Yo no tengo nada en contra del Merengue
De la Salsa, tampoco del Rap
Pero si me tocas mi Ritmo de Plena
Yo te digo que esa me gusta mas…
(From “Ahora Si” by Viento de Agua, written by Juan “Jonsy” Martinez)
For about a century or so, plena music has been a key method of expression for the poor and marginalized classes from the island of Puerto Rico. “Street corner music,” “carnival music,” “newspaper of the people…” call it what you will, but the fact is that this music grew out of a fusion like many other examples of folklore and is a seemingly unstoppable force always in constant evolution. This project looks to honor the roots of plena style while contributing to its development and its future. La Plena, La Plena, La Plena, LA PLEEENAAAAA…
Most historians and musicologists agree that la plena was first heard in the southern city of Ponce, specifically in a barrio known as La Joya del Castillo, sometime between the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Like most music developed in the Caribbean, plena is a by-product of Spanish Colonization, combining African rhythmic syncopations with European harmonies and melodic cadences. From Ponce, it spread to the western city of Mayagüez and immediately became a sort of musical sponge, absorbing elements from everything that surrounded it.
Plena was not only influenced by bomba and jíbaro music, established genres of Puerto Rican folk culture, but also by music coming from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba and other Caribbean islands. Migration from these countries into the western and southwestern areas of Puerto Rico widely contributed to the plena “melting pot.” Eventually, the people from Ponce, Mayagüez, and other surrounding areas themselves migrated to the capital city of San Juan in search of work. This turned the area of Santurce (or “Cangrejo”) into a sort of mecca for plena music, with pleneros from all over the island congregating in barrios like La Parada 23 Abajo and Villa Palmeras to play and sing together, and to develop the plena sound into what it has become today.
At the root of plena music we find the pandero, a hand-held drum with a frame originally made out of aluminum and now more frequently from different kinds of wood. The seguidor is big in size and low in pitch, serving the bass function or “the anchor.” An established pattern, with little or no variation, is played on the seguidor. The requinto is smaller in size and higher in pitch, and improvises freely within the language of the style. From its inception plena was played with these two drums, frequently using more than one seguidor. A third drum, known as the segundo or punteador, was added sometime within the last thirty or forty years. The segundo falls somewhere between the other two drums in size and pitch, and also carries an established pattern with little variation, different, however, from the pattern played by the seguidor. Through the years plena music has given us many great pandereteros, from legendary elders like Carola Clark, Emilio Escobar, Marcial Reyes, Jose Antonio Mas Gonzalez (“Tony Capitan”) and Jose “Pepe” Olivo to modern masters such as Hector “Tito” Matos, Richard Martinez, Victor Emanuelli and the late Luis “Chichito” Cepeda. And the pandero plays on and on…
From very early on, plena lyrics described the events of everyday life as experienced by the impoverished classes of the Puerto Rican population. The content of these lyrics represents the main connecting thread between the music and the people, and is probably the most important reason why plena is still alive and thriving today. These lyrics eventually expanded to include themes of patriotism, social protest, love, humor, and just plain appreciation for the plena and the pandero. The lyrical tradition established by masters like Jose “Bum-Bum” Openheinmer, Manuel “Canario” Jimenez and Efrain “Mon” Rivera, is luckily still being kept alive today by people like Juan “Jonsy” Martinez, Jerry Ferrao and Luis “Lagarto” Figueroa, among others.
Plena was originally born out of the concerns of the working class, and it has remained that way thanks to the simple nature of this music and to its ability to be mobile. Today it can be heard virtually everywhere: from parrandas to funerals, political protests, and even to baseball games. Flowing through “Canario,” Cortijo y su Combo, “Mon” Rivera, Los Pleneros de la 23 and Los Pleneros del Quinto Olivo, the style has transcended its folkloric roots and present day groups like Plena Libre, Viento de Agua, Los Pleneros de la 21 and Truco y Zaperoco are filling dance halls all across the globe with the sounds of this contagious music from the Caribbean. The more plena interacts with other styles of music, the more we see it grow and evolve, and the more it connects with the people. This music has always been a reflection of times it lives in. And in this ever-changing world, plena should not only be an integral link to the past, but a vision of what the future can hold if we keep an open mind and are willing to keep pushing things forward.
ABOUT THE MUSIC
When writing this music I did my best to keep the basic plena rhythm unaltered: all the pieces are in 4/4 time and include all the traditional accents. This rhythmic pattern is at the heart of these compositions and everything is built upon this anchor. Also, one of my main inspirations was the “raw” feeling that I experienced from the spontaneous plena gatherings I witnessed (and sometimes participated in) while visiting Puerto Rico during the last few years. It was my intention to bring that street quality into the music on this recording. In addition, the number three, representing the three panderos, is used as the main motif for every composition. In practice, this is presented in a variety of ways: Rhythmically and in Aspects of Form (in figures, phrases and meters of three and nine), Harmonically (Augmented Triads) and Melodically (Major Third Intervals). Of the ten compositions, five include original lyrics meant to follow the lyrical tradition of the plena and the remaining five are instrumental. The instrumental compositions each represent a neighborhood or barrio where I spent a lot of time while growing up in Puerto Rico.
My experience working on this project has been extremely rewarding in many ways. It has provided me with countless amounts of information and given me a very hopeful vision for the future of plena and for all the music from Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. I feel that if we make an effort to humble ourselves and reach out for what is out there, the possibilities for creativity are infinite. Thank you for listening and I hope you enjoy the music.