Back to its working-class roots

by Edgardo Díaz Díaz

But this generalized conformism was overwhelmed by a more active stance of poor-neighborhood plenas. As the agricultural economy languished and flocks of rural laborers settled in San Juan, conflicts between the rural (slave-related) past and the industrial present fueled barrio plenas with faster and satiric stories like "Déjalo que suba," by Rafael Cortijo y su Combo.

A local coalescence of big band, Afro Cuban, and jíbaro sounds, this group presented a unique, improvisatory soneo style by singer Ismael Rivera to the accompaniment of piano, the fresh and raucous suburban-barrio sounds of trumpets, saxophone, and a percussion section of bass (or marímbula), bongós, timbales and güiro. Its repertoire embraced a Caribbean mélange of guarachas, rumbas, congas, oriza rhythms, montunos, merengues, and boleros. What is most significant at this time is that plena became a label intimately tied with the Afro-Puerto Rican bomba. After Cortijo, some ensembles are known as "bomba y plena groups." Even Manuel Canario’s ensemble presented a format similar to Cortijo y su combo, with plenas like "Santa María" by Bumbún Oppenheimer.

Appearances on television in 1954 earned Cortijo the acceptance of a general audience that years later enjoyed the humorous scat-singings of Efraín “Mon” Rivera. Born in the western city of Mayagüez, Mon Rivera is known for his composition "Aló, ¿quién ñama?,” a plena that narrates a 1930s labor conflict with the accompaniment of his trombone-and-percussion ensemble.

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Content credits Center for Puerto Rican Studies
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