The coast of Old San Juan in Puerto Rico.
The coast of Old San Juan in Puerto Rico.
Darryl Brooks/Alamy Stock Photo

Inside Puerto Rico's Flourishing Music Community Post-Hurricane Maria: 'We're Back In Business'

by Suzette Fernandez
May 13, 2019, 2:31pm EDT

In the video for their global smash “Despacito,” Puerto Rican natives Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee lead a vibrant community-wide bembé -- a joyous tribute to the island’s rich culture and musical history, with plenty of perreo-style grinding for good measure. “Puerto Rico is the true protagonist of this song and this video,” Fonsi told Billboard in 2017. The historic clip -- still YouTube’s most-watched of all time -- reached a new milestone in February when it passed 6 billion views. The celebration was short-lived, however: Nine months after its debut, “Despacito” became a rallying cry for an island in crisis when Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017. Following the storm -- which left nearly 1.4 million without power and a reported death toll of 2,975 -- an estimated 130,000 people (roughly 4% of the population) left the island, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The global musical influence of Puerto Rico, known as “La Isla del Encanto” (“The Enchanted Island”), is undeniable. Considered the birthplace of Latin music’s urban movement, the U.S. territory today dominates Billboard’s Latin charts with its latest offshoot -- Latin trap -- embraced by its new class of star exports. Five of the top 10 acts on the year-end 2018 Top Latin Artists chart were of Puerto Rican descent: Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, Nicky Jam, Bad Bunny and Ozuna. The lattermost artist made history at the Billboard Latin Music Awards in April as the biggest single-year winner by collecting 11 trophies, including artist of the year. Also among the island’s Boricua (another term for “Puerto Rican” that derives from its indigenous Taíno heritage and language) are many of Latin music’s top 1% -- from Rita Moreno, Jose Feliciano, Ednita Nazario, Marc Anthony and Ricky Martin to Don Omar, Residente and Kany García.

In Maria’s wake, Puerto Rico’s artistic community is as resilient as ever. Its newly established tourism organization, Discover Puerto Rico, launched the Have We Met Yet? campaign in April, anchored by the island’s two strongest assets: its culture and people. “We want to send a message to all travelers that this is the year to visit Puerto Rico,” says Discover Puerto Rico chief marketing officer Leah Chandler. Hamilton creator (and Puerto Rico’s unofficial cultural ambassador) Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose father, Luis, was born in the commercial district Vega Alta, leveraged his international platform to spotlight rehabilitation efforts on the ground through a one-off San Juan run of his Broadway show in January. Held at the Centro de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferré, the 23 Hamilton dates raised $14 million for the Flamboyan Arts Fund, a partnership between Miranda’s family and the Flamboyan Foundation, which aids local artists and institutions. Comedian Jimmy Fallon joined the Tony Award winner to film a special Tonight Show episode shot entirely in San Juan.

The music business also has used its influence to encourage islandwide community healing: In March, ASCAP brought its 27th annual Latin Music Awards back to San Juan for the fourth time in the last 15 years, citing Maria’s “heartbreaking” devastation of the Latin songwriting community as the impetus for the move. Telemundo Puerto Rico followed with a new awards show filmed on the island -- the inaugural Premios Tu Música Urbano -- which catered to Latin music’s burgeoning urban sector. The inaugural event -- where Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló sat in the front row -- honored Daddy Yankee, Natti Natasha, Ozuna and other artists. “Puerto Rico is the capital of Latin urban music,” lifetime achievement honoree Daddy Yankee told the crowd. “There’s no bigger honor than to be recognized where you’re from.”

Below, a mix of industry locals share insights about the island’s booming live market and its continued global impact.

 


 

Venues on the Rise

“Most venues and theaters are up and running -- only a few in small towns aren’t open,” says Ants Production owner-manager Tony Mojena (Luis Fonsi), who produces the Billboard Latin Music Awards with Telemundo. “If you look at the schedule for Coliseo de Puerto Rico [José Miguel Agrelot] or Bellas Artes, they’re packed. For me as a promoter, it’s hard to find open dates, which means we’re back in business.” Mojena is confident in the state-of-the-art performance spaces under construction, like District Live! -- similar to AEG’s L.A. Live in Los Angeles, it will offer high-end dining, a retail plaza, cinema and hotel, and is near the Convention Center -- as well as Vivo Beach, which reopened in 2018 in Isla Verde after $1 million in repairs. “We need new venues now that there’s a heightened interest,” he says. Rimas Entertainment chief Noah Assad (Bad Bunny) says there are “still many more opportunities” to come. The power broker’s favorite pastime? Stopping to hear “what the true people of my island” are listening to on their car stereos.

Where to Go: “Old San Juan is full of little venues with everything from urban music to acoustic singer-songwriters and many local festivals,” says Mojena.

National Product

“Music distinguishes the Puerto Rican,” says Jetppeht Pérez, GM of Bellas Artes. During periods spent off-island, he says people would often cite music and art first when discussing the region’s reputation. “We say that in Puerto Rico, you find a musician in every corner, but the talent of our renowned sound engineers, lighting technicians and graphic artists, among others, stands out as well.” Tax incentives give further hope to the community at large, thanks to a new bill signed into law last December that removed a business-to-business tax for companies that generate $200,000 or less a year, says manager Frabian Eli (Anuel AA). “The law helps composers, who earn less money than they charge for royalties.”

Where to Go: “The Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico [951 Ave. Ponce de Leon, San Juan] is the place for guests,” says Pérez. “As a cultural company, it represents the most ambitious public arts effort in our country for 60 years.”

Creative Exports

“Our international artists represent us with great pride wherever they perform,” says Carla Campos, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. The Caribbean destination has become a “bucket list” favorite for travelers of all backgrounds, specifically for its musical touchstones. Under Rosselló’s stewardship, the Campos-led organization aims to prioritize the continued growth of the island’s “creative industries” as a leading sector of its economy -- with “great potential” for export. Adds Eduardo Cajina, GM of Coliseo de Puerto Rico: “Puerto Rico is a cradle of impressive talent, known worldwide for reggaetón, jazz, salsa and more. From all aspects, we have stood out.”

Where to Go: “La Placita de Santurce [179 Calle dos Hermanos] offers a prime taste of Puerto Rico’s musical and cultural richness,” says Campos.

The Birthplace of Urban

Puerto Rico commercializes music faster than any other culture, according to José “Pompi” Vallejo, co-founder of Mr. & Mrs. Entertainment, who credits its “excellent” crop of cutting-edge local producers with the consistent innovation of the genre. For music producers DJ Nelson (Wisin, Yandel, Ivy Queen) and Gaby Music (Ozuna, Natti Natasha), the urban subgenre has transcended well beyond a local phenomenon: “Urban music has become a worldwide rhythm,” says Music (real name: Juan G. Rivera). The beatsmith owns a studio in the mountainous Comerío region, where musicians get to “fall in love with the view” while recording. But for live-music executive Jose Dueño, whose eponymous entertainment/production company has produced concerts for Bon Jovi, Céline Dion, Usher and more, it’s still all about the Coliseo de Puerto Rico, which rivals any arena in the U.S. market. “If I want to impress my guests, I take them to the Coliseo,” he says. Dueño is bullish about the urban boon in recent years and its increased presence in the live space, citing plans for a 6,000-capacity midsize amphitheater in San Juan’s posh Condado district, tentatively set for March 2020. “We are proud to be the land of reggaetón.”

Where to Go: “The Vivo Beach Club [7000 Carr. 187 RR2, Carolina] in Isla Verde,” says Dueño. “It’s very casual, pleasant and comfortable. You can go to the beach and see live shows at the same time.”

A 'New Pop'

The urban movement’s fusion with Caribbean sounds has created a “new pop” that a worldwide audience has embraced, says local musician Pedro Capó, whose hit “Calma” alongside fellow Boricua Farruko earned the burgeoning star his first No. 1 on the Latin Airplay chart and a remix from Alicia Keys in April. The singer-songwriter credits past generations’ contributions -- from salsa and merengue to reggaetón -- as deeply influential to the “frontierless” music era that is dawning. He cites Puerto Rico’s “racial ancestry, deep-rooted traditions, nationalist pride and geographical location,” plus its “political annexation to the U.S.” as instrumental in creating this accessible talent pool. “Kids that grew up listening to both Daddy Yankee and Ricky Martin have found that musical sweet spot and changed the pop game for good. It’s refreshing for both artists and audience.” The region has become a force in the global music pantheon, says Julio Bagué, peermusic vp Latin Division, East Coast and Puerto Rico. “It’s one of the biggest musical influences worldwide.”

Where to Go: “I’m a fan of small venues that showcase emerging talent in the most organic way,” says Capó, who cites La Respuesta [1600 Ave. Fernandez Juncos] in Santurce as an important indie-leaning locale for up-and-coming artists.

Incredible Potential

The island is a true “talent factory,” says musician Yandel, who credits both private entities and the government’s “many educational programs” with continuing to bolster fresh voices. The U.S. territory has everything it needs to be a dominant force for years to come, says Pérez, who observes that the “potential to produce capital and generate employment” is the most important factor in the stability of the industry. “Puerto Rican music deserves large-scale exposure.” While it’s easier than ever to optimize access routes to consumers and in international markets, for Pérez, the challenge is in educating the public about the latest tech and media strategies to encourage DIY success. “Other countries have already learned that music is a business that generates economic prosperity and jobs. The numbers do not lie.” Manager Vicente Saavedra (Ozuna) used to expect a breakout star “every 10 years” or so, but lately it happens much quicker, with Latin urban at its “highest peak” today. The camaraderie of its local artists -- and their willingness to collaborate -- is also essential. “The new generation pulls from the essence of our music to create a fresh perspective.”

Where to Go: “Hotel San Juan [6063 Isla Verde Ave., Carolina],” says Bagué. “On Saturday nights, they have Charlie Sepulveda and his big band. I just love it.”

'The Perfect DNA'

“Fifteen years ago, it was difficult for pioneers like Daddy Yankee, Wisin and Yandel to break barriers,” says Eli, who adds that these early crossover pioneers have made “everything easier” for the next generation. The increase in the island’s Gen Z output in recent years has been a “blessing,” says Wisin. The singer -- whose solo career includes 31 entries on the Hot Latin Songs chart, among them a 14-week No. 1 reign with “Duele el Corazon” alongside Enrique Iglesias -- owns a studio in the central Cayey borough, a nod to his own upbringing there. “It’s a beautiful vibe when you’re in the country, even if the production ends in Miami,” he adds. “All of my projects come from there because I feel happiest where I started.” Elsewhere, islanders credit the region’s diversity as a cultural melting pot with creating the “perfect DNA” necessary for developing transcendent musical trends. “It’s that tropical, Afro-Caribbean rhythm that we’re born with, mixed with the fact that we’re so influenced by Anglo music,” says Fonsi. He has been active in the island’s La Perla neighborhood (the setting of the “Despacito” video) with philanthropic efforts, such as teaming with local activist group Por los Nuestros to build a solar-powered laundromat for the community. Publicist Mayna Nevarez (Juan Gabriel, Santana) says that at least “one person per family” plays an instrument on the island -- a mark of its folk, African and Taíno roots, anchored by traditional instruments like the guicharo (a hollowed-out gourd), maraca and tambour.

Where to Go: Eli suggests hitting the fiestas of San Sebastián Street, which take place in Old San Juan every January. This year, they included performances by Capó, iLe and other local talents.

This article originally appeared in the May 11 issue of Billboard.