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Nuñez Revives The Plena Beat Of Puerto Rico

By David Cazares

11 February 2005
Copyright © 2005 SO FL SUN-SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

When bassist Gary Nuñez founded Plena Libre a decade ago, he was determined to revitalize a beloved and storied genre that had declined in popularity in recent generations.

His vibrant ensemble did so spectacularly, delivering nine solid albums of largely original music that rescued the traditional plena rhythm from obscurity by adding modern touches and rhythms from elsewhere in the Caribbean. The approach, which added much-needed modernized songs to the genre's repertoire, won Plena Libre many fans and three Grammy nominations.

South Florida fans will have a chance to hear live music from perhaps the group's most ambitious album yet. On Saturday, Plena Libre performs at the Joseph Caleb Auditorium, 5400 NW 22nd Ave., Miami.

With ¡Estamos Gozando! on Times Square Records, the group makes a departure from its approach to date by offering plena lovers a compilation of some of the genre's greatest hits.

"I thought it would be a good time for us to present a work in which we created a compilation on the roots of our music," Nuñez said. "So we made a tribute to all of the composers and interpreters who, one way or another, started plena. The recording meets our obligation of making a record of a century of creation of the plena in Puerto Rico."

That's a tall order. The plena's two-two rhythm developed near the end of the 18th century in the San Antón barrio in the city of Ponce in southern Puerto Rico. Its storytelling lyrics served as a sort of island newspaper. Troubadours sang about daily life, events and prominent figures. There were plenas for working and partying, for making war and making love.

In some respects, the birth of plena and its sister genre bomba resembles the early days of the blues. Both sprang from difficult times.

"It was a difficult era, of that there is no doubt," Nuñez said. "This music has always been a way of demonstrating, of making a joyful noise, converting sadness into an expression of resistance.

The album includes works by composers such as Manuel "El Canario" Jiménez, Mon Rivera, Rafael Cortijo and César Concepción. It features well-known songs, such as Maquinolandera and Canario Blanco. It also showcases others that are less known, such as Que Buenas Son Las Mujeres.

All of the numbers are done in Plena Libre's festive, big-band style, which includes ample brass and percussion and fresh arrangements.

"We're putting new clothes on our tradition," Nuñez said.

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