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Plena Music Definition Essay

The plena is an important genre of folk music in Puerto Rico and typically associated with coastal regions of the island. Like the corrido in Mexico, the plena is a narrative song that details the pains and ironies of people and life in their communities.

An excellent modern example of this genre is the song El Bombón de Elena recorded by Ismael Rivera and Rafael Cortijo.

Origins of the plena
There are several theories on how and when the plena originated. The most popular theory on the origins of the plena is that it originated in the city of Ponce, on the southern coast of Puerto Rico, around 1920, as this popular plena, San Anton would suggest. However, it is more likely that it was much earlier, with examples from Puerto Rico and elsewhere dating back several decades. Music historian Francisco Lopez Cruz makes a distinction between the music and dance components of the plena, claiming that the musical elements can be traced back to songs as around 1875, preceeding the dance elements which can accurately be said to have its roots in Ponce.

In any case, it is clear that this musical genre has roots in African music and dance. The plena became popular in the early part of the 20th century in the sugar-growing areas along the southern coast of the island. It provided the slave population and the peasantry, with a musical expression of their life. Similar music genres, according to Lopez Cruz, are the "corrido" of Mexico, the "romance" of Spain, the calypso of Trinidad, the "porro" of Colombia and the merengue of the Dominican Republic. This is not to say that the plena comes from or is based on those other genres, but simply that they all share some characteristics. Interestingly, the experts make no mention of "jíbaro" or Taíno influences, as as is sometimes assumed.

As the rural workers moved to San Juan and other urban areas in the recent past, the plena became a part of the urban cultural life, and, as is typical of folkloric music everywhere, was performed for entertainment at informal social gatherings. The music evolved as musicians added instruments like horns to its complicated rhythms and the typical "soneos", the improvised call-and-response vocals also found in other genres, including bomba and salsa.

The lyrics
The plena's words deal with contemporary events and is often called "el periodico cantado", or a kind of living newspaper. Singers recite the events of the day and often satirize local politicians or scandals. Sometimes plenas are filled with biting satire; at other times, they comment on major news events of the day, such as a devastating hurricane. But not all plenas are historically significant or deal with social commentary. Some are just fun, or personal, playful or humorous, with no relationship to news, events, politics, or protest. But whether the lyrics deliver a serious protest or lighthearted fun, the plena remains a vital cultural part of the community's expression.

Vocalists in a plena would include a soloist and chorus singing in a call and response, antiphonal pattern. The chorus consists of no more than two singers, one of which might sing harmony an octave higher; called "requintar".

The choreography
The plena may be danced, but that is less important than the lyrics and melody, in contrast to the bomba. The choreography is quite simple with pairs dancing together although originally evidence indicates that they danced apart. While bomba is not usually performed without the dancers, the plena can be. The plena drummers do not necessary dialogue with the dancers as is done in a bomba, but they do perform solos. Some modern plenas are played at a blistering pace, inspired by the reggae genre.

The instruments
Plena music is played in 2/4 time, with instruments that typically would include several sizes and pitches of panderetas, also called "panderos". The panderetas are the most characteristic instruments of the plena. A pandero is a hand held drum similar to a tambourine but without the cymbals, with an animal skin stretched over a frame. Three panderetas of different sizes are needed for a complete plena ensemble.

Two supporting drums are also typical of the plena instrumentation. One is called a seguidora, which provides the rhythmic foundation, and the second is the lead drum, called a requinto which reinforces and accents portions of the rhythmic structure of the song text and is also used for improvisatory solos. Another important instrument used in a plena would be a güiro, whose primary role is to play a fixed rhythm but which may also be used to play solos. Other instruments might include a cuatro or guitar and conga drum, and perhaps a single maraca. An accordion or harmonica may also be used, but these are not typical. Some plena ensembles include a trumpet, clarinet, or some other wind instrument.

The link to bomba
Many people link the bomba and plena genres together, based on historical and musical reasons. Both bomba and plena share many musical characteristics and are both clearly derived from West African musical traditions. Both use two or three drums of different sizes and pitches playing inter-related rhythms. Both also use a solo singer together with a chorus and the lyrics of both relate to the everyday life of people in the community. In fact, the two names, "bomba y plena," are often elided in speech, resulting in a single term: "bombayplena" that is well understood in Puerto Rico. But despite these common aspects between the two genres, there are also distinct differences. They differ in their instrumentation by way of the types of drums they use. They differ also in the nature and importance of the dance, as well as the verse structure and its content.

The composers
As a folk genre, there have been many good composers, some well known in their day and into the present. Perhaps one of the genre's most celebrated composers and performers was Manuel A Jiménez, known as 'El Canario'. Certainly, there were many others, including such greats as Ismael Rivera and Rafael Cortijo.

The revitalization of plena today
By the later part of this century, the plena had ceased to be the pre-eminent genre of popular music for the common folk. It was surpassed in the commercial market by salsa, merengue and more modern musical genres. Even imported genres like rock music, did more to satisfy the desires of the younger generation that drove the music industry, than the old folk music genres. However, in recent years the plena has been revitalized with new sounds by modern artists in Puerto Rico and New York. In the 1960's and 1970's, artists such as César Concepción, Mon Rivera, updated and modernized the plena with big-band style instrumentation: trombones, congas, and 'sonero' type vocal arrangements. This brought on a plena revival that has blossomed in the 1990's, with new stars such as Plena Libre.

Even salsa artists have played a part in the revitalization of the plena. Popular salsa pioneer, Willie Colón, made a series of influential albums in the 1970's that not only reinterpreted traditional plena in a salsa music format, but featured well-known traditional plena artists. Two recordings paired Colón with Yomo Toro, the well known cuatro master of Puerto Rico. These recordings included a variety of plena and jíbaro music played in the style of New York salsa. Simlilarly, Colón turned to his roots and made two albums with Mon Rivera in 1975-76 , featuring plenas and bombas in salsa style. The significance of these four albums was telling and timely. They validated the plena as a traditional music genre, for the younger generations of Puerto Ricans who were only familiar with salsa and thought that the old folk music was passé.

By Alessandra Rosa

In my previous post, I briefly commented on the role of art in (re)constructing spaces of resistance during the 2010 – 2011 University of Puerto Rico (UPR) student strikes. In the concluding comments of that post, I exposed some examples of how the student activists strategically and creatively utilized protest art to frame their collective identity, mobilize resources and build solidarity. Similarly, music can also fulfill and broaden these functions in social movements. As Eyerman and Jamison (1998) state, “music, in particular, embodies traditions through the ritual of performance. It can empower, help create collective identity and a sense of movement in an emotional and almost physical way”. For the purpose of this essay dialogue, I have decided to expand on another of the UPR student activists’ strategies of resistance by focusing on their use of music; specifically their cantos y consignas (i.e. protest songs and chants).

Prior to delving into this matter, I would like to provide a brief overview of the cultural context that created the musical background, known as plena, consistently used during civic protests in Puerto Rico. The plena although native to the island, has its roots in African traditions resonating with their religious rituals preserved during slavery. In the same way that our African ancestors used songs and chants to communicate and build solidarity in order to persevere through harsh conditions, the plena became the “sung newspaper” for the working class in Puerto Rico. Juan Flores (1993) states:

“the emergence of the plena coincided with the consolidation of the Puerto Rican working class…The first two decades of the century, when plena was evolving from its earliest traces and disparate components into a distinct, coherent form, saw the gravitation of all sectors of the Puerto Rican working population – former slaves, peasants and artisans – towards conditions of wage labor, primarily in large-scale agricultural production set up along capitalist lines” (89).

With its repetitive call-and-response structure, straight-forward and often satirical lyrics; accompanied by mainly percussion instruments and boisterous accented rhythms, the plena was paramount in forming part of the cultural and political life of Puerto Ricans. No wonder “the Puerto Rican plena has been compared to the German moritaten, the Mexican corridor, and the Spanish romance, for like them, it narrates historical events from the point of view of the masses, of el pueblo” (Aparicio 1998: 29). By voicing the life experiences of el pueblo, the plena was able to produce a counterhegemonic discourse that constructed spaces of resistance for the Puerto Rican working class.

Members of the street theater group called “Papel Machete” leading one of the many student marches during the 2010-2011 UPR student strikes.

Evidently, the plena has continued to reconstruct spaces of resistance as it was widely demonstrated during the 2010 – 2011 UPR student strikes. The UPR student activists used the plena and new media technologies to frame their protest, assert their collective identity and build solidarity by attracting new supporters. The use of music provided the cognitive and emotional praxis necessary to culturally express their opposition to the island’s neoliberal government policies. For student activists, protest songs and chants empowered them against police repression by framing their protest as a justice movement to guarantee accessibility to a public higher education of excellence as a human right and not a privilege. It also helped to reinforce member solidarity and encourage participatory democracy in the pursuit of social change by “projecting the past, present and future” (Collins, 2013:1; Eyerman, 2002: 446). For non-student community, protest songs and chants served to raise awareness and sometimes gain new supporters. In other words, the role of music during the 2010-2011 UPR student strikes went beyond mere entertainment; it inspired, educated, recruited and even mobilized people (Rosenthal, 2003).

In order to depict some of the possible effects of chants used during these strikes, I provide the following example:

Si tú te creías que la IUPI no venía na,

si tú te creías que la IUPI no venía na.

La IUPI  en la calle con su último detalle

y su bomba Molotov! Ooohh!

Aaaaah, la IUPI ya llego!

Aaaaah, la IUPI ya llego!

[English translation]

If you believed that the UPR was not coming,

If you believed that the UPR was not coming.

The UPR is out in the street with its last detail

and its Molotov bomb! Ooohh!

Aaaaah, the UPR has arrived!

Aaaaah, the UPR has arrived!

This popular and evocative chant was originally created by the UPR student organization called “Federacion Universitaria Pro Independencia” (FUPI) during the student strikes in the 70s.[1] Hence for most student activists that supported the recent strikes, this chant served to frame the ideological message that they were ready to fight and would not back down, it established their collective identity by greatly fostering mutual trust and solidarity, it empowered them against police repression and administrative sanctions, and further encouraged mobilization by developing a sense of commitment and continuity to the UPR student movement. However, this same chant could backfire with some of the non-student community given the known political orientation (pro-independence) and militancy of the FUPI[2] and the direct mention of using violent methods such as Molotov bombs as part of the resistance.

When considering the central role that the plena has had throughout the socio-cultural history of civic protests in Puerto Rico, and in this case during the 2010 – 2011 UPR student strikes, one can acknowledge that cantos y consignas functioned as a catalyst for social change by reconstructing the existing political order and establishing networks that continue to create resistance on the island.

Watch the video below to experience some examples of the protest songs and chants used during the 2010 – 2011 UPR student strikes in the video called: “Marcha por la Educación Pública, Huelga UPR”: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTAZCgtqk0Y)


Aparicio, Frances. 1998. “A Sensual Mulatta called the Plena”. In Listening to Salsa: Gender, Latin Popular Music, and Puerto Rican Cultures. Wesleyan University Press. Middletown, CT.

Collins, Ross. 2013. “Songwriting and Activism: A Young Singer’s Efforts to Write Himself into the Traditions of an Activist Group”. In Social Movement Studies. Routledge.

Eyerman, Ron. 2002. “Music in Movement: Cultural Politics and Old and New Social Movements”. In Qualitative Sociology, 25( 3), Fall.

Eyerman, Ron and Andrew Jamison. 1998. Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Traditions in Twentieth Century. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Flores, Juan. 1993. “ ‘Bumbún’ and the Beginnings of Plena Music”. In Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Identity. Arte Público Press. University of Houston.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers.

Lefebvre, Henri. 1991 [1974]. The Production of Space. Cambridge, USA: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Rosenthal, Rob. 2003. “Serving the Movement: The Role(s) of Music”. In Popular Music and Society. EBSCO Publishing.

Scott, James. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Yale University.

[1] The chant and information presented were obtained by interviewing Teresa Cordova, a student activist during the 2010-2011 UPR student strikes.

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