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"Free Frog," 2021. Mixed ink media on paper by WC Bevan. Courtesy River House Arts

Issue 118, Fall 2022

El Coquí Siempre Canta

Listening for the ambient sounds of home

First, they clap. Then they breathe. Homecoming looks a lot like relief: a celebration, and then the freedom to exhale. I can close my eyes and chart the journey from landing in an airplane to arriving at mis abuelos’ house in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, where my mamita grew up—like a cartographer or a veteran Formula 1 driver, synaptic pathways tracing the curves of each turn. The Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport smells humid and full—a warmth I breathe in, and then out once we turn into my abuela’s driveway a few kilometers away. Here, it smells like wet metal—the security bars on the windows, the ornate design of the gate. She changes the color of the facade frequently; it’s always bright and pastel, contrasted gray with moisture. The dampened ground and dripping Flamboyan trees smell like family, but it only feels like home once the day turns to night and the coquis sing.

Coquis, for the uninitiated, are tiny tree frogs about an inch or two long, native to Puerto Rico, that have only recently begun to spread through accidental and human intervention. They never evolved to grow webbed feet, so they cannot swim, thus they are sequestered in Puerto Rico and the neighboring islands of Vieques and Culebra. And yet: My abuelo was born on Vieques, and when I traveled there for the first time, a year after he died, I didn’t hear a single coqui. It was as if they were in mourning, too. He was a patient, quiet man, kind and loving. He was married to my abuela—neither patient nor quiet, a spitfire her whole life—for sixty-five years. Even now, it feels like an impossible amount of time.

Coquis’ ubiquity has made them a point of pride for Boricuas, though they appear to have been first classified as a new species in 1965 by American taxonomist Richard Thomas. Puerto Rico, a land of many identities and races, is also one of the world’s oldest colonies, existing under military occupation or protectorate status since 1508, by Spain and the United States—like the colonizers before him, Thomas was late to the party, claiming a “discovery” for his own. Coquis appear on centuries-old Taíno engravings. They exist in many different colors: brown, green, yellow. I’d learn to compare the trio of coquis to the myopic teachings of racial parity in Puerto Rico, where it is taught that the archipelago is a consistent mix of three cultures: American, Spanish, and indigenous. It’s a lot of politicking for such a small amphibian.

At night, coquis sing by making a loud call. The male coquis cry out the prefix “CO-,” to warn neighboring male coquis to get away, and the suffix “-QUI” or “-KEY,” a sound meant to entice neighboring female coquis. I love the performance of it: coquis sing a serenade in the open air in the dead of night, a rising whistle like a Baroque lover beneath a balcony, a constant cry for the love of women. As a child, on my annual trips to Puerto Rico to see my closest family—from Texas, Virginia, and Germany, wherever we were living at that moment, or from New York, where I later moved to pursue a career in music journalism—I didn’t think of their scientific classifications, or their diet of insects, lizards, and other frogs. I thought of the comfort they provide—an endless, ambient cantata at a time where other places offer silence: the stillness of childhood bedrooms in Texas and rural Germany, the quietude of our garden in Virginia. It’s what Audre Lorde referred to as the “music that did not have to be listened to because it was always around,” when writing about her mother moving to New York City from Grenada in Zami. At night, even when you’re asleep, there’s music playing. No wonder songs became my professional and personal passion.

In Puerto Rico, you could never stop listening. The only silence exists between the syllables, and even that is filled with chirping insects, restless birds, and, in the rural areas, a jíbaro’s mooing cow, along with the treble of my abuelo coughing while brewing our morning pocillo. When I became an adult, I started recording the coquis’ song on my phone, looking for patterns in their rhythms, attempting to learn if they change in intensity with the seasons, but mostly, to hear my family’s home when I needed that particular familiarity the most. The recordings brought me comfort. Between interviews for my day job as a music reporter, on my tape recorder and iPhone, I heard their natural songs. I might as well have been recording my tía’s laugh, or my abuela singing, “Pollito, chicken / Gallina, hen / Lapiz, pencil / y Pluma, pen / Ventana, window / Puerta, door / Maestra, teacher / y Piso, floor,” a song I thought she wrote for me and my brother to learn Spanish. I later learned it to be the product of American colonial rule; she was using it to teach me Spanish the same way she was taught in grade school to learn English. Coquis brought me to a Puerto Rico much more ancient than that history, an inherited resilience and spirit. Turns out, there are many different ways to articulate home for an audience with a different memory of it—or no memory at all.

The dampened ground and dripping Flamboyan trees smell like family, but it only feels like home once the day turns to night and the coquis sing.

When you call someone in Puerto Rico, at night, you will hear the coquis sing. They are the ambient music of an island so rich in the stuff, a reggaetonero with the band performing their own dembow. As far back as I can remember, there were weekly calls to Puerto Rico—a ritual I’ve grown to appreciate; with enough frequency, the cold, technological distance can grow warm. I always loved that you could hear that a person was in Puerto Rico, even before they revealed that’s where they were located. If someone in my family was on a trip and didn’t disclose their plans, there was no hiding it, we were well aware. It’s a rare thing: being able to hear a place without relying on the language of its people, in this case, the dropped “r” for an “l” in the acento puertoriqueño.

Hearing the music of a place, of course, isn’t unique to Puerto Rico: You can record the sounds of a marketplace in Tangier, Morocco, the winds of Lake Turkana in Kenya, a Louisiana thunderstorm, how church bells sound different at the Duomo in Florence than a village square in Chile. In researching for this piece, I learned that Anita Hill also packs a recorder with her on her travels—“you can capture sights with a camera,” she told Condé Nast Traveler, “but it’s harder to capture sound… That’s how I like to remember.” For her, like so many of us obsessed with collecting songs, ambient music is meant to be experienced once and then repeated like an echo, amplified, and altered, with the harsh cut-off of an expired recording, the click of its coda. Each listen is hearing the past, and it only grows more remote from the time of its occurrence.

Recording those sounds undoubtedly changes them from ambience, a sense of place and time, to anthropological study—digestible, commodifiable, no longer ephemera but hardened permanence—the kind of quandary ethnomusicologists have been debating since sounds could turn into soundscapes. When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, ambient sound was forever changed: Listening to a coqui, for example, was formerly evanescent—gone in the daylight when they no longer sang. Now, they can be heard whenever, wherever, at a distance. On my tape recorder and in songs, the nuanced crackle of their croaks is flattened, dried out from the wet season. Capturing sound feels narrower than hearing it in person. But that does not mean it’s without merit. Photographs give us a sense of the past, but a place today doesn’t sound like it did two hundred years ago. Coquis, it can be assumed, have remained largely the same. In our natural histories, the ones we choose to protect, we can hear the past and the present in the present.

What, then, happens when an ambient sound is recorded and mixed, altered and ahistoricized, in the interest of art-making? Because coquis are a point of pride in Puerto Rico, a symbol of Boricua-ness pre-Latinidad, their songs frequently appear in popular music by Puerto Ricans. “Ay Bendito,” a track on Romeo Santos’s (of bachata boy band Aventura) 2017 studio album Golden, begins with the sound of coquis—isolated, glossy, shiny—elevated by musician Alvin Medina, who plays the cuatro, a short, four-stringed, traditional Puerto Rican instrument, not unlike a small guitar. I was taken by the sweet, considerate use of the coquis’ song, how it immediately set Santos at night, quicker than any goth-y coldwave song ever could. It’s also a lovesick pop song, so charmingly Boricua, an exercise in taking the organic sounds of the coqui and bringing them into crisp production, no feeling of legitimacy lost. 

If it were another musician, the coquis would lose their place—much like how Spanish singer Rosalía’s use of reggaetón in her music not only reads little like a celebration of reggaetón, but also like an underscoring of Spain’s colonial rule of Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, the Latin places in which the genre originates. And just like a place can be experienced through sound anywhere, taking those ambient markers of a geography isn’t unique to coquis. New Zealand pop star Lorde, for example, sampled the sounds of cicadas on her 2021 album Solar Power. The loud, high-pitched rhythm of the male cicada’s tymbal muscle bending the surface of its abdominal segment creates a clicking sound one hundred to four hundred times a second, an insects’ hum found on every continent in the world except Antarctica (they have a thing for temperate and tropical environments) that those residents have learned to associate with summer, the same way we might think of an ice cream truck’s jingle or fingernails clinking against the condensation of a cool glass of lemonade or agua fresca.

In Lorde’s case, unlike Santos’s, she allows the expert rhythm of cicadas (which some entomologists have compared to Tuvan throat singing) to add texture to her song of summer—they are not the focal point, but a fabric of her production. Removed from its original place, we can hear the sound of a New Zealand summer in the middle of an American one—a piece of a collective memory separate from our own experience, woven into the song like a metronomic synthesizer. The golden canary yellows of her New Zealand pop bright against the backdrop of our non-kiwi ones—to our ears, her home is loud. And yet, the cicadas can be noticed in Lorde’s song, or they can be ornamental—highlighted or glazed over like Muzak overheard from someone else’s phone on the beach, however you listen.

Whatever the appreciation, her sound and Santos’s are located truths, not too dissimilar from inorganic samples, like the “sound effects of guns unloaded and bullets being shot in popular songs like Daddy Yankee’s ‘La Gasolina,’” tying early reggaetón influences to the caseríos, as Verónica Dávila Ellis wrote about in their essay on Ivy Queen for this magazine; or even the tractor motor that introduces Kenny Chesney’s 1999 hit “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” a sound meant to bring its listener straight into the American heartland—even though, at that point in time, Chesney was already a rock star, fully divorced from the rural working-class existence he was aiming to attract with his sample. For Santos, the coqui song is his intro, integral to the listening experience. There’s conveying authenticity, and then there’s embodying it.

All of these musicians are using samples in similar ways, but for different aims. For Santos, it’s to commune with his culture and bring what is most important to him to those outside the island. (Despite the fact that technologically reproduced sounds can also be destabilizing for listeners who share that history—I cry out of adjacent homesickness when I hear a recorded coqui almost as much as I smile.) Daddy Yankee brings attention to the barrios while co-opting their rhythms: If violence is in the soundtrack for life, then violence will be in the soundtrack for his art. In the case of Chesney, it’s a co-option of a sound’s geography to appeal to that geography, and, ideally, a much broader one keen on fetishizing a rural existence. His tractor isn’t grounded in memory; it’s an image meant to be captured and commodified— even if the song itself is charming and hilarious. There’s no shortage in the potential and actual roles of music made from ambient sounds—only the promise that their meaning and message can be made malleable when removed from their original context. For the diasporic creators, however, it is always motivated by evoking home—bringing tangible place to the intangibility of sound. That impossibility is why I’ve always loved the coquis’ song, ever since I was young. 

I don’t have many memories from childhood. They are blocked, an impenetrable void I find comfort in—few moments unlock and reveal themselves. When they do, it’s a burst of dopamine, flashes of geography, a feeling, a sound, a familiar warmth that requires little intellectualizing to appreciate. One is a song. A coqui nursery rhyme, or folk song, taught to children.

El coquí, el coquí siempre canta
es muy lindo el cantar del coquí
por las noches a veces me duermo
con el dulce cantar del coquí
coquí, coquí, coquí, qui, qui, qui
coquí, coquí, coquí, qui, qui, qui.

The coqui, the coqui’s always singing
The coqui’s singing is very nice
And sometimes, I go to sleep at night
With the sweet singing of the coqui
Coqui, coqui, coqui, qui, qui, qui
Coqui, coqui, coqui, qui, qui, qui.

I hear it in my abuela’s voice, though I’m not quite sure she ever sang it to me. It could be something I saw on a children’s television show or read in a book when I was finally old enough to appreciate my multiracial identity instead of attempting to slide into the systemic ease of my whiteness. Either way, it is a memory with a place—even if it’s one I’ve tricked myself to associate with her house.

It is accepted, in cognitive and neurological psychology, that the brain etches memories by locating them in their geography—where did the event happen, before the how or why. It’s a process called episodic memory formation, the notion that we associate things with the place and time they happened. No wonder it is also a commonly used tactic to ground a person suffering panic attacks: chair, desk, lamp, carpet, friend, body. Once you have a place, you have a sense of being.

I moved around a lot as a child, so my relationship with place is impermanent; I feel a deep sense of connection with people everywhere, but I float between geographies. Those memories are hard to ground, but I find myself attempting to put them somewhere. And so, the coqui folk song—the sound of a human voice attempting the call of “co-” and “-qui,” and repeating it with the saccharine sweet, “qui, qui, qui,”—brings me home, to my abuela’s bright kitchen and the collection of rooster figurines, to the intoxicating smell of arroz con gandules on the stove. Even removed from its location, their song draws me close—because its sound can’t be stripped from who I am, the geography that lives within me. But I don’t always have access to it—in the same way memories drift into that black void, inaccessible until I enter the sound and not the recorded soundscape. And sometimes entering the sound is simply remembering it—not quite like experiencing it for the first time, but certainly sharper than hearing a recording.

I cry out of adjacent homesickness when I hear a recorded coqui almost as much as I smile.

In January 2021, I found out my abuelo had died. I was not in Puerto Rico. My mom called me, and she was not in Puerto Rico. Behind our loud, lamenting tears on the phone was silence. If we were on the island, the coquis would’ve filled the space between the moments we struggled to breathe. They would have grounded us in our geography, and sung to us, to bring the women close, to embrace who we are and who our ancestors were, like coquis never growing webbed feet to leave. We would have sung home.

Maria Sherman

Maria Sherman is a music and culture journalist living in Brooklyn, New York. Her first book, LARGER THAN LIFE: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS, out on Hachette imprint Black Dog & Leventhal, is currently being adapted into a documentary film by director Gia Coppola, Jason Bateman's Aggregate Films, and the Oscar-nominated studio XTR.