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How to compose a Puerto Rican décima

Moralito.jpg (8239 bytes) music39.gif (1520 bytes) Listen to the legendary Juan Morales Ramos, known as "Moralito," sing the verse (diagrammed immediately below) found in his décima Allá en la Altura [Up in the hills] and follow the explanations of its structure at right--->


Literal translation of décima lyric above
From "Up in the Highlands" by Moralito

I use a fireplace for a stove
Which I stoke with kindling,
Since my house is small
I have no television.
In my narrow room
I live as well as a lawyer does.
Mister, I can hear on my tin roof
the sounds of pigeons.
and I live up on the hill
better off than a rich man.

How would a décima sound in English?
A Decima in English following all the rules of an Espinela
written for the Cuatro Project by the poet,
Ina Cumpiano

Play me a décima, friend.
Play me a song from the island.
Play me the sea and the sand…
When cuatro and sunlight blend
I’m a sick man on the mend.
Where, in the tree branch, coquí
Sings his two notes in high C,
There´s where the sun’s a bright mango
And a plena more real than a tango,
Play, Borinqueño, for me.


What is the Pie Forzao?
by the folklorist José Gumersindo Torres

The Pie Forzado [obligated foot or ending]--jibaros would say, "Pie Forzao"--is the last line of each verse which the Improvisador is obliged to conclude each of the four ten-line verses he must make up on the spot during a singer's event. He must develop the theme indicated by the pie forzao in the first cuarteta or verse; then develop two intermediate cuartetas, each summarized by the same pie forzao and then conclude the theme in the final cuarteta, ending of course with the pie forzao.
     The following is a collection of traditional pie forzaos, any of which the improviser might expect to be given during a singing event. Note that they follow the rules of syllabification described above.

De Lo Frio A Lo Caliente
From being in the cold to being in the heat
De Lo Caliente A Lo Frio
From being in the heat to being in the cold
Entre La Gorda Y La Flaca
Between the fat one and the thin thin one
Con Preguntas Y Respuestas
With questions and answers
Busca La Contestacion
Search for the answer
Yo Soy La Ficha Del Tranque
I'm the domino that ends the game
Me Mando A Quitar El Nombre
I'm obliged to change my name
Improvisando Soy Diestro
My skill lies in improvisation
Yerba Que El Chivo No Masca
Grass that the goat refuses to chew
Hoy Cantando Lo Demuestro
And today I display this in song
No Es Tan Fiero El Leon
The lion is not so fierce
Como Lo Pinta La Gente
Its not as people paint it
Pero He Sido Tu Maestro
But I have been your master
Quiero Saber Quien Es Quien
I want to know who is who
No Le Tengo Miedo Al Bulto
I'm not afraid of the load
Por Mujeres No Se Llora
Don't cry over a woman
Llorar Por Una Mujer
Tears over a woman
Tu Bajas Cuando Yo Subo
You go down as I go up
Eres Yagrumo Y Yo Ausubo
You are Yagrumo and I Ausubo (two matched trees)
El Parlero Ruisenor
The garrulous nightingale
Debes Despertar De Un Sueno
You must awake from a dream
Aunque Seas Otro Espinel
Even if you were another Espinel
Roncas Mas De Lo Que Duermes
You snore more than sleep
El Pedir No Es Un Delito
To ask is not a crime
El Ateo Al Religioso
The atheist said to the religious man
La Bella Hembra Boricua
The beautiful Boricua female
Siguen Los Tiempos Cambiando
The times they are a-changin'

Muerte, Sangre Y Fuego
Death, blood and fire
El Plato De Noche Y Dia
The meal of night and day
Canta La Voz De Borinquen
The voice of Borinquen sings
Dile A Las Drogas Que No
Say no to drugs
Cultivando El Intelecto
Cultivating the intellect
Estoy Cantando Por El
I sing for Him
Cuando El Cuatro No Repique
When the cuatro goes silent
Sirva Otra Cantinero
Go serve another bartender
Va Cantando Una Quimbamba
He goes singing a Quimbamba
Yo Le Canto A La Mulata
I sing to the mulatto girl
Yo Prefiero La Caucasica
I prefer the white girl
Yo Le Canto A La Trigueña
I sing to the dark girl
Se Armo Otro Siquitraque
Another uproar has begun
La Cuenca Del Caribe
The Caribbean basin
A Sadám Y A Fidel Castro
To Sadaam and Fidel Castro
La Llave Del Verso
The key to the verse
Mientras Un Tiple Doliente
Meanwhile a Tiple Doliente
Eres Como El Algodon

You are like cotton
Mucho Bulto Poco Peso
A lot of mass but little weight
Un Cisne Con Tiernas Alas
A swan with tender wings
El Cantar De Los Turpiales
The song of the orioles
La Cuna De Los Patriotas
The cradle of the patriots
El Legendario Coqui
The legendary coquí
Con El Manto De La Noche
Under the cover of night
A Nuestra Mujer Boricua
To our Boricua woman

Nuestra Musica Folklorica
Our folkloric music
Lo Embellece Y Dignifica
It is beautified and dignified
Lo Que Mi Tierra Produce
That which is produced by my land
Donde Descansan Los Muertos
Where the dead lay
Herencia De Sus Ancestros

Inheritance of their ancestors
Un Trovador Espontaneo
A spontaneous troubadour
Desde El Arbol Del Suicidio
From the suicide tree
Y Ante El Padre Se Persigna
Before the priest he crosses himself
Cuando Nosotros No Estemos
When we are no longer here
Nuestra Patria Se Nos Muere
Our country is dying
La Carcel O El Cementerio
The jail or the cemetary
La Decima De Espinel
The décima of Espinel
Por Mas Que Salte El Grillo
However high the grasshopper jumps
Nunca Sera Maromero
He'll never be an trickster

Structure and rules of the Puerto Rican décima
according to Luis Morales "El Pico de Oro" and the folklorist José Gumersindo Torres
While composing or improvising a Puerto Rican décima, the trovador must keep all the following rules in mind. Not a simple task while making it up on the spot!

1- Rhyme: The ten lines in the traditional décima must rhyme in the following pattern:
Following the example on the left:

...fogón A
...leña B
...pequeña B
...televisión A
...habitación A
...abogado C
...techado C
...paloma D
...loma D
...adinerado C

2- Syllable counting: The number of syllables in each line must add up to 8. But what a syllable actually consists of and how the count is made is determined by a set of specific rules:

  • When a verse or line ends in a word with its emphasized syllable being the one before the last, or penultumate (a palabra llana, or "level" word) then the total number of syllables in that line must add up to 8 (Note the second line of the example)

  • When a verse or line ends in a word with its emphasized syllable being the last (a palabra aguda, or pointed word) then 1 is added to the total count. (Note the first line of the example)

  • When the verse or line ends in a word with its emphasized syllable being the antepenultimate one (a palabra esdrújula, or taccented hird from the end) then 1 is subtracted from the total count.


  • When there is a word in a verse that ends in a vowel, followed immediately by another word that begins with a vowel, the two adjacent syllables are counted as one (this is called a sinalefa or "elision")        

  • When a "weak" vowel (i, u) is joined with a "strong" vowel (a, o, e) within a word and the emphasis falls on the weak vowel, an accent mark is placed over the weak vowel. This creates what is known as a "hiatus" for the purposes of syllabification, and the union is broken into two separately counted syllables.