Jose was born blind, to humble beginnings, on September 10, 1945, in Lares, Puerto Rico. One of eleven boys, his love affair with music began at the age of three when he first accompanied his uncle on a tin cracker can. When he was five, his family immigrated to New York City. Young Jose learned to play the concertina at age six, using a handful of records as his teacher. At eight, he entertained his classmates at PS 57, and at nine, performed at The Puerto Rican Theater in the Bronx. Venturing beyond the accordion, he taught himself to play the guitar with undaunted determination and again, with nothing but records as his teacher, practicing for as many as 14 hours a day. Exposed to the Rock’n’Roll of the 50’s, Jose was then inspired to sing.
At 17, Jose quit school. His father was not working at the time and he needed to help his family. He starting playing in coffee houses in Greenwich Village and for his salary — as was customary during that time in small clubs — they’d “pass the hat.” He played in coffee houses, clubs and cafes from Boston to Cleveland to Detroit, Chicago and Denver. A music critic from the New York Times, reviewing his performance at Gerde’s Folk City, referred to him as a “10-fingered wizard who romps, runs, rolls, picks and reverberates his six strings in an incomparable fashion.” He added, “If you want to witness the birth of a star, catch Mr. Feliciano before he leaves tomorrow night.” Around this time, Jack Sommer, an A&R executive from RCA, went to the Village to audition a trio who was there, saw Jose perform and signed him to RCA, instead. This was, indeed, the Birth of a Star.
He is still going strong:
Many younger folks who can sing along with Feliz Navidad don’t know that Feliciano ignited a firestorm of controversy in 1968.
During the 1968 World Series, José Feliciano’s national anthem got almost as much attention as the battle between the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals. Before the series’ fifth game on October 7, the 23-year-old Puerto Rican-born performer seated himself on a stool in the playing field and sang the lyrics of the “Star-Spangled Banner” to a new tune with a Latin jazz twist. The audience responded immediately with both cheers and boos. Mostly angry fans jammed the switchboards at Tiger Stadium and at NBC, which was broadcasting the game. The irate callers thought Feliciano’s version of the national anthem was unpatriotic.
Because he was a long-haired young man wearing sunglasses, many viewers saw his performance as part of the Vietnam war protests. What most did not realize was that Feliciano had been born blind, so the sunglasses were not a fashion statement. He sat before the crowd alongside his guide dog Trudy and had absolutely no understanding of the spectacle he had ignited. Feliciano was shocked to hear the negative response. “When I did the anthem, I did it with the understanding in my heart and mind that I did it because I’m a patriot,” Feliciano said in an interview this week. “I was trying to be a grateful patriot. I was expressing my feelings for America when I did the anthem my way instead of just singing it with an orchestra.”
Moving forward from that stunning day in Detroit was a challenge that he embraced. The furor over his anthem had begun even before he realized it. After the song, baseball announcer Tony Kubek told him, “You’ve created a commotion here. Veterans were throwing their shoes at the television.” NBC’s cameras stopped focusing on Feliciano after the song’s third line. The Detroit Free Press carried a headline in the next day’s editions that summed up the aftermath of Feliciano’s performance: “Storm Rages over Series Anthem.” Longtime Detroit Tigers play-by-play announcer Ernie Harwell, who had invited Feliciano to perform, almost lost his job because of anger over the singer’s performance.
Despite the controversy over his rendition of the national anthem, RCA released a single featuring Feliciano’s take on the nation’s song—and it rose to No. 50. New York Times writer Donal Henahan wrote that Americans had heard many performances of the anthem, and “the nation will no doubt survive the latest controversial version too.”
Most of you are familiar with the guitar, but as mentioned above, Feliciano also plays the “cuatro” which is a key instrument in Puerto Rican Christmas celebrations and traditions.
The Cuatro is Puerto Rico’s “national instrument.” Smaller than a guitar and larger than a mandolin, the cuatro’s distinctive, nasal twang has been loved by Puerto Ricans since the early days of Puerto Rico’s colonial past.
In its earliest form, it was quite different from what it is today. The “early” cuatro or cuatro antiguo once had a peculiar, keyhole-shaped soundbox and was strung with four single strings made from animal guts–hence it’s name cuatro— or “four.” Its tuning and stringing– originally derived from a primitive modal form of tuning dating back to 15th century Spain– remained unchanged on the Island for centuries. In this form, the jíbaro country folk living in the remote central hills of the Island, preferred it. The early form of the cuatro persisted across the Puerto Rican countryside up until the middle of the 20th century–and then faded away.
Traditionally, the cuatro is never heard alone in public as a solo instrument. Its musical role is to always to provide the melody voice in a traditional instrumental ensemble, sometimes called an “orquesta jíbara.” Today, the cuatro is usually heard accompanied either by another cuatro (cuatros a dúo) and/or a guitar. While the cuatro playes the melody, the guitar usually plays chordal accompaniment. In the traditional ensemble, the rhythmic percussion is always carried out by a scratch gourd called variously güiro, guícharo or carracho. Today we often hear a set of bongos included in the percussion section, although that is a relatively recent addition, the bongo being Cuban in origin.
The cuatro was originally made and played by the jíbaro, Puerto Rico´s iconic “mountain-dweller” and subsistence farmer: the original creator of Puerto Rican country music. From its early beginnings, the social function of Puerto Rican “mountain music” was mainly for the accompaniment of religious observances, such as promesas a la virgen [promises to the Virgin Mary], florones or baquinés [wakes for dead children], patron-saint festivals, and rosarios cantados [rosary songs]–as well as during secular events like end-of-harvest celebrations (acabes) and even political campaigns. Those old customs are rarely observed today and the only remaining, truly traditional usage of the cuatro and Puerto Rican mountain music is during year-end celebrations of the Nativity and January observances of the festival of Epiphany. But over time, the cuatro’s usage spread into the world of secular mainstream, popular music.
1994: Neri Orta, Ramón Vázquez y Neftalí Ortiz acompañados por la guitarra de Rolando Cotto, el guiro de Pablito Figueroa y las voces típicas de Quique Galarza y Neri Orta llevan una parranda a la familia Jaramillo en Dorado, Puerto Rico.
1994: Neri Orta, Ramón Vázquez and Neftalí Ortiz accompanied by the guitar of Rolando Cotto, the guiro of Pablito Figueroa and the typical voices of Quique Galarza and Neri Orta take a party to the Jaramillo family in Dorado, Puerto Rico.
The traditions and music have traveled from the island to the mainland.
When José Nieves left the Salto de Orocovis neighborhood for the United States in 1994, he took with him his talent as an improviser and his jibaro culture in Puerto Rico. Established in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for almost two decades, José Nieves continues to celebrate, with his gift of improvisation, Christmas and the roots of the land that saw him born. The experience of Gallo Pinto de Orocovis is an example of the Puerto Rican who physically leaves the island while his soul and heart remain in it.
The Bronx Music Heritage Center had their annual Melrose Holiday Parranda through the streets of the South Bronx!
Here’s footage of a surprise parranda in Chicago:
Puerto Rican culture shines brightest during the holiday season. Lasting from the end of November through the end of January, there are many Christmas traditions that are unique to the island. One of our favorite traditions is the Parranda. Parrandas are the Puerto Rican version of caroling. It is marked by singing traditional Puerto Rican music called Aguinaldos (Christmas Songs) and using traditional instruments, including Guitars and Cuatros, tambourines, maracas, palitos, and guiros.
How does a Parranda Work?
A small group of people (parranderos) get the party started by surprising a friend at their house with music from Puerto Rico. Once the musicians have congregated on someone’s porch, they begin an as alto navideno, or a Christmas assault. This song awakens and greets the homeowner who must come to the door and let the musicians in. The musicians squeeze into the house and continue to perform aguinaldos. They usually get started after 10pm so that one is awoken in surprise. Then, as a group, they continue to the next house. Each house visit grows bigger through the night as more neighbors join in. The parrenderos are usually plied with drinks and food, and perhaps a little homemade Coquito (Puerto Rico’s version of eggnog) and then on to the next house. Usually, things wrap up around daybreak, with the last house usually providing something heartier like an asapao, or stew.
What is sung at a Parranda?
Music is a particularly important aspect of Christmas in Puerto Rico. The Aguinaldo provides the basis for much of the music that accompanies the parranda. Although the word aguinaldo in Puerto Rican Spanish, means “gift,” it also refers to a Christmas song, especially if performed in a lively folk style. This use of the word equates the playing of Christmas songs with the giving of gifts. And if sung well, it is indeed!
Though Puerto Rico has been virtually abandoned by its ostensible president and is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria, the spirit of the people is strong, and traditions are being passed on to younger generations.
Puerto Rican reggaeton and Latin trap singer Juan Carlos Ozuna Rosado, known simply as Ozuna, teams up with cuatro virtuoso Christian Nieves and the children’s group Generación Escogida to sing for Christmas.
“After the storm comes the rainbow” is the opening lyric.
Between being Billboard’s Top Latin Artist of the year and YouTube’s most-watched artist globally, Ozuna has a lot to celebrate. Now, the Puerto Rican singer puts a bow on his successful 2018 with the release of his very own Christmas song.
On Wednesday (Dec. 12), Ozuna released “Llego La Navidad” (Christmas Is Here), a collaboration with Puerto Rican children’s group Generación Escogida and musician Christian Nieves. The song was presented by Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares and the executive director of the Tourism Company of Puerto Rico, Carla Campos, with the mission of inviting tourists to spend their holidays in the Isla del Encanto.
So Feliz Navidad to all, and may the new year bring Puerto Rico rainbows—along with some assistance from the incoming Democratic-controlled Congress.