Rafy Falu, Plena Libre's star requinto player, gave us a group dance lesson last night in the Puerto Rican electric slide.
"Una musica bien bailable," says Rafy.
He's talking about plena, or bomba y plena, a danceable Puerto Rican rhythm which exploded in the Dance Tent at Shakori Hills last night.
It was the first of Plena Libre's two shows at the festival. If you can roll, walk or crawl, don't miss the second, tonight at 9 pm at the grassy Meadow Stage.
Flown in direct from Puerto Rico, Plena Libre takes native rhythms, seldom heard outside the island, into uncharted waters. Led by bassist, arranger, composer and mastermind Gary Núñez, Plena Libre approaches hardcore plena the way Los Van Van's Juan Formell engineers musica cubana: With rhythmic authenticity and fearlessly modern invention.
My mind was blown when they opened one song with a rumba diana, then busted out into a Puerto Rican bomba. Another started with the coro from Eddie Palmieri's 1965 "Azucar" and morphed into a Cuban songo, a delicious take on Los Van Van's classic "Sandunguera" (aka "Por Encima del Nivel"). The tribute, says Núñez, is on the band's latest album, Plena al Salsero.
"I just like to add colors to the show," says Núñez. "We’re doing salsa, we’re doing rumba, we’re doing plena. You know, it’s like a painting, so people don't get bored."
Fat chance. Last night's audience thundered for an encore at the end of the set.
Salsa dancers: don't fear Plena Libre. Know your Puerto Rican culture. Know it and love it, right down to the roots.
Besides, the band plugs in to salsa at times and combines typical plena hand percussion with instruments familiar from the salsa stage, like timbales and trombones. Their three great vocalists perform in a style that is, in fact, the foundation for salsa, a combination of rapidfire onomatopoeia and Caribbean call and response.
It really helps to see (and hear) plena performed live to get a handle on it.
Cuban rumba will be more familiar to some, but the Afro-Puertorican plena has striking parallels. Rather than congas, the main drum is panderetas or panderos, skin hand drums which look like detached drum heads, or tamborines without the metal chimes. As in rumba, the panderos use a three-voiced rhythm structure.
The largest drum, or tumbadora, dwarfs a man's head like a jumbo-sized pancake. It's the lowest of the three voices. Like the medium-sized seguidora, it plays a repetitive base rhythm. The smallest drum is the star, the high-pitched requinto, which "speaks" like a soloist.
Also, some salsa fans may not know it, but plena was a source for North American salsa as it formed in New York, in the hands of, who else: Puerto Ricans. Once you grasp the texture, you will hear plena everywhere, in the classic salsa of Hector Lavoe and Willie Colon, and younger bands like Bio Ritmo.
"Outside of Puerto Rico, you know Eddie Palmieri, you know Ricky Martin. This is the rhythm behind it. This is our music," Núñez says.
As the top touring band, Plena Libre has been spreading plena internationally for 14 years, and the band seems excited about an upcoming concert in Morocco in November.
After Friday's show, it heads to the Richmond Folk Festival (see calendar) and Newark, then back home to play more fiestas patronales. In fact, it just played one the night before, in Yauco, PR. From Yauco to Silk Hope, roots straight out of the ground.