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"Canario Blanco" from Estamos Gozando
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"Lo Que A Ti Te Gusta" from Estamos Gozando
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"Medley De La Calle San Sebastian" from Estamos Gozando
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Plena Libre, Estamos Gozando (Times Square) View Additional Info

The Paradox of Puerto Rican Pride: Plena Libre Frees the Rhythm and Salutes the Masters

En Español

Puerto Rican identity is complex. It is not a coincidence that in 1952 this U.S. commonwealth’s constitution was instated on July 25, the same date the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico in 1898. But any perceived political ambivalence is no reflection on cultural pride, as seen by the avid Puerto Rican pride parades held each summer. This type of pride is at the heart of Plena Libre, who celebrate their 10th anniversary with their 10th record, ¡Estamos Gozando!, slated for June 8th on Times Square Records.

“Even after five centuries of colonial rule, the Puerto Rican personality is clearly defined regardless of our relationship to the US,” says Plena Libre bassist-bandleader Gary Nuñez. “It is impossible to dilute the character of Puerto Rican people, because we have strong roots. And plena is an important part of it.”

Plena emerged in the late 19th century when the repertoire of Barbados immigrants mixed with local genres, and along with the bomba, has been the mainstay of Afro-rooted music of Puerto Rico. But paradoxically, today many Puerto Rican artists are known for salsa and merengue that originated in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. “By the early ’70s, the Puerto Rican music industry came down,” explains Nuñez. “Our rhythms took a back seat to other nations’.” Playing plena takes on a complex form of pride, affirming Puerto Rican identity within the dominance of genres that originate elsewhere.

Nuñez asserd Puerto Rican identity in the ’70s with his band Moliendo Vidrio, in line with the Nuevo Canción movements of Latin America, which rallied folk music against colonialism. After 18 years of putting the cuatro (Puerto Rican guitar) on the map, he was ready for a new challenge.

“Three things kept the plena alive from the ’60s to the ’90s,” says Nuñez. “First, when people gather for parties, the plena rhythm is always there. Second, plena took center stage during labor strikes. And third, folklore groups kept the roots of plena alive.” When Nuñez picked up the torch by forming Plena Libre in 1994, he sought to reinvent the genre, taking it from folkloric status—which relegated its performance to holidays and folk revivals—and turning it into a living and breathing, popular, evolving form.

Traditionally, plena uses three different-sized hand drums called panderos that are pitched low-to-high and play interlocking rhythms. The güiro (a Taino gourd scraper) and the vocalists—with leader and chorus in call-and-response style—complete the basic ensemble. Over time, the plena took on different forms—from the addition of the accordion or cuatro to full orchestral variations. For migrant workers who followed the harvest of different crops, the plena was their orally transmitted newspaper, informing people of the latest news, and accompanying every celebration.

To the pandero ensemble, Nuñez added bass, keyboards, timbales, congas, four trombones, and some of the best plena singers (soneros) found in Puerto Rco. With a style hat draws on both the traditional and the modern, and arrangements that mix in other Caribbean rhythms and sizzling dance-floor charts, Plena Libre topped the charts with one hit after another on commercial radio stations in Puerto Rico, returning plena to the center stage.

¡Estamos Gozando! brings the story of plena full circle, paying homage to the greatest plena and bomba (another Afro-Rican genre) composers. Represented here is music by Ángel Torruellas, one of the most prolific plena composers; Los Pleneros de Quinto Olivo, an important plena band of the ’70’s who first popularized the folkloric song Canario Blanco; César Concepción, a trumpeter who adapted plena to big band “salon” scores in the ’6’s; Rafael Cortio, master percussionist who with singer Ismael Rivera popularized many Afro-Rican genres in the ’60’s and ’70’s; Mon Rivera, creator of a humorous delivery style and introducer of four trombones to Afro-Rican music; Rafael Cepeda, known as the ‘Patriarch of Bomba and Plena’; Toñin Romero, who wrote many hits in the ’50’s and ’60’s; and Manuel Jimenez “Canario”, the first plenero to be commercially recorded (RCA) and one of the greatest plena innovators of the ’20’s and ’30’s.

Plena Libre keeps one eye on the past and one eye on the future, keeping Puerto Rican music at the forefront for future parades and everyday celebrations.

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