On my radio show this week, one of the tunes I played to advertise Los Pleneros de la 21 was "Chiviriquiton," a plena/rap fusion from the 2005 album Para Todos Ustedes. Little did I know, I would be singing coro to that very song at last night's workshop, as Jose Rivera spit rhymes:
I learned a lot of things from the workshop, like that oldtimers used to recycle banjos and drums into panderetas, the hand-held frame-drums of plena. When a drum dies, it goes to plena heaven.
The origin of the term "plena" is undetermined, but various stories circulate; one says it derives from newspaper terminology (plena is known as "the newspaper of the streets"); another that it is related to a woman's name; a third, that it comes from the phrase "plena luna" (full moon).
A lot of the coros are "standards" and the bodies of songs are changed and added on to, depending on the occasion and the performer. This makes it difficult, however, for modern pleneros to establish songwriting credit on their improvisations, a fact Jose mentioned. Jose carries on the plena tradition from his father, Ramon Rivera.
I also learned that bomba, of Kongo origin and found around the coasts of Puerto Rico, has many different styles, some of them regional, and including: bomba yubá, bomba sicá, bomba holandés. Mayagüez has some of the oldest bomba, and is known as a birthplace of sorts, whereas Loíza Aldea is a hotspot for bomba, with some of the fastest varieties.
I was absolutely struck by the confluence of Julia's bomba dancing and Afro-Cuban rumba as it is danced by men. Clearly the importance of Kongo culture and the connections between all these diaspora art forms in the Caribbean has yet to be fully grasped (by me, at least--I'm sure we need more books about it). We were told there is no easy-to-find song book or written resource for plena songs, and none at all for bomba songs.
Julia Gutierrez dances bomba in this video from the workshop.
There seems to be a certain deep, ancestral, spiritual remembrance embedded in these traditions, even if they are not tied to a clear religious practice such as one finds with Santería. Bomba musicians have different schools of thought on the spirituality of bomba, apparently, which was outlawed on parts of the island until very recently (how recently? I have to find out).
There's a lot more in my notes and videos, I will post more when I have time to go over them. In the meantime, Julia Gutierrez gave the dopest dance lessons in plena and bomba! No lectures, no stopping of music, just non-stop action.
On hand for the workshop: LP21 founder and leader Juan Gutierrez, Jose Rivera, Camilo Molina, Alex Lasalle and Julia Gutierrez. A fuller complement arrive for the concert TONIGHT at 7pm in UNC Memorial, slated to include: Nellie Tanco (lead vocals/dance), Sammy Tanco (lead vocals), Desmar Guevara (piano), Pete Nater (trumpet), Waldo Chavez (bass) and Nelson Gonzalez (dance/percussion).
This FREE event remains sold out, but I recommend going early to see if seats are available at the door. There will be SOME seats but how many, is anyone's guess. Also, bear in mind it's football night so parking and traffic may be affected.