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The New York Times
Traditional Puerto Rican Music Finds a Home in New Jersey
By SETH KUGEL
November 23, 2003
Paterson -- ''GRACIAS, familia!''
That is how Juan Cartagena thanked the audience at Passaic County Community College here in Paterson last weekend, where his band, Segunda Quimbamba, played for a Puerto Rican Heritage Month celebration.
It was natural for Mr. Cartagena, who grew up in Jersey City, to address the auditorium as ''family.'' His group, one of about half a dozen in New Jersey specializing in the traditional Puerto Rican genres known as bomba and plena, is full of his relatives and childhood friends. Many relatives of members of the group were also in the audience.
But at a Segunda Quimbamba performance, where audience participation of either singing or dancing is encouraged, it is easy to think of everyone as kin.
This Wednesday at 8 p.m., at Grace Church in Jersey City, Segunda Quimbamba will be the host at New Jersey's biggest annual bomba and plena event. Other groups from the state and beyond will perform to support ''Guiro and Maraca,'' the bomba and plena journal that Mr. Cartagena publishes from the Segunda Quimbamba Folkloric Center, based on the first floor of his family's Jersey City home. Tickets are $12 at the door.
New Jersey's Puerto Rican population grew 26 percent between 1990 and 2000, as New York City's Puerto Ricans drifted to the suburbs. With the increasing numbers came the possibility of bigger audiences for traditional musical forms like plena and bomba, which, unlike salsa, have not been major commercial successes since the mid-20th century but are staples of Puerto Rican celebrations.
Both genres are drum-based descendants of West African music. Bomba is an older form; it was performed by slaves in Puerto Rico possibly as early as the 17th century. It is traditionally played on large barrel-shaped drums called bombas, accompanied by a maraca and wooden sticks called cuas. Mr. Cartagena plays the bomba.
The lyrics to bomba songs are usually repetitive and trance-like, less important than the pulsating drums. In its most distinctive, crowd-pleasing characteristic, a female dancer swathed in a multilayered traditional dress challenges the lead drummer to follow her lead, turning the dancer-follows-music convention on its head.
Plena developed later in urban and coastal areas in Puerto Rico. The rhythm is different, as are the instruments -- panderetas, or tambourines without the cymbals; congas; and guiro, a scraping instrument made from a gourd.
Plena lyrics are narrative, and the music is often called a ''singing newspaper,'' because long before 24-hour cable networks, musicians passed news from town to town by plena.
Plena remains the standard music of Puerto Rican protests today. Mr. Cartagena has played during protests in front of the White House and the United Nations.
For most of the musicians in the New Jersey groups, the music offers a connection to island roots.
''For me personally, it kind of opened up the door to more conscious awareness of my cultural background,'' said Miriam Felix, a singer and dancer with Segunda Quimbamba. Ms. Felix, 43, studied music in college but knew little of plena or bomba until she joined the group, she explained.
Although a few New York and Puerto Rico plena and bomba groups have albums out, none of the New Jersey groups make a profit.
''It's all a shoestring and a prayer and some Scotch tape,'' said Mr. Cartagena, 47, who has a day job as general counsel to the Community Service Society in Manhattan, a nonprofit group involved in antipoverty work.
The New Jersey musicians say bomba and plena are not commercially viable these days in part because of their association with African roots.
''Bomba, because it's African, suffers,'' Mr. Cartagena said. ''Anything that's African in Puerto Rico has two strikes against it.'' Both musical forms have been associated with Santeria, the hybrid African and Christian practice, and thus historically were discouraged by the Catholic church.
Although plena is not as obviously African, it suffers a similar fate, said Carlos Maldonado, leader of the Newark-based group Plena Dulce (Sweet Plena). ''It has always been pushed to the side, because it was black music,'' he said.
His bandmate, Wil Vega, noted that some people dislike plena because of its traditional use as protest music.
Segunda Quimbamba was formed about 10 years ago when Mr. Cartagena, who had studied African percussion at Dartmouth College, gathered together friends and family in Jersey City to prepare plenas for ''parrandas,'' or Christmas celebrations similar to caroling.
The informal group continued playing together. It caught a break when Roberto Cepeda, a Bronx resident who is from a famous bomba-playing family in Puerto Rico, agreed to join it and mentor the musicians.
Son de Plena of Trenton, which will also appear at the Jersey City event, was formed in 1999 by Luis Ortiz, who plays the pandereta and has a day job painting cars. Mr. Ortiz, 45, grew up in Puerto Rico and Boston.
He said that when he moved to Trenton in the late 1980's, he noticed the absence of plena music there, while back in Boston, plena was everywhere, especially in the park near his home in the Jamaica Plain section of the city. In Trenton, he said, traditional Puerto Rican music meant ''jibaro'' songs, played with string instruments. His children suggested that he start his own group for plena.
Son de Plena's name is a play on words; it means both ''Sound of Plena'' and ''They Are of Plena.''
Plena Dulce, Newark's group, will not be at the Jersey City event, but performed before a packed crowd at a celebration last Sunday in Perth Amboy. The group formed in 1991 as a music-only group, and in 1993 integrated the dancers of Alma Boricua, or ''Puerto Rican Soul,'' led by Lilliam Garcia.
As in Segunda Quimbamba, family ties abound in Plena Dulce; Mr. Maldonado's son and daughter both perform with the group. One of the dancers, Jennifer Malave, 22, is the daughter of his childhood friend.
Like Ms. Felix of Segunda Quimbamba, she said bomba and plena music helped tie her to her culture. She said she cringed when young Puerto Ricans who will cheer when someone yells ''Puerto Rico!'' put little time into understanding their heritage, even refusing to don traditional shirts.
''A lot of young kids are embarrassed to wear a guayabera and some nice shoes,'' she said. ''What's wrong with that?''
The crowd of several hundred that packed the hall for Plena Dulce's performance ranged from the young and mobile to the old and sedentary, but clapping, swaying and singing along was virtually mandatory for all. The group ended with the number ''Rumbon,'' and the musicians tried to coax audience members to the front to dance. Among this crowd, it was not a hard sell.
Both Segunda Quimbamba and Plena Dulce play at local parades, cultural events and schools. Some members of both bands run workshops and after-school programs for children, trying to keep plena and bomba alive. The members of Raices Boricuas, a Paterson-based dance group that performs to plena music, are all children and teenagers. But the main source of next-generation musicians will likely come from families already involved with the music.
That was obvious at a recent Segunda Quimbamba rehearsal, with musicians' children participating or just soaking in the rhythms. A musical career for even 14-month-old Angel Castellanos, Mr. Cartagena's cousin, seemed inevitable; he banged drumsticks from his stroller, dropped them, and then banged his feet to the rhythm.
At Segunda Quimbamba's performance in Paterson, Mr. Cepeda sang an original bomba written for his girlfriend, whom he met through the group. Band members headed into the audience to bring women onto stage to challenge the drummers.
The crowd was game, and women of all shapes, sizes and hip flexibilities came up one-by-one. The crowd's biggest cheers were for Tiffany Perez, 10, who had the crowd laughing and cheering with her bold moves.
Tiffany, it turned out, is the cousin of a Segunda Quimbamba dancer and the niece of a group drummer. All in the family, of course.