Plena is Work, Plena is Song: Center for Puerto Rican Studies 2 May 2019

On May 2, I saw Plena is Work, Plena is Song at the Library for the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work.

Plena is original to Puerto Rico, unlike other types of Puerto Rican music like danza or salsa.

Bomba (early 1800s) is one of the oldest styles of Puerto Rican music (the names of the musical styles are used both for the music itself and the dances associated with the music). It originated with the slaves, so there is a heavy African influence with the drums and the dancing, where one dancer comes out of the crowd and plays off the drums and the drums play off the dancer.

Danza (mid- to late 1800s) is the white/creole interpretation of European music, which was danced by the landowners but the music was performed by brown and black people. It evolved from the Spanish contradanza and in Cuba became danza, which was exported to Puerto Rico.

Plena (early 1900s) came out of the barrios of Ponce and is the folk music of Puerto Rico. Like bomba, it is still very popular, while danza has mostly died out. Plenas told the news of the day like “Cortarón a Elena” (“They Stabbed Elena”) alternating verse and chorus. Plenas are also used to tell love stories or just about ordinary life in the barrio. The instruments used were simple – a pandereta, which is like a big tambourine without the little cymbals around it and a güiro, which is a dry hollowed out gourd with grooves etched into it that are scraped with a small piece of wood with small metal tines. Over time cuatros (small guitars) were added and then there were big band versions of plenas. But the favorites will always be the simple songs, where sometimes the verses are made up by the singer on the spot. I think every town in Puerto Rico has a plena written for it.

I was expecting a long historical film but instead we got a 30-minute film from over 30 years ago that was shown on PBS back in the 90s. The quality isn’t good because it’s just a digital version from the VHS tape. The filmmaker hopes to digitize the original 35mm film one day.

The film itself is set up like a plena with the storytelling and the back and forth from NYC to Puerto Rico. What I most enjoyed seeing were the older musicians, who had played the music for an older film about Operation Bootstrap. They were all gathered around an old ceiba holding their instruments. It had taken the filmmaker some time to find them all since they had all retired. And he set them under the ceiba for the symbolism. Ceibas are old trees in Puerto Rico (and in other parts of Latin America). They have thick trunks and everyone in town knows where the oldest ceiba is. In Salinas, it is right outside town on the road to Ponce on Highway 1. That ceiba is about 200 years old. In Ponce, the ceiba is surrounded by a fence and has a park built around it. It has been there since before Columbus came to Puerto Rico.

Here’s the film on YouTube.

By Carene Lydia Lopez