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Lamento Borincano (Puerto Rican Lament), Early Puerto Rican Music: 1916-1939

Various Artists

Arhoolie

Two decades after the Spanish-American War, Puerto Ricans were granted statutory U.S. citizenship. By the late ’20s (where this stellar two-disc set really begins; only one of its 50 tracks predates 1927), many working-class musicians had found conditions in New York more agreeable than those in San Juan. Only a handful of the 78-rpm sides collected here were actually waxed in Puerto Rico, but the mainland cuts aren’t any less redolent of home. True, there is a fox trot, as well as an occasional danza (which sways to the rhythm favored by the upper classes), but most of the songs exploit traditional popular types, including the narrative, frequently topical plena and the Cuban-born bolero, which is punctuated by the ticking swing of the claves. And Puerto Rican politics remained foremost in the minds of writers such as the famed Rafael Hernández, guitarist and leader of the New York-based Trío Borinquen, who knew why “My Country Trembles”: “Loyal patriots who died years ago…shake their tombs…because they prefer Borinquen to be sunk, rather than be enslaved, she be swallowed by the sea.” Elsewhere, however, lighter hearts prevail—much of this is party music, after all—as when the roguishly strident Rafael “Tripopi” Capacete, who lent his distinctive bray to competing bands, chronicles “The Mysteries of Lenox Avenue,” which turn out to concern a bunch of guys who keep getting hassled by the cops because they’d rather eat pizza and hang out at Martínez’s record shop than walk to work in the cold. Though essayist Cristóbal Díaz Ayala and editor/Arhoolie boss Chris Strachwitz are squeamish about including “The Home Relief” and “What a Living,” a couple of joyous celebrations of New Deal largess, such songs merely advertise the obvious: that no amount of nostalgia could make starving in a Borinquen sold out to Big Sugar preferable to dancing in the Big Apple on the government’s dime. —Glenn Dixon