Why do Tunas Play at Christmas?


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Why is it that in Puerto Rico I only hear the Tunas Estudiantinas at Christmas time?

I don’t know if the same thing happens in other countries. However, the other day I asked myself this cultural question. In this category, I include the groups of “Cantores” which are a variant of the “Tunas“.

Brief History of Tunas

The Tunas Estudiantiles were born in Spain around the XV and XVI centuries. Its main purpose was to provide a form of financial income for college students to help them meet their tuition and other needs. Its members were students who had some musical ability. They used mostly stringed instruments and voices. Towards the last century, the Tunas began to appear in other parts of Europe and Latin America.

The Tuna de Cayey was one of the first to get popular at Christmas. It was created more than 50 years ago.
The Tuna de Cayey was one of the first to have success at Christmas. It was organized more than 50 years ago.

There are several theories about the origin of the word “Tuna“. One is that the word “tuna” comes from the word “tunante“, which was a derogatory word that referred to those students who made noise during the night. The word eventually evolved into tuna.

If so, maybe I belonged to a tuna, because when I studied at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez, our apartment faced the back of the house of a loathsome old man. This old man one day called the police accusing us of being owls because we slept during the day and made noise at night! Ahhh, what memories!

Another theory is that the word came from the French “oi de Thunes“, “king of Tunis”, a title used by leaders of vagabonds.

Clothing of the
Clothing of the “tuno”.

The clothing of the “tuno” (as it is called the member of a Tuna) was originally composed of cloak, doublet, shirt, tights, shoes or boots, and finally the “beca“. The “beca” is a band of color corresponding to the faculty (the “estudiantinas” could be formed by faculty, as would be the Law Tuna or the Medical Tuna, although it could also be a Tuna of the university or even a regional Tuna) and is placed on the chest and shoulders in V-shape.

The Tunas were cheerful and mischievous in character and generally performed popular songs or songs from European or Hispanic American folklore. And I think this is where it connects to the Christmas season.

Music of the Tunas and Christmas!

The instrumentation of the tunas began being the same as the Spanish “rondallas“, which was mostly of stringed instruments and minor percussion such as castanets and tambourines! In Latin America, countries adopted the use of their regional instruments.

In Mexico the Tunas added the mariachi “guitarrón” and perform popular rancheras. In Puerto Rico, they adopted the Puerto Rican “cuatro” and folkloric songs, which were mostly heard during Christmas time.

Vicente Carattini was inspired by La Tuna de Cayey to form Los Cantores de San Juan, which had many hit songs still popular at Christmas.
Vicente Carattini was inspired by La Tuna de Cayey to form Los Cantores de San Juan, which had many hit songs still popular at Christmas.

Using the cuatro, “panderetas“, and even “panderos” to accompany religious or folk songs, the tunas’ repertoire was much more in demand during the Christmas season, even though they played year-round.

Connecting all the points concerning the formation, instrumentation, and songbook of the Tunas Estudiantinas, is the reason I have come to the above conclusion as to why the Tunas are mostly heard at Christmas!

I suppose that from the tunas arose the groups of “cantores“, that musically are similar to the tunas (with some variants) but that they are not student groups neither dress like the tunas.

Video of a Medley be the Tuna de Cayey

This is a video of Gilberto Santa Rosa’s Christmas special where La Tuna de Cayey performs a medley of their hits. Enjoy!

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