Plena, migration and the Great Depression

by Edgardo Díaz

Due to Puerto Rico’s condition as a colony of the U.S. resulting from exploitation, social turbulence on the island during the 1910s and ‘20s anticipated, by decades, similar years of misery provoked by the Great Depression in other parts of the world. Unemployment and poverty in agricultural areas forced rural laborers to establish settlements in the swamps and mangroves of San Juan, the city capital. Migration from affected sugar cane areas favored the rapid dissemination of plena, thus securing its place in barrios like La Perla, and among the artisan groups of Puerta de Tierra, one of the island’s oldest working class barrios.

"El Obispo" por el Grupo Ponceña (c. 1920's)

By 1927, the demise of the silent cinema led local musicians to move in great numbers to New York City. After that year, the Grupo Ponceño and later Manuel Jiménez (Canario) y su Conjunto made the first recordings of plena. Other groups like Los Reyes de la Plena, the Grupo Ponceño, Los Borinqueños, Sexteto Flores and Grupo Antillano also made strides by producing major recordings of plenas on very similar terms. Their contract with major U.S. recording companies entailed plena’s first successful international exposure, but this required a compromise – most often, the subordination of plena and its iconic pandero to a Cuban-conjunto format, thus embracing the use of a solo voice with guitar and accordion accompaniment, but frequently gave the trumpet, bongó and clave an outstanding role.

The standard three-minute limit imposed on each plena recording was in sheer contrast to the aim of having a lively musical environment where, otherwise, singers could adequately develop their improvisations, or dancers enjoyed a musical piece for as long as they wished.

A major difference among the various plenas of the times lay in their thematic content. Some of them – like those by the Grupo Ponceño, Canario y su Conjunto and Los Reyes de la Plena – were tied in great part to the saga of the Great Depression as they were inspired or based on Bumbún Oppenheimer’s own plenas. Other recordings strongly alluded to a sense of nostalgia for the Puerto Rican homeland.

Big-band, elegant plena

During the second half of the 1940s, industrialization, development, and urbanization in Puerto Rico brought in flairs of musical elegance akin to the U.S. lifestyle in major urban centers. Originally an expression consisting of the lively sounds of arrabales and rural barrios, now, in the hands of the Orquesta de César Concepción and singer Joe Valle, plena assumed the form of a medley of songs, suppressed the characteristic pandero, and acquiesced to soft-percussion styles presented a few years before by well-established ensembles like the Cuban Orquesta Casino de la Playa.

Standardized big-band musical arrangements and simple dance steps were introduced to local upper- and middle-class couples in major hotel ballrooms. These musical changes reflected the lifestyle norms of modern capitalist societies.

Uploaded - October 15, 2010.

Content credits Center for Puerto Rican Studies
Image Credits: Cortesy of Edgardo Díaz Díaz| All Rights Reserved