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From Plantation to New York:

The People and Plena Adapt

Myrta se va, Myrta se va           Marta is leaving

Pa' la América                          For America

No volverá, no volverá              She won't return

De la América                          From America

.

Although historically bomba has been associated with rural coastal contexts and plena with coastal mill towns and cities, the reality was more fluid than these distinctions imply.  Economic hardship in the 1910s drove large numbers of workers from coastal villages and towns to the major towns and cities of the island in search of work.  Thus plena and, to a lesser degree, bomba became an important part of urban cultural life for working class people in the urban centers of the island such as San Juan, Santurce, Mayagüez and Ponce.

         Photo by Roberta Singer

Jamming on the beach, Palo Seco, Cataño,

Puerto Rico, 1992

     Work and the life of working people was the subject matter and social context of plena. As wage earners grew in number, plena grew in popularity. Workers formed labor unions, cultural associations, and political parties and, more often than not, each organization-like many barrios--had its own plena group to record and protest their conditions and their struggles for change. Strikes were a frequent theme. Don Rafael Cepeda, Puerto Rico's patriarch of bomba and plena, tells of a dock-workers strike in San Juan:

They're on strike at Puerto de Tierra

         The dock workers have stood up in protest

   Out come the scabs all over the island

                                     The workers, all of them, have stood up in protest.

                   In Plena is Work, Plena is Song [Rivera and Zeig 1989])

     One plena that gained international popularity was "¿ Alo? ¿ Quien Llama?" ("Hello? Who's Calling?"), recorded by Mon Rivera with Moncho Leña y Los Ases del Ritmo in 1954. The song, written by Mon's father Don Ramón Rivera Alers, tells the story of a strike by women pressers in a textile factory in 1933 in the city of Mayagüez, Rivera's home town:

                                  Hello? Who's calling?

                                  What's going to happen? What's going on?

                                  The Mamery factory is looking for scabs....

                                 The pressers are saying "No pay, no work.

                           The strike has just started, My God, what a mess!

 

     As a result of the migrations of Puerto Ricans from the island to the United States (primarily New York City), first in the 1920s and later at their peak in the decade following World War II-once again stimulated by economic factors - the music of the island was transplanted to New York. The fact that economic woes were not greatly alleviated for Puerto Ricans in New York is clear from a popular plena, "Me dieron layoff' ("They laid me off/what bad luck I have/Tomorrow morning I'll go to the pawn shop?), by Mon Rivera. This is just one of many that comment upon unemployment and employment hardships in New York and on the island.

     The contexts for traditional plena (as well as for other traditional cultural expressions of Puerto Rico such as bomba and jÍbaro music) have changed -- from sugarcane plantations and mill towns to urban courtyards and streets, to the streets and hometown social clubs of New York City. And because its lyrics reflect and express the people's contemporary reality, plena adapted to its new environments, remaining a vital, relevant expression. Today, in New York as well as in Puerto Rico, plena is played spontaneously at beaches, local ball games, parks, social clubs, festivals, and other community gathering places and events.

    Bomba, on the other hand, is rarely played in New York in the kinds of informal contexts that were traditional on the island. Historically, this has been due in large part to racism. Rooted in West African traditions but forged in the context of a somewhat racially mixed Puerto Rican coastal plantation culture, bomba was perceived by the Creole aristocracy as an African genre. Many tocadores de bomba and culture specialists have stated that bomba was rejected outside of the black community because of an unwillingness to accept African contributions to Puerto Rican culture by the island's Creole elite. Racism, until the early years of this century, was linked almost exclusively to issues of class.

     Plena, on the other hand, was born at a time when people of diverse social and economic classes and ethnic, national, and cultural backgrounds were coming together in a context of economic and social upheaval; it was a time when the old aristocratic class structures were beginning to crumble.

     Plena was developed and performed by and for workers from these diverse backgrounds. That the music itself had more European-rooted influences made it more accessible to people who were unable or unwilling to understand or relate to the complex African-derived rhythms that characterize bomba.

    It is likely that plena's popularity may also have been enhanced by the "portability" of the ensemble, as the panderetas and gòiro are easily carried. Additionally, although bomba's lyrics are topical, the one-line call-and-response format does not allow for narrative development as does plena's four-line verse structure. Plena's ability to serve as a vehicle for recording, expressing, and influencing the contemporary reality of the community is a crucial factor in its continuing popularity.

 

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