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Puerto Rican Septet Is Just Plena Good Plena Libre Estamos Gozando
Puerto Rican Septet Is Just Plena Good
August 6, 2004
In Puerto Rico's musical world, renowned artists such as Rafael Cortijo and Manuel "El Canario" Jimenez are to plena what Tito Puente was to Latin jazz. Mega celebrities.
Add another name - a contemporary one - to the list of stars shining over this island musical style: Plena Libre.
Sunday at the Puerto Rican Festival in Franklin Park and Tuesday at Scullers in Boston, the seven-member band that has become celebrated at home shows audiences here why it continues to appeal to both young and veteran fans as it marks 10 years together.
"Plena Libre is part of what I consider the personality of the Puerto Rican people," said bassist and leader Gary Nunez.
"As with all folklore, the music relates to the stories of the small communities and the country as a whole. And I've put words to songs as we speak them now in Puerto Rico. So we have youthful followers and those who are very old because we're doing a music they related to in their youth."
The key: the twists Nunez and company have added to the music. Rather than regurgitate a folkloric tradition, Plena Libre is pulling the style into the new millennium with updated instrumentation, edgier lyrics and influences ranging from rap and jazz to rock and reggae.
There's a reason the band's name, translated to English, is "freeform plena."
Although its new CD on Times Square Records, "Estamos Gozando!" (We are having fun), celebrates the music's 100 years as a Puerto Rican art form and pays tribute to many of its seminal composers, from Cortijo and Jimenez to more recent stars such as singer Ismael Rivera, it's far from old and moldy.
"I thought plena needed a revamping," said Nunez, who has worked toward exactly that goal on the group's nine albums, which have earned it three Grammynominations.
Eminently danceable, plena is based on three rhythmic patterns performed on various percussion instruments.
"Plena is very close to our culture as a people, as a nation and part of our oral history," said Nunez. "It relates to all the things that happen to the Puerto Rican people."
Plena Libre Estamos Gozando
Times Square Records
July 16, 2004
Plena, a festive, farcical and intensely danceable Afro-Puerto Rican folk music genre, had been put out to pasture by Puerto Rico's music industry for decades when the gifted bass player and bandleader Gary Núñez founded Plena Libre in 1994. He set out to renovate plena with new songs and creatively arranged classics, delivered by a big band that, in addition to the requinto, punteador and seguidor hand drums that form plena's percussive core, also included instruments such as horns, piano, bass, congas and timbales. Núñez bet that, far from being a sclerotic and exhausted genre, plena had the potential for massive commercial appeal and for artistic exploration and advancement.
Although the odds were against him, Núñez proved the naysayers wrong as Plena Libre's music was quickly embraced by audiences and critics in Puerto Rico and abroad, with accolades including Grammy and Latin Grammy nominations.
Now the prolific Plena Libre has released its 10th album in as many years. Estamos gozando (We're having a blast) pays tribute to what the band considers the greatest composers of plena and bomba, a similar Afro-Puerto Rican folk genre.
While previous Plena Libre albums have emphasized new compositions, Estamos gozando is a must-have for anyone interested in plena's roots, as it showcases the genre's essential traits: its lyrics' plainspoken and irreverent takes on everyday happenings and its intricate, irresistible rhythms.
Thus, Estamos gozando works as an anthology of plena and bomba classics, such as Canario blanco (White canary) and Lo que a ti te gusta (What you like), that doesn't sound redundant or archaic, thanks to Núñez's skilled arrangements and adaptations, and to the group's colossal sound -- the album's liner notes list 10 regular members and 14 guest musicians.