Music and street performers really suit some cities. And the 500-year-old Puerto Rican capital of San Juan is one of those places. Pavement artists, jugglers and people pretending to be statues seem to complement the cobbled streets, fountain-filled piazzas and public spaces. But I wasn’t prepared for the sight that met me at 9 o’clock on a Thursday morning as I turned the corner from my hotel and headed down the sloping Calle Tetuan street.
This attractive thoroughfare runs along the edge of a bluff and is flanked by three storey balconied homes on one side, painted beautifully in cornflower, terracotta and cream tones. The right side of the road is hemmed in by the massive city wall, but there are recesses all along it and a small leafy park within one of those spaces, which offers stunning views across the newer city and what would have been mangrove swamps. The land drops away 150 feet from the cliff edge. I’d chosen to walk this route to see what’s claimed to be ‘The Smallest House in the World.’ It is 5 feet wide and 36 feet deep. Locals claim it was built for slave housing.
But there was something else unusual in the street. A band of eight men dressed like the cast of a Shakespeare play were congregating on the cobbles, strumming their guitars. I walked over to their apparent leader and introduced myself. John Feliciano shook my hand and smiled. He was happy to explain why he and his friends were wearing doublets, tights and jester-style shoes in public. Strangely, even though I noticed it, office and shop workers appeared non-plussed as they filed past!
John is president of the Tuna Bardos at the University of Puerto Rico. It is both a social and music-making club for existing and former students. There are branches of Tunas in many Spanish universities. Group leaders like John must be enrolled in college but recent graduates are also welcome to retain their membership and the bands get together to perform 15th century Spanish songs at weddings, functions and special events all over Puerto Rico. As a visitor, you’re most likely to see and hear the bands in areas that are most popular with tourists. “We often play in restaurants in Old San Juan and Miramar,” explained John.
Band member Charles Sanchez leaned over and told me that the group was keen to keep this musical tradition alive. And getting dressed up and performing in this heat certainly showed commitment, he added.
I was keen to find out about the heritage of their performance. I’d never heard of it before. First off, I thought the name could create some confusion. If I saw ‘Tuna tonight’ on a restaurant menu, I’d be expecting fish for a main course, not Medieval-dressed musicians! It seems that the Tuna movement started in Spain and some have suggested that the name came from the ‘King of Tunis’, a term used by the men who led groups of vagabonds. That king used to wander around performing music, singing to anyone who’d listen to his opinions – views that he shared using the medium of music and song. Just please don’t tell Prince Charles about this!
“The instrumentation is always Spanish,” said John. His own band tries to include some Puerto Rican music and have added songs to their repertoire to reference the island’s strong Latin American roots.
It was rare to encounter the full group in daylight hours and I hope I’m not going to get them into trouble for bunking off lectures. I had, in fact, stumbled across the musicians as they were filming a promo video for their music making. It’s clearly a serious business now. After returning to my hotel I discovered that the band are heavily promoted online, including on Facebook and YouTube. And you can even download and buy their music from iTunes. Perhaps that’s just a 21st century take on the troubadours who walked Spain’s roads and paths making music for money – these students have simply switched the performance to the information super highway.
You can learn more about the band at www.tunabardosupr.com