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The Power of Plena

Roberta L. Singer

 

Suenan panderetas,         The panderetas sound out,

La quieran sonar             They want to play

De mi Puerto Rico            The national rhythm

EI ritmo nacional             Of my Puerto Rico.

                                     (Miguel Sierra, New York City)

                                Whatever's going on gets into plena,

                                          Marcial Reyes

If you listen closely to plena, you can hear the history and life of the Puerto Rican people during the past century. Plena is called "el periodico cantado" (the sung newspaper) because its lyrics, sung in sharp, ironic tones, often relate local daily news, historical events, gossip, and a host of other themes covering a broad scope of human experience.

     Since its beginnings, plena has been used to record, comment upon, and transmit news. But not all plenas are historically significant or expressive of social consciousness. Some are just fun, some are personal, joyful, humorous, or religious. They can just as easily poke fun at a bad dancer as at a bad politician or a man unlucky in love. Some plenas overtly express the singer's perceptions of his/her social condition or criticize existing policies and situations;' others are indirect references with hidden or double meanings; and still others have no relationship to news, events, politics, or protest. But whether serious protest or lighthearted fun, plena was once the most commercially successful and popular music genre in Puerto Rico and among Puerto Ricans in New York City. Despite its decrease in commercial popularity it remains a vital cultural expression.

The Birth of Plena

 

La plena que yo conozco                   The plena that I know

No es de la China ni del Japˇn             Is not from China or Japan

Porque la plena viene de Ponce          The plena comes from Ponce

Y es del barrio de San Antón.            From barrio San Antn.

                                                         (Chago Montez)

 

The plena developed in the last decades of the 1800s, largely from West African-rooted traditions in the sugar-producing areas of Puerto Rico's southern coast, especially in and around the city of Ponce. Economic upheaval had caused the displacement of campesinos (farmers), artisans, sugarcane workers, freed slaves, and others who migrated to the urban centers. Plena emerged out of the interaction of these peoples and their music: traditional and elite, rural and urban, African- and Spanish/European-influenced . These included the West African derived bomba of the rural coastal regions, Spanish/Arabic-influenced jÝbaro2 music traditions of the mountain farming regions, and urban European-style ballroom dances.

    Musical sensibilities and styles from other parts of the Caribbean were injected into this equation starting around the turn of the century. The period following the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean in the mid- to late-1800s resulted in massive movements of former slaves, freedmen, and other workers throughout the region. Migrations to Puerto Rico increased after the island was ceded to the United States in 1898 as a bounty of the Spanish-American War (referred to by Puerto Ricans as a U.S. invasion). Many of the migrants came from English-speaking Caribbean countries such as St. Kitts, Jamaica, St. Thomas, and Barbados. The largest number of these immigrants came to the city of Ponce in the south, where North American capitalists had begun to consolidate the small sugar haciendas owned by Puerto Rican Creole families into huge plantations and mill towns. These workers, primarily freed slaves and their children, joined with Puerto Rican workers, largely those of African and mixed heritage descent but also mountain campesinos displaced from highland farms, to create a substantial labor force.

 

 

Although to date the birth of plena has not been documented in a great many of its specifics, it seems reasonable to expect that in a context of such economic and cultural fluidity, people, styles, ideas and cultural forms intersected and mingled.  It is likely that in such mobile situation musicians jammed and explored, bringing their own traditions into new contexts.

 

             Photo by Roberta Singer

Informal jam between sets at Casa del Musicio, Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, 1992

Instrumentation shows flexibility of plena ensemble format

The "English" sound (very likely the precursor of what came to be known as calypso) caught on with musicians in Ponce, who incorporated it into the music they were playing at the time. The result was plena, a music that was to become the most popular, influential and, for a time, commercially successful music genre in Puerto Rico.

1 According to one plenero (performer of plena) who moves back and forth between New York and Puerto Rico in search of work, pleneros are not just musicians. "The plenero has to be a voice of protest. He has to defend his people."

2 JÝbaro is an indigenous term used to identify people from the interior rural mountain regions of Puerto Rico. JÝbaros, also called compesinos, are mainly of Spanish/Moorish ancestry, and the traditions brought by Spanish settlers to the interior regions served as a basis for the formation of the unique cultural expression of the compesinos, whose music developed a distinctive Puerto Rican flavor. For further information, see Singer 1988.

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