in the Cepeda style of dancing, a skirt plays a large role in that emotion. Each of the six women in the class wears a colorful ruffled skirt. The skirts are so wide that when stretched out, they look like half a melon made out of fabric. The dancers hold the fabric in each hand and dance, using the skirt to create vivid, almost butterfly-like motions. It’s mesmerizing and immensely powerful.

At one point, Carrie chides one of her students for being too smiley.

Yvette Figueroa, translator: Every rhythm has a purpose. You have to listen to the lyrics of the song. And you have to pay attention so that you can reflect what the song is saying with music and the facial expression.

Aislyn: After the class, I sit with Tata Cepeda in her small office extending off the studio. A translator named Yvette is with us, as Tata explains bomba’s origin story.

Yvette: It comes with the slave trade. That’s how bomba arrives here in Puerto Rico and the islands. They were brought here against their will, of course. They came with an imaginary suitcase. They brought their customs, such as the way that they cooked, and all the things that they did back in Africa, they brought with them. Even though most of them came nude.

Aislyn: It started back in the late 15th century, during the beginning of the Spanish colonial period. And one of those traditions was music. Music became one of the few ways enslaved people were able to express their emotions and even communicate.

Yvette: The bomba songs were like newspapers. They were stories that were sung. They were stories about the community, about events, things that happened, tragedies, right? Happiness, sadness, someone that maybe died. So it was kind of like, uh, spreading the news but with songs.

Aislyn: Plena, the musical style that evolved out of bomba, is also viewed as the sung newspaper. So I ask Tata about bomba y plena songs. Can she recommend a couple to listen to?

Yvette: There’s so many. The one that she sung—

Tata [singing]: Que me de sombra, que me de sombra.

Yvette: It was written by her grandfather. The song can be used for many purposes, but when he wrote it, he wrote it because he had 10 children. And he had sometimes two, three jobs and still sometimes he couldn’t make ends meet. So, it’s like a song asking for a relief, for a chance to maybe make things better.

Aislyn: Tata’s grandfather wrote hundreds of bomba songs. And while songs can differ vastly, bomba always begins with a beat, with a percussion section, as you heard in the class. There are at least two drummers.

Yvette: There’s one drum that the name is buleador. And that’s the one that has the constant beat. That’s the basic beat that the dancer uses to move around. But the primo is the one that’s going to follow the dancer.

Aislyn: So there’s this relationship between the dancer and the primo, the second drummer, which I witnessed in class.

Yvette: And that’s why the dancer has to make that connection with el primo. Because he’s going to follow whatever the movements and the mood the dancer is displaying or expressing.

Aislyn: Tata says that that’s one of the things that makes bomba unique.

Yvette: Because in general, in other countries where there’s the music with drums, it’s the dancer that follows the drummer.

Aislyn: It’s a very improvised style of music and dancing.

Yvette: Before reggaetón, there was bomba. Because you know, reggaetón is about improvising, right? But bomba does the same thing.

Aislyn: Bomba styles differ from region to region, and Tata Cepeda’s family actually helped usher in a new style.

Yvette: In the past, the woman did not dance. She was just like an ornament for the man.

Aislyn: Tata’s grandmother was the one who broke the tradition.

Yvette: So she started doing intense, brisk movements, not only with her body but with the skirt. Her grandmother continued with this commission of, you know, making believe or, or for people to see that it was okay for women to dance.

Aislyn: The family has been celebrated for their work. In 2017, Tata Cepeda’s father, Modesto, was even honored at a National Endowment for the Arts Ceremony. One of his drums is now on exhibit in the Smithsonian, and just last year, Tata gifted the museum one of her traditional bomba dresses.

Yvette: So, because of the work that her family has done and her grandparents, she has opened this school so that the tradition lives on and it can be passed down from generation to generation. They have eight uninterrupted generations in the family, um, passing on this tradition of bomba.

Aislyn: The Cepedas’ school is in old San Juan, but my translator tells me that travelers interested in experiencing bomba should also head for Loíza, a coastal town east of San Juan. It’s home to one of the largest Black populations in Puerto Rico, and a place where Afro-Puerto Rican traditions are protected and cherished.

When I finally leave the Cepeda school late that night, I can feel the beat of bomba in my feet, and all I want to do is dance. Lucky for me, music follows me back to my hotel. I pass a bar full of an impromptu party with someone playing a makeshift instrument, so I poke my head in to watch for a few minutes. As I get closer to my hotel, a solo trumpet player stands on a street corner, sending notes out into the night.

The next morning is clear and hot. I’ve decided to head south for a bit, cutting through the mountains and making a stop in Caguas, home to the House of the Troubadour Luis Miranda “Pico de Oro.” I’ve heard that Caguas is where Puerto Rico’s folk music was born, and this museum is the best place to learn about it. But when I arrive, painters with long poles are rolling bright-white paint on long shutters that front the building. I ask if the museum is open, and they shake their heads at me. But I decide to persevere. After asking around, I discover Maribel Martinez. She’s delightful and just so happens to work for the museum, so she invites me in. There are workers everywhere because, Maribel tells me, the museum is getting ready for a performance. But still she tells me the story of the museum. This criollo music was started by—

Maribel Martinez: —the people from the mountain, the rural people, you know, hillbillies.

Aislyn: [Laughs]

Maribel: Yeah, hillbillies, right?!

Aislyn: So, yes, criollo music, or jibaro music, came from the farmers that lived in the green, fertile hills that surround Caguas. And those who expressed themselves through this music were known as trovadores, and they sang songs to the land through improvised trovas.

Maribel: The trova is like a, is a poem. It’s a poetry. You can sing like a poetry, you know?

Aislyn: While the themes of jibaro music are universal, the music itself is technically quite complicated. Its most important instrument is the cuatro, the island’s national instrument.

Maribel: Cuatro means “four” in English. It’s because in the beginning of the instrument, it have only four, uh, strings.

Aislyn: The cuatro is smaller than a guitar but larger than a mandolin. And the instrument would eventually evolve to have five double strings, though the musical style remained fairly consistent. Jibaro music is built around the décima. A décima is composed of four stanzas of 10 lines each. And each line is composed of seven, eight, or nine syllables and rhymes with each other. I told you it was complex! But here’s what makes it even more so.

Maribel: We have singers who improvise too. You tell them the last [line]. And the singers start to think, think, think and make the improvise, and they sing. But, in the improvising, improvising, you have to sing the structure like that. You know, it’s [a] very, uh, very difficult thing. Not everybody can go on a stage and say, “I’m sing[ing] trova,” you know?

Aislyn: The décima arrived in Puerto Rico in the 18th century with migrant workers from the Canary Islands. It became popular with workers in the countryside, who gave it their own distinctive style. And then in the 1960s, the music spread beyond the island and became popular in the United States, thanks in large part to troubadours like Ramito Florencio Morales.

Maribel: He was the first artist of, uh, popular music who went to the United States and keep the music over there. And thanks to that man, Ramito Florencio Morales, all the Puerto Rican [in the] United States can hear our music.

Aislyn: Ramito had two brothers who were also trovadores, and there are many other famous examples, including Luis Miranda, the museum’s namesake. Luis was one of the most passionate proponents of jibaro music. He recorded several albums in his lifetime, including the one you’re hearing: El Pico de Oro, named for his nickname, which translates to “the Golden Peak.” Unlike Ramito, Luis remained in Caguas all his life, in the very building I’m standing in. After his death in 2014, the city turned his home into a museum honoring his life’s work.

I’m on my way to Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second-largest city. It’s on the southern coast, so I have plenty of time to drive and listen to another style of music that took the United States by storm in the midcentury: salsa.

Melina Aguillar: Puerto Rico is a salsa destination. Um, salsa is the most danced music in the world. And there’s a—Ponce is home to some of the most famous salsa artists, you know, among them, Héctor Lavoe, Pete “El Conde” [Rodríguez], Cheo Feliciano.

Aislyn: That’s Melina Aguillar, founder of Isla Caribe, a tour company based in Ponce that offers walking tours and in-depth salsa tours. Because Ponce is a musical place. Melina tells me that in the 19th and 20th centuries, the city was the cultural and economic hub of Puerto Rico. And that made it an interesting place, musically.

Melina: It is a port city, the main port city, with the coffee and sugar exportation coming, leaving the city. So we have already a big economy. We also have a large amount of immigrants who move here at the end of the 19th century. And these immigrants are bringing their own, you know, twist to things, you know, their own styles, their own music, their own ideas.

Aislyn: In the 1920s, plena is born. Remember that style of African music we talked about at the top of the episode? Melina says salsa is—

Melina: —kind of an evolution of plena. And when, um, plenas happened in 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, it’s become very popular. And soon there’s a lot of experimentation of plena music along with other rhythms. So, during this time of plena booming is when the stars are being born: Héctor Lavoe, Cheo Feliciano. All these superstars are born in the booming time of plena.

Aislyn: Melina says all of these factors combined to make the city what it is today.

Melina: But also Ponce will have one of the first academy of music. Not only did it have the first music store in the 19th century. But it also had, yes, the oldest band. And it also has the first school to be free for children to study music, which still exists today.

Aislyn: The next day, I get a taste of this on my walking tour with one of Melina’s Isla Caribe guides.

Norymar Maldonado: My name is Nory. I am, uh, I always say an endemic species from Ponce, Puerto Rico. I was born and raised in this place.

Aislyn: We’re standing in the city’s main plaza. There are fountains trickling nearby and large trees shading us from the sun, which is much fiercer here in the south. Nory shares an unusual architecture fact.

Nory: Music had a big hold on my city. It’s used for everything. Uh, I have to let you know, one of the ways that we used music was to bring the romance to the lady—and balconies had to do a lot of it. That’s called la serenata.

Aislyn: The architecture in Ponce is gorgeous. Sherbet-colored buildings, many with these ornate balconies. So I ask Nory a very important question: Where would you want to be serenaded?

Nory: Oh my God.

Aislyn: Which one would you pick?

Nory: Definitely, definitely, it would be in one of our registered National Historic Buildings, La Casa Armstrong. Imagine those—you’re stepping out of those type of beautiful balconies.

Aislyn: The wind blowing your hair.

Nory: Oh my God, but I’m poor.

Aislyn: Nory’s La Casa Armstrong is one of the buildings that surround the plaza. It’s cream-colored with brick-red painted trim and not just one but five balconies. Apparently, this serenading was so popular that the very act has been immortalized in poetry and then song.

Nory: A poem that later on was interpreted by Drew Fernandez, a singer from Ponce, Puerto Rico, and it says like this: “Mi pueblo serenata con balcones.” Just so we know that balconies continue with us throughout the history that is told by songs too.

Aislyn: There’s so much musical history in the city. There’s the Museo de la Música Puertorriqueña, a museum devoted to the island’s musical history. And there are music murals, music schools, and the paseo de la salsa, a street where people dance on the weekends. But the plaza has remained one of the most important places for music throughout history.

Nory: In Ponce, we used to have our traditional danza nights on Saturdays and Thursdays. Actually, it was also a time to socialize. A time for the ladies or the men to find a loved one.

Aislyn: Danza music was popularized in the late 19th century by composer Juan Morel Campos. It’s similar to the waltz, and the fan was a huge part of the equation.

Nory: This is the fan language, how ladies used to communicate in those times: discreetly, because back in those days, you couldn’t speak directly to who you like. So they say when a lady waved her fan, almost hiding her face and very rapidly, she was saying, “I have a husband.” Or, “I’m engaged. Don’t even look at me. Go away. Go away.”

Aislyn: Nory says that a woman scratching her nose with the fan meant “something smells fishy around here, they say you’re a player.” If she waved her fan, closed it, and put it on her forehead, it meant “I’m thinking about you.” But—

Nory: —then if she discreetly put it on the side, it became a novella. “Oh my God. I’ll wait for you half an hour in the next garden or maybe in the alley of love.”

Aislyn: So danza was both very formal and very flirtatious. And Juan Morel Campos wrote more than 600 danza songs. He had such a profound influence on the city that he’s buried in the plaza, near one of the fountains, with a statue marking his grave. And in the plaza, his legacy lives on.

Nory: In 1883 when he founded one of the most consecutive and antique music bands of the Caribbean.

Aislyn: Oh, cool.

Nory: It still plays every Sunday after 6 p.m.

Aislyn: Yes, for nearly 150 years, the 42-member La Banda de Bomberos has played every Sunday in front of the historic red-and-black Parque de Bombas, an old fire station. Right now, the fire station is under reconstruction, but the band continues on in front of city hall. The commitment to music is fierce here. And Nory says that’s because every Puerto Rican is an artist.

Nory: Let me tell you, we are artisans, we are painters, we are all musicians. So that’s actually the identity of a Puerto Rican. And I think that’s ancestral heritage. Our ancestors were, were amazing artisans. And that has been passed generation to generation.

Aislyn: I continue my salsa journey back in San Juan, where I sign up for a salsa class through Airbnb Experiences with Angelina, who we heard at the top of the episode. We meet in a spacious, tree-lined park in San Juan’s Condado neighborhood. It rained earlier today, so everything feels freshly washed. The coquis are chirping. It’s dark but still so wonderfully warm in that way only a tropical place can be. There are eight of us in the class, and Angelina starts by teaching us a simpler step.

Angelina: I like to warm us up with a different type of Latin music that’s called merengue. Merengue is made famous by the Dominican Republic. But it’s also very popular here in Puerto Rico. And I would say most, if not all, Latinos dance merengue. So it’s a good one to learn because you can bust it out at any Latino party, club, barbecue, travel destination. We all merengue, so it’s useful.

Aislyn: Angelina has us start by simply walking in place, in a basic one-two, one-two motion.

Angelina: And because we are Caribbean people, we put a little extra on the hips to give it the flavor, the sabor, the sazón of the island.

Aislyn: She shows us how to merengue forward and back, side to side. And then it’s time to merengue to music.

Angelina: We’re going to practice all the different ways we can move while dancing the merengue to the world’s most famous merengue song. Where is it from? You guessed it: Puerto Rico!

Aislyn: Now that we’ve mastered the basic merengue step, Angelina adds a couple of turns. And before long, it’s like we’re actually dancing. And that means it’s time to move on to the salsa part of our lesson. But before we do, Angelina shares a little history. And this is where all of Puerto Rico’s influences start to come together for me.

Angelina: So, salsa really is a reflection of the history and the ancestry of Puerto Rico expressed through music. So the first people who ever lived on this island were a Native American tribe from South America, the area that is today Venezuela. And they were a river tribe. And on canoes, they started discovering all these Caribbean islands. And the tribe that settled in Puerto Rico is called the Tainos.

Aislyn: Angelina says that the Tainos gave each of the Caribbean islands Indigenous Taino names.

Angelina: So, for example, Cuba is based on the Taino name, Cubao. The Taino name for this island is Boriquen. So if you are a native of the island of Boriquen, you are a Boricua, which is why you’ll always see and hear, especially while you’re in Puerto Rico, us Puerto Ricans refer to ourselves as Boricua.

Yo soy Boricua, Bori, Borinquena, Borinquen, Boricua, Mariana, Mariana, ay, ay, ay, ay. So now you know that is our Indigenous identity that we still proudly use today.

Aislyn: And Taino instruments are still used in modern music, including salsa. There’s the guiro.

Angelina: The guiro is like a gourd, a squash, a zucchini, if you will, that has been hollowed out and dried out in the sun. And when it’s all dried out, it becomes hardened, at which point we carve lines into the side that are played with a stick.

Aislyn: And then there’s the more famous maracas.

Angelina: These maracas are also two little pumpkins that have been dried out in the sun, and when they’re all dried out, it’s the dried-up seeds on the inside that make the shaking sound when you shake the maraca.

Aislyn: And finally there’s the claves.

Angelina: Two blocks of wood that are carved to be like these cylinder shapes and we play them against each other to keep the rhythm or, as it’s called in salsa, the clave.

Aislyn: So the Taino influence is one component of salsa music. The next group to come through were the Spanish.

Angelina: Boo! They colonized us! But in the process, they did bring their own musical instruments and influences that then became a part of our culture. So they’re bringing over things like the guitarra and the piano. So we’re putting those types of melodies now over Indigenous percussion.

Aislyn: This also changed the way people danced.

Angelina: We’re going from the Taino style of dancing, which is everybody standing together in a circle and dancing as a group, to now the European style of a man and a woman that stand like this and do steps and twirls, and partner dancing is now making its way to the Caribbean.

Aislyn: At the same time, there was the African population coming to the islands, primarily through slavery.

Angelina: Our island has most of our ancestors from Ghana, Nigeria, Congo, Cameroon. So now we have all of those musical instruments and influences coming up through. So how does that show up in salsa? Our most famous instrument, the congas, a set of African drums. One’s a little bigger, one’s a little smaller. We play two at a time so you get twice as many tones while you’re playing them. If we take the congas, shrink them down, and put them in your lap, now it’s the bongos, and these drums make the bass rhythm that salsa is built off of.

Aislyn: In Cuba, musicians took those mix of influences and created a rhythm called son.

Angelina: And son becomes so popular, it’s like a revolution in Caribbean music, and it starts evolving into all these different styles and different islands. In Cuba, it goes from son to rumba to mambo to cha cha, or the cha cha cha. And it is the Puerto Ricans that are taking the Cuban son and evolving it into salsa.

Aislyn: In the early 20th century, Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that salsa really took off.

Angelina: Puerto Ricans eventually get American citizenship and many move to New York City, Nueva York, specifically at this time, [to] Harlem. There’s a whole part of Harlem called Spanish Harlem, and this is coming from the big wave of Puerto Ricans that are arriving during the Harlem Renaissance. So now it’s the Puerto Ricans in New York that we call Nuyoricans that are very much a part of and influenced by the jazz music of the Harlem Renaissance.

Aislyn: Those Nuyoricans, people like Héctor Lavoe and Willie Colón, took all the sounds from their home island and added a heavy Harlem jazz influence.

Angelina: So here comes the emphasis on that sassy, brassy horn section, trumpet, trombone, saxophone. And taking the Caribbean rhythm and applying a jazz concept to it, which is known as the swing, and by swinging the rhythm they have now taken it into a whole new genre.

Aislyn: The music became so popular that people realized they needed an actual name for the new genre.

Angelina: Well, we took all these different flavors from all these different cultures and then we mixed them all together, and it’s like we made a delicious sauce. Es una salsa. So this is why we call it salsa. It’s the sauce, and then of course the sauce goes global, and now we have people all over the world listening to and dancing to salsa.

Aislyn: Countries around the world put their own spin on it, so now the Colombian style of dancing salsa is different from the Cuban style and the Mexican style.

Angelina: And that’s different from how they dance salsa in Puerto Rico. So, of course, I’m teaching you the Puerto Rico style tonight. We call it salsa de calle. That’s my street salsa. Because that’s where salsa was invented in the streets with people just playing instruments and vibing, and then people would just do steps and turns and tricks, and it was just a very organic creation.

Aislyn: Angelina says that salsa remains a very organic part of Puerto Rican culture.

Angelina: We’re listening to salsa from the time we’re little. Somebody’s uncle’s in the corner playing the congas. Somebody’s auntie is teaching us how to do the steps. Next thing you know, we’re practicing with our cousins and we’re dancing at all the family parties. We’re dancing at the festivals, we’re dancing at the beach, at the bars. And yes, we still even dance in the streets. So this is how I like to teach salsa. Like I am your Puerto Rican auntie, Titi Angie, and I’m going to teach you how to do salsa como mi familia. You guys ready?

Aislyn: We are so ready! Angelina takes us through the basic step, a forward-step-middle, back-step-middle repetition that will play on my head on repeat all night. Eventually, we have it down enough that she cranks up the music and speeds us up.

Angelina: Now we’re gonna go a little bit faster. Dance! Forward step, middle. Back step, middle. Forward step, middle. Back step, middle. Forward step, middle. Back step, middle. Forward step, middle. Back step, middle. And forward! In three, four. And forward!

Aislyn: An hour or so later, she deems us passable enough to take [us] to a real salsa club. We pile into cars and drive 10 minutes into the night. It’s close to 11 p.m., but already the club is in full swing. Those of us in the class aren’t great, but we stumble through, dancing and laughing. And sweating. Hoo, do we sweat. Finally, after a few songs, I need a break and a drink. I grab something fruity and rumlike from the bartender and stand on the perimeter, just watching the dancers. It’s incredible. Women in bright pants and cropped tops twirl and pose. Men in muscle shirts and sneakers sashay elegantly. No one is very dressed up, because this is less of like a date thing than a true sport. And men dance with men, women dance with women. Dancers of all ages rotate through partners, only stopping briefly between songs. And everyone is sweating. Hours later, when I’m back in my hotel, I fall asleep so quickly to the sound of trumpets and “forward step, middle, back step, middle” echoing in my head.

For my last two days in Puerto Rico, I check in to La Concha, a resort just steps from Condado Beach. The hotel is cool and elegant, with a modern 1950s vibe, several pools, and an iconic seashell building that houses the Perla restaurant. The hotel is also home to San Juan’s hottest club, 58. Because this episode wouldn’t be complete without talking about reggaetón.

Petra Rivera Rideau: Its origins are debated. But, uh, in relation to Puerto Rico, what I would say is, you know, in the late ’80s, early ’90s, you had Puerto Ricans in the urban centers, primarily San Juan, Carolina, places like that, who were creating this new sound by blending hip-hop influences from the U.S., Jamaican dancehall and reggae en español in Panama.

Aislyn: That is Petra Rivera-Rideau, an associate professor of American studies at Wellesley College, and author of the book, Remixing Reggaetón: The Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico. Petra says that reggae en español was a movement happening in Panama and that some people argue that it was the first reggaetón.

Petra: But in the context of Puerto Rico, you have, um, youth kind of bringing together all of these different sounds, and much like hip-hop in the United States, you know, the central figure would be the DJ or the person who’s mixing all the sounds together. And then you would have crews of rappers come in and perform over these, like, very long tracks in nightclubs and places like that.

Aislyn: In the ’90s, it was called underground, because it circulated really informally through mixtapes and at parties, with no backing of major record labels. And then in 2004, Daddy Yankee came along.

Petra: People are probably familiar with the song “Gasolina” from 2004 by Daddy Yankee. By the time “Gasolina” comes out, that sort of blows everything open for the genre to kind of explode on a global scale.

Aislyn: Daddy Yankee was an independent artist. He created his own label, El Cartel Records. But while that allowed him full creative control, the reason behind the creation isn’t great: Major record labels wouldn’t sign him. Because, since those early days of underground, there’s been a stigma around reggaetón.

Petra: When underground was circulating in the mid-’90s, this is also a time when the island of Puerto Rico is experiencing a lot of crime, a lot of unemployment, a lot of issues. And these are issues that are come out of these very long history of colonialism between Puerto Rico and the United States and divestment and systemic racism and all the kind of structures that cause urban poverty and all these problems.

Aislyn: Petra says that in the mid-’90s, a new governor, Pedro Rosselló, enters the scene. He runs on an anti-crime initiative. The campaign is very successful and he wins. And soon after, he establishes—

Petra: —the Mano Dura Contra el Crimen, or uh, “iron fist against crime,” and the idea is to literally use, you know, collaborate the Puerto Rican police and the U.S. National Guard, collaborate and invade public housing developments, which are seen as sort of the epicenter of this criminal activity.

Aislyn: They essentially occupy these spaces, creating a massive surveillance state. And underground, later reggaetón, becomes the cultural symbol of this issue.

Petra: And that’s part of why, when I mentioned that there wasn’t any major record label backing until later on, part of that is because, um, a lot of people were not taking this music seriously.

Aislyn: And some of the stigma comes from the representation of women. The music can be highly graphic, so much so that there were censorship campaigns in the early 2000s that targeted reggaetón music videos. Despite that, reggaetón thrives.

Petra: And it’s almost like with each campaign it becomes more popular because, again, it’s disseminated informally, right? And so it, the audience expands with all this news coverage, and it sort of gets to the point in Puerto Rico in the early 2000s where people can’t really ignore it anymore.

Aislyn: Petra agrees that there’s room for critique of the music.

Petra: I mean, reggaetón can be a very misogynistic genre, but I do think that some of it, every time a kind of crisis happens and people start to get all, um, riled up about reggaetón, you can see those same arguments from 30 years ago kind of resurfacing.

Aislyn: And new and younger artists are changing the face of reggaetón, and its various offshoots. There’s Bad Bunny, of course, who has used his platform to speak out against sexism and violence against women, as well as to highlight systemic issues on the island. But there are also more queer and female artists in the space. People like RaiNao. And before we hear from RaiNao, just a quick note that she speaks English but prefers to talk about her music in Spanish. So you’ll hear her speaking in a mix of English and Spanish, and we’ve translated the Spanish.

RaiNao: Eh, yo soy RaiNao. Uh, and I naturally make music because it’s the best and most beautiful thing I can do in life.

Aislyn: RaiNao and I are sitting in 58, hours before it opens. It’s dark and cool and totally empty. A perfect time to talk about her debut album, Capicú, just released in February 2024. She’s been heralded as a fresh voice on the scene, one of several women reclaiming the music as their own.

Aislyn: And you have been credited as, like, breaking up the boys band.

RaiNao: Amen. Amen.

Aislyn: Do you feel, not pressure, but do you feel like—

RaiNao: —that responsibility? Yeah. No, I don’t. I think we’re doing it so naturally. I believe that we are simply making our way to ourselves. Like anyone else, doing what we want to do: music. Say what we want, say it as we want.

Aislyn: RaiNao was born Naomi Ramirez, and while she grew up in a musical family and studied music in school, she originally intended to become a surgeon. But music won out, and now she’s on the edge of superstardom. Her music is fascinating and multireferential. There are elements of R&B, dancehall, salsa, and so much more. Growing up with a salsa-loving father, it’s no surprise that’s one of the styles that influences her the most, even though she’s the first to say she’s no salsera.

RaiNao: I can’t make salsa like a salsero would, but I want I try to experiment with what’s there, which I love and I can’t ignore. I let myself flow, and when I believe, I create without limits.

Aislyn: RaiNao grew up playing the sax and even attended a school that had both sighted and nonsighted students, an experience that shaped her in a fundamental way.

RaiNao: For me, one of the most impressive things was how they developed that sense, right? And they develop that sense of listening, and it’s awesome. I think that experience is one of the things that has taught me the most in my life.

Aislyn: And now she’s celebrating the inclusivity coming to the urbano and reggaetón scene.

RaiNao: There is room for everyone. And the presence of women, the presence of queer people, has made it evolve further. Right now, I think there’s room for everyone with ideas. And that’s amazing to me: That anyone who can have the idea and the audacity and the desire to do reggaetón, like they have a space there to be heard.

Aislyn: And Puerto Rico is good about giving these young artists the space to create and shine. Twelve hours from now, 58 will be packed with people dancing and laughing and drinking. And while 58 brings in big performers, the club’s marketing director, Leoner Pagan, says they also support up-and-coming artists.

Leoner Pagan: Puerto Rico is amazing. It’s known to have a lot of good artists that have to go outside of the island to get more exposure. 58 has become that type of venue, if you’re an artist that you want to perform, it’s either Coliseo de Puerto Rico and the other spot, it’s always 58. Because the big names, the big artists have performed here. So, in order for a younger, new, and upcoming artist to be able to perform in the same stage as the big names, then that’s a huge exposure for them.

Aislyn: Later that day, I’m back up in my room overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. I’m processing everything with Herson Guerrero, a photographer, professor, and musician himself. He’s a big RaiNao fan and helped coordinate the interview. I ask him about some of his favorite musicians. And he says, “How much time do you have?”

Herson Guerrero: There’s a lot of great musicians. We can throw out Héctor Lavoe, which is one of the pioneers and one of the, the best-known salsa singers out there. My personal favorite, Frankie Ruiz. It just makes you dance, and it’s, it’s called Salsa de la Gorda, which is like old-style salsa. Reggaetón, you got that old-school reggaetón vibe, and then you got the new-school reggaetón vibe. And, um, nothing beats Héctor el Father, a reggaetón singer turned, uh, pastor.

I would recommend Daddy Yankee, I would go with Wisin & Yandel, and I will go with Tego Calderón. And then it transcended into what we know now, which is, um, Bad Bunny and RaiNao, which are people that are globally recognized, and they’re just doing different things with, with the music.

Bad Bunny uses all different techniques in his music. He honors, uh, old-school, uh, singers and musicians. Then you got merengue. Uh, if somebody wants to know real Class A merengue, just google Elvis Crespo. Now he’s still touring till this day with his old songs. I don’t even know if he has new songs. His old songs are good enough. Like he’s in Europe touring.

Then you have Ricky Martin, which, you know, it’s Ricky Martin. He’s like the first star, the first, the one that started it all. And then you have J.Lo, you got Jennifer Lopez. I mean, Puerto Rico has a lot, its influence in music has come a long way. So, yeah, I would encourage people to explore not only the new, but the old.

Aislyn: It’s such a long list, and don’t worry, there will be a playlist in the show notes. The sun is setting. I’ve opened a bottle of sparkling wine, and Herson I marvel at how Puerto Rico has had such a huge impact on the world, in comparison to its size. It reminds me of something RaiNao said during our talk.

RaiNao: Puerto Rico is a very f*cking cultural island. It’s small but it’s immensely cultural. The scene has always been rich, always. There is always something going on; you go out into the street and there’s music. Every weekend there is a party. There’s a lot more than people think. It’s a very magical thing. The scene that other people in other parts of the world know and the scene that they don’t know. And the scene that you must come to Puerto Rico to listen and to know to discover.

Aislyn: As we clink our glasses, Herson sums it up nicely.

Herson: It’s a, it’s a small, such a small island. It’s 100, uh, by 35 [miles]. So it’s so, so, so small, yet there is so much talent and so much to offer.

Aislyn: I couldn’t agree more. It has so much to offer, in fact, that this episode is in no way comprehensive. There are so many musicians and songs and styles and nuances that I couldn’t include. Because, as I discovered during my week there, you’d need years to truly unpack the music of this special place.

So I’ll link to several fantastic resources in the show notes, including Petra Rivera-Rideau’s “Bad Bunny Syllabus” and a wonderful podcast called La Brega. It’s about the Puerto Rican experience, and season two unpacks that experience through music. They picked eight iconic Puerto Rican songs and devoted an episode to each. It’s one of the things that kept me company as I moved about the island.

I’ll also link to Angelina’s Airbnb experiences and La Concha’s 58 and finally to a playlist that highlights much of the music we talked about throughout the episode. It’s guaranteed to make you dance! And stay tuned for more Puerto Rico content: We’ll be releasing some of the full interviews from the episode in the next few months, including Angelina’s tips on salsa dancing in Puerto Rico.

And a very special thanks to Yvette Figueroa of INGCO International, who translated for me and Tata Cepeda.

Ready for more unpacking? Visit afar.com, and be sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter. The magazine is @afarmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, I hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing makes this easy! You can find Unpacked on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And be sure to rate and review the show. It helps other travelers find it. We also want to hear from you: Is there a travel dilemma, trend, or topic you’d like us to explore? Drop us a line at afar.com/feedback or email us at unpacked@afar.com.

This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin.

And remember: The world is complicated. We’re here to help you unpack it.