Beginnings

by Edgardo Díaz Díaz

PanderosIt is agreed that around 1910, plena emerged simultaneously in the poor urban and rural barrios (neighborhoods) of Ponce, a city located in Puerto Rico southern sugar-oriented plains. A few years earlier, immigrant laborers arrived from the British Caribbean with some of their own Afro-Caribbean traditions of songs and rhythms, and introduced them to local sugar-cane workers. The names of Catherine George, John Clark, and their daughter Carola are tied to the origins of plena. It is said that they arrived from the island of Barbados with the pandero and with songs they disseminated with the help of peer immigrants from St. Kitts and Nevis. Their songs quickly raised the attention of worker and plowman Joselino “Bumbún” Oppenheimer (1884-1929), a child of African slaves who improvised Spanish coplas during his work hours at a plantation nearby. Bumbún’s quatrains featured the joys and sorrows of his community and sung a capella with young co-workers doing the estribillo while they guided the ox clearing the land ahead of Bumbún’s plow. In the evenings, back in his neighborhood of La Joya del Castillo (a slum, or arrabal, of Ponce), he introduced the original plena compositions to an increasing number of fellow members (popularly referred to as pleneros). Afterwards, plena rapidly became customary in the south and southwestern areas of Puerto Rico; initially with guitar and tambourine, but later (in the 1920’s) with the addition of a double-keyboard accordion and güiro. Lesser commercial but still popular groups developed ensembles of three or more panderos. At dance parties, these groups played to couples that artfully moved their hips and swiveled their bodies from side to side, while mutually approaching and moving away in an endless parallel motion. The prominence of plena in its beginnings is to be found at these ill-reputed dance parties of arrabales, with at least one plena ensemble (conjunto) for every neighborhood. Chivo Román, Mario Rivera, and the Aranzamendi brothers are three of several group leaders performing plenas in the Ponce area.

Stylistic Sources

Because of its intimate association with working-class and dispossessed groups, plena was often compared with the tango that emerged around the same time in similar marginalized enclaves of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Of major significance in Puerto Rico, however, is that rural workers of white ancestry (known as jíbaros), laborers born of slaves like Bumbún, and immigrants from the English-speaking Caribbean converged to give plena a profile that attests to its kinship with expressions like the old guaracha and several other pan-Caribbean rural forms based on the copla. A musical form also known as “plena” – with related socio-economic concerns and a similar poetic structure – is said to be also reported in the Dominican Republic around the 1890’s, although no clear musical or choreographic relationship with its Puerto Rican namesake has been found so far. In Panama, “plena” is a name used to refer to “reggae”. Moreover, by listening to the panderos stressing on the last beat of every measure (the so-called up-beat), one may understand how plena has some musical and poetic relatives in other parts of the Caribbean. The list of “relatives” includes versions of Trinitarian quadrilles, of calypso, and Jamaican mento. Similar basic and near-improvisatory rhythms are registered in recordings of Trinitarian quadrilles as well in early-20th-century recordings of Puerto Rican danzas in Ponce.

Uploaded - October 15, 2010.

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