Back to its working-class roots

by Edgardo Díaz

This period was followed by a developmental vacuum until the 1970s, when a new group, Los Pleneros del Quinto Olivo adopted an instrumental format similar to salsa ensembles then in vogue. Through this enrichment not only did they reincorporate the pandero but they included for commercial purposes the three-pandero set of seguidor, segundo, and requinto (as described above) with conga-drum techniques. Other changes included the suppression of the responsorial (soloist-choir) structure in order to give the chorus the leading role throughout the entire piece. Less commercial were the recollections of jíbaro music by Los Pleneros de la 23 abajo, whose ten-line octosyllabic décimas shifted plena from a sense of nostalgic and pleasurable complacency well into matters of harsh social situations. Since 1977 artists like Jorge Arce, Irvin García, Andrés Jiménez and Tony Croatto, and groups such as Atabal, Paracumbé and Los Guayacanes de San Antón adapted in diverse ways. A period of international exposure began by the mid-1990s with Plena Libre entering the U.S.-Latino airwaves through their fusion of plena with Cuban-influenced world-music sounds of the time. By the time of Plena Libre’s breakthrough, Bumbún’s “Temporal” was the main theme of an album by the Arab-Andalusian group Radio Tarifa, in 1998. Following the global trend initiated by Plena Libre is Ricky Martin’s 2007 release of “Pégate,” whereby elements of Cuban Santería music are clearly featured in this plena.

More recent developments stretch plena’s inventiveness into more elaborate works, as is the case of the Viento de Agua experimental ensemble, or William Cepeda’s Afro Rican Jazz, and into rap and reggaetón elements contained in plenas by New York-based groups Yerbabuena, Pleneros de la 21 and Bombayó.

From Bumbún to the present, plena has survived formal and stylistic changes while maintaining a core set of styles comprising Spanish poetic forms of strong satirical or historical content. They are lively improvised to varying ways of instrumenta l accompaniment on simple chords, with a distinctive blend of danceable rhythms rooted in pan-Caribbean sources. The explanation to these musical changes can be traced to the recurring socio-economic cycles of unemployment followed by community displacement and disintegration, as occurred to the neighborhood of La Joya del Castillo, by migration to major economic centers and by the reconstitution of new communities, as it has been occurring in major urban centers like Harlem, the South Bronx, La Perla, and the Lower East Side since the 1930s. To this day, pleneros are known to counterweight such vicissitudes, with a sense of solidarity epitomized through their adopted and re-arranged rhythms, forms and styles embraced by peoples in similar situations in other parts of the Caribbean and the world. Their ability in adjusting to mass-media requirements explains why plena functions as a vital musical force in times of economic crisis or in times of celebration. In the video “Lo que pasó pasó” (#10) by reggaetón singer Daddy Yankee, the sounds of plena are hardly heard, but the visual representation of panderos attests to the powerful affect this musical form still propels.

Uploaded - October 15, 2010.

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Content credits Center for Puerto Rican Studies
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