Folk Art: On Esta Plena, saxophonist Miguel Zenón matches the proletarian plena music of his native Puerto Rico with modern-jazz ethos

Date: 11.01.2009
Publication: Jazz Times
Author: Fernando Gonzalez


Smart and tough, the music on saxophonist Miguel Zenón’s Esta Plena (Marsalis) often evokes the sounds of his neighborhood back in Puerto Rico. But Esta Plena is not about nostalgia- it’s about a certain wisdom.

“Plena is the music of the street,” says Zenón, 32. “This is music from the people. It’s simple and basic, and accessible; it can start a part anywhere, but at the same time, it’s so deep. That’s what I hope you can hear in this record.

Plena is a traditional genre from Puerto Rico, and in Esta Plena, Zenón reframes it with the tools and sensibilities of jazz. But this is no mere fusion. Rather, the music suggests a form of bilingualism. There is a lived-in understanding of the styles at play, and because of it they sound familiar and whole but also renewed.

This kind of work is not entirely new to Zenón. He has delved into traditional Puerto Rican genres before, as a sideman (most notable on David Sanchez’s Melaza, Columbia) and as a leader; on 2005’s Jibaro (Marsalis), he explored the country music of Puerto Rico.

Then last year, Zenón won both a Guggenheim and a MacArthur Fellowship (the no-string-attached, $500,000 “genius grant”), a remarkable feat that raised some eyebrows. The prizes, he says, did not put any extra pressure on him as a player, composer, or bandleader. “I didn’t really feel that anything changed,” he says. “Of course it’s a great thing, and good things came with it, but in terms of how I think about music, nothing changed.” But the financial rewards did “make a lot of things easier” and “take a little pressure off,” he concedes. “Now I can actually do just the gigs I want to do, and the rest of the time I can stay home and write music and work on the stuff I want to work on, with the people I want to work with.” In fact the fellowships afforded Zenón the means to do the research he wanted.

Esta Plena is “definitely connected to the idea in Jibaro, in that we took something very folkloric and put it in a jazz context,” explains Zenón. “But for this record, thanks to the Guggenheim, I went deeper in terms of research, interviewing musicians and scholars, studying old recordings and doing a lot of reading. And we went the next step by incorporating some of the actual instruments of this music and [by having] vocals, which is so central to this style.”

A fusion of African, Hispanic, indigenous, and Creole elements, plena emerged, by many accounts, among the poor working class and disenfranchised population of Ponce, a southern city of Puerto Rico, sometime between the late 19th and early 20th century.

“The most common definition is that plena is a peridoico cantado [a sung newspaper],” says Hector “Tito” Matos, a plena singer and percussionist, and leader of the contemporary plena group Viento de Agua. “But it was also more than that. Plena was often the tip of the spear so to speak, in the social struggles around the sugar cane harvest.” Angel Quintero Rivera, an author and professor at Universidad de Puerto Rico, says plena is “the music of the migrant workers who worked in the coffee crop and then moved along the coast from town to town to work in the sugarcane harvest.”

In fact, the portable instrumentation and newsy lyrics are a reminder that plena is “an itinerant music,” he says. “This music is related to bomba, an Afro-Puerto Rican genre played with big, heavy drums, los barriles de bomba [bomba barrels]. In fact, there is a bomba rhythm called holandes [literally, ‘Dutch’], that is the basic pattern in plena. But this had to be portable music: that’s why they cut the top of the drums and turned it into panderos [single-head, handheld drums].” Also, he explains, bomba has a close relation to African slavery, where one of the issues was language, given the different tribal origins of the enslaved. In such music, rhythms are more important than words. “Plena, which came later and is not connected to slavery, is more of a word music.”

And plena doesn’t have a dance associated with the rhythm, adds Matos, one of the reasons “why plena has been left a bit behind other popular genres, like salsa or meringue-because these genres have definite dance patterns. Bomba has specific steps and has to do with the dialogue between the dancer and the highest-pitched drum. In plena none of that exists. There are some folk dance groups that have been developing some routines, but in truth there is no historic documentation that there ever were any dance steps associated to plena, and that has worked against its popularity.”

Plena was originally played by a group featuring a guitar, a sinfonia (a small butt accordion), a pandero, a guiro (scrape gourd) and a singer. But this evolved, explains Matos, and the instrumentation of contemporary plena now generally comprises three panderos of different sizes, with different sounds and roles.

There is a seguidor, a large, low-pitched drum, which sets the basic patter; a requinto, smaller and high-pitched, which improvises in and around the set patter; and a segundo, which occupies a place between the other drums in both size and pitch and plays a fixed pattern.

For this recording, which features 10 original tracks, half of them sung, Zenón augmented his regular quartet- Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; and Henry Cole, drums- with the percussion section of a plena group: Matos, Obanilu Allende, and Juan Gutierrez on vocals and percussion.

“It’s funny, because I wrote the music and space for the solos and whatnot, but I didn’t really feel that the saxophone was the focus of the music,” says Zenón. “It was all about the panderos- and everything was built around it. Everything came from those drums and that pattern that defines plena. And I did it in very specific ways.”

“When I worked on Jibaro I used the decima [a rhyming, 10-line poetic style] as the principal concept in writing the music. In this project I did the same, but with the panderos and the number 3 and multiples of three regarding form, harmony, and rhythm. But all the songs started out with the plena rhythm. It wasn’t as if I wrote a melody and then I put a plena rhythm underneath it. I always started with the plena, maybe with a different tempo, or some variation with another rhythm on top to create more interest, but always based on the pandero.”

As for integrating plena to his jazz work, Zenón argues that “having the folk roots gives the music a firm ground. It gives me a lot of freedom to try a lot of things but still have that solid base.”

The plena lyrics, sung by a singer and a chorus, in a call-and-response style, can range from passing along some local news, or giving voice to a social protest, to telling a love story, expressing patriotic pride or simply celebrating plena.

A classic plena, “Cortaron a Elena,” sketches in a few lines the tale of a woman knifed. “El Leon” recalls a lion escaping from the zoo, while in “Temporal y Santa Maria” the singer worries about an approaching storm.

For Esta Plena, Zenón was set to write instrumental songs only, but as he immersed himself in the genre, the need for lyrics became obvious. It wasn’t just the idea of being true to the notion of the periodico cantado, but also the realization that while “jibaro music is actually a big family of styles from different regions, plena has only one rhythm; there are no variations. So I was trying to find different ways to use that rhythm and bring variety to the music. Adding lyrics helped me do that.” As a result, half of the songs on Esta Plena are sung.

“Here in Puerto Rico, perhaps for political reasons, we always have problems managing our traditional genres, supporting them,” says Matos. “So there’s always people who object to projects like those of Miguel Zenón, or David Sanchez, or [trombonist and composer] William Cepeda or Ricky Martin. As I see it, there’s much more to be gained than lost with those projects. Musically, it expands the genre; it brings new things to the genre. And with these projects the music gains an audience that otherwise perhaps never would have heard of plena.”

“That’s why I don’t like the term folklorico,” Matos continues. “It’s a dangerous term, in that people use it to fix some music genres in time, like a museum piece that cannot be touched and changed, and that kills the music. These are dynamic genres that have evolved over time, and the day we stop that evolution we’ll kill the genre.”

“I’ve known Miguel a long time and we have participated in many projects together,” he says. “And since he started his group he’s been telling me about doing something with plena, but that it was not the right time yet. Getting the Guggenheim and the MacArthur gave him the opportunity he wanted. But there was a lot of thought and work beforehand.”

For Zenón, going back to plena was simply a response to a “personal desire to know more about my own culture.”

“I left Puerto Rico to go to the states [to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston] when I was 19, and then I immersed myself in jazz for a very long time,” he says. “I wasn’t really dealing with anything that had to do with Puerto Rican music. But when I started trying to work on my own music [I realized] that if I wanted to explore some of this music and find out my roots and who I really was, and where I was coming from, I really had to study it from the bottom up. All this started from a need to learn.”

Submitted by Ben on October 31st, 2009 — 11:00pm

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