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[whitespace] 'El Party' Power

Plena Libre revives the best of Puerto Rican musical traditions

By Jesse "Chuy" Varela

TALKING TO bassist Gary Nuñez, leader of the Puerto Rican ensemble Plena Libre, you realize he's on a mission to modernize some of the island's oldest beats with a new outlook. Born out of the island's Afro-Caribbean experience, the sounds of bomba y plena are what musically identify the African-Spanish heritage so prominent in its culture. Sometimes messing with tradition is not looked at favorably, but not with Plena Libre. "We're considered one of the top orchestras regardless of genre," says Nuñez in Spanish from his home in San Juan. "Yes, Plena Libre is a bomba y plena band, but people don't see us as that. We're like any other artists interpreting our music."

They are considered youthful revivalists who rescued a genre that fell into obscurity after its reign of popularity in the 1950s with pivotal figures like Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera. Since its formation in 1994, Plena Libre has unclogged the cultural logjam against these folkloric forms and scored a hit with "El Party." As a result, the band has inspired many salseros and young Puerto Rican jazz artists to explore these traditional rhythms.

The bomba y plena garnered a foothold as a popular expression in the late 1800s. During the Spanish-American War, the idiom served as the newspapers of the people as troubadours sang about events and prominent figures. It was largely a guitar and hand-percussion sound with soulful, tearful voices. In the 1920s, it migrated to New York City, and troubadours like Rafael Hernandez and Manuel Jimenez ("Canario") became the voice of the people. The essence of bomba y plena lies in its communal form as a percussive act of call and response. Plena Libre makes strong use of these rudiments, including the handheld panderetas, to pound out infectious beats on tambourinelike hand-drums without the metal shingles.

"We put the panderos back in fashion," Nuñez explains. "They disappeared with the music of Rafael Cortijo, who was the first to begin using conga drums to play bomba y plena. The panderos were forgotten. They are instruments that were invented to be played with this music. That's why we use them." From its 1995 self-produced debut CD, Cogelo, que ahi te va!, the 13-piece Plena Libre has stayed largely intact with virtuosic performers like conga-drummer Gina Villanueva and singer Giovanni Lugo. The band's latest album, Mas Libre (RykoLatino), features the prolific songwriting skills of Nuñez.

"For our generation, thematic subjects from a bygone era about sugarcane and trains don't connect," Nuñez says. "Our reality has to do more with cellphones and beepers. We're another generation that bring a different point of view which I try to reflect in the themes Plena Libre touches. I believe that we need to show who we are today as Puerto Ricans. So we do songs that touch on the question of Vieques and that articulate the sentiments of our people--in principle, we are still troubadours."

Saturday (June 23), as part of the 23rd annual Western Region Puerto Rican Council's Dia De San Juan celebration, you can get a feel for the vibrant musical energy of Plena Libre. As the largest gathering of Puerto Ricans in Northern California comes together to celebrate the patron Catholic saint of Puerto Rica, Plena Libre will perform along with Son Borikua, Orquesta Original, Carnavalesco, Las Chicas Wow, Soldierz of Fortune and DJ La Coqui.

Plena Libre performs Saturday (June 23) at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, San Jose. Doors open at 11am. $20; 877.792.0601. The band also performs that evening as part of the Summer Ball at 8pm at the Hedley Club, Hotel De Anza, 233 W. Santa Clara St., San Jose. Tickets are $20. (408.295.7374)

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From the June 21-27, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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