The solo singer and the copla

by Edgardo Díaz

As noted above, plena singers perform as soloists improvising stories through the use of a type of quatrain known in Spanish as copla. By tradition, the copla follows certain poetic rules: namely, it must be comprised of four-lines, and each of these lines must contain eight syllables. Coplas are derivations of the old Iberian romance, ancestor of the ten-line décima used today among Caribbean and Latin American peasants who also improvise their stories. Coplas are often metered in a-b-c-b rhymes as seen in the following example:

Ya no tengo ni mi empleo (a)
Se busca donde no hay (b)
Y la gente va gritando (c)
The rent is way too damn high (b)

On the basis of coplas, solo singers improvise the often satirical and humorous stories of plena. It is common for this singer to start by suggesting a relevant catchphrase suitable to the improvised story. The soloist invites others to repeat the catchphrase out loud and therefore through this slogan to underscore the story the soloist aims to develop. This refrain is best known as estribillo. In staged performances, the estribillo is made by a choir.

At times, copla and estribillo alternate in free versifications that allow the soloist to shape up the intended plena story. The following video shows a performance with Viento de Agua, whose leader, Tito Matos introduces a plena song with the following estribillo:

Oye mi ritmo de la plena
Que te llama y te dice “ven, ven, ven”

[Trans., “Listen to my plena rhythms
Calling you and asking you ‘come, come, come.’”]

Matos then proceeds to warm up on his improvising lines by negotiating with the meter in ways that initially skip the traditional rules of the copla:

Que te llama, que te dice
Ven, ven, ven
Oye mamá

[Transl., “So it calls you, so it tells you
‘come, come, come’
Listen. Mamá.”]

Eventually, as the argument is developed, Matos seems a bit closer to catching up on the four-line octo-syllabic shape as well as on the a-b-c-b poetic rhyme:

Mi ritmo te llama (a)
Que te dice ven y ven. (b)
Este no es mío; (c)
Viene de Mayagüez. (b)

[My rhythm is calling you. (a)
So it asks you to come and come. (b)
This is not my own [invention]. (c)
Mayagüez is the source. (b)

Throughout the piece, however, Matos maintains the occasional poetic license along with his ability to follow the above-mentioned poetic rules. Later on, both he and the choir engage in a line-to-line give and take that is followed by solo improvisations by the requinto drummer before the choir brings the song to a conclusion with the refrain or estribillo.

At times, plena songs involve the participation of various soloists who alternately improvise their respective coplas, as seen in this video recorded in San Juan on April 4, 2010.

Uploaded - October 15, 2010.

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