Meet the Music Makers: Plena Libre

Plena Libre performs "Cuando no te ven, Dolores" in the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts Performance Hall in November 2019

By Landon Hegedus, UChicago Presents

In conversation with Plena Libre founder and bassist Gary Nuñez, and core group members Miguel De Jesus, Luisga Nuñez, Rafael Falu, Etienne Rivera, and Victor Velez:

UChicago Presents: From what I understand, all of you have visited Chicago before, and were familiar with the city before you were invited to be the University of Chicago’s Don Michael Randel Ensemble-in-Residence. What were your impressions of Chicago before you most recently returned to the city?

Gary Nuñez: My impression of Chicago is that it's a very vibrant city. It has so many different sides to it, and now we’re experiencing the academic side. In the presentations we’ve done before, we’ve played for the common folks in festivals and theaters, so we've been seeing different sides of the audience and the public in Chicago. That makes us very happy, because it means we can get into a broader range of audiences here. And like I said, it's very vibrant—you can feel it in the street; the city is very alive.

Victor Velez: Also, we've been here during different seasons. This time, we got to come back to Chicago during the cold weather, and while moving around is just a bit different, we always receive the same warmth and love and response from the people in Chicago.

Luisga Nuñez: I feel like Chicago is a great city because of all the cultures you have here. You have people from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, obviously American people—so you feel all that energy combined in one city, in one place. I feel like that's the beautiful thing about this city, and I really love it because of that. It’s great.

UCP: What are you most excited about for your UChicago Residency?

GN: From my point of view, first of all, it agrees with all the principles on which I started this group some twenty-something years ago, which is to present Puerto Rican music to other audiences. That audience includes music students, because that’s a way to really get the music out to other audiences still, so that people can know what Puerto Rican music is all about. Doing this residency is a very important step in that direction, because from our seminars and from the experience of these residencies, together with the students, one of the things that's happening is that students are writing musical works based on our collaborative sessions. That's one important way of transmitting our music outside of Puerto Rico, which again, was one of our original goals. So in that sense, it's really nice that we're able to do this, and very important in terms of the Puerto Rican culture, our history, and the music. I think we have something that we can bring to the table to the people in Chicago, and they have the opportunity to discover what it is.

The other thing that I found out is that the students are very receptive to listening, very open. A little shy at the beginning, but very open to receiving the information and analyzing and thinking and enjoying the group. We’re trying to get not only the academic side of it, but also the dancing and the fun part of it, of what Puerto Rican music is all about. In that sense, it's been a great experience so far. We've had some seminars already and the reception has been very good; we're having a really great time.

UCP: How would you describe the sound of plena music to someone who has never heard it before?

GN: Music is very hard to describe in words—it doesn't matter what kind of music it is. You can talk about the instruments, you can talk about the tempo, you can talk about the lyrics, but the thing about music is that you have to feel what it is. So, if you cannot easily describe plena music with words, then I’ll tell you this: it's three hand drums playing simultaneously with a guiro; it’s a very fun music, and you're going to be able to dance. Or, I can simply say to you, go to YouTube, and you can get to know what it is.

Historically speaking, though, there are three hand drums, as I said. We started with the low-pitch drum and then we added the high pitch, and then throughout history, as my son would say, in a span of some hundred years—plena is the youngest rhythm in Puerto Rican culture; it sounds like a lot, but it's not really, when you have the concept of history—it became three hand drums with a güícharo [a small, hollow gourd with ridges played with a stiff wire comb]. They play syncopated with each other, and each instrument is paired with another. The key to this arrangement is that they complement each other, they don't overpower. It becomes like something working together and moving together, creating the experience of what plena is. It's a very joyful dance, I can tell you that, and the lyrics relate from common things to deeper things, depending on what the composer was trying to say. From one side, it could be just a fun music, from a lyrical perspective; and then you can have some really deep thought, in a reflection about life, and that can be the point of the lyrics. But again, music is something very hard to describe in words, and the best way to learn what it is about is to feel it.

UCP: How did each of you first come to discover plena music? When did you first hear it?

GN: I was very little, actually. You see, plena is part of our culture. It’s like asking somebody when was the first time they heard rock 'n roll, or “Happy Birthday.” You probably don't really have a place for it in your head. So we all grew up with it, but then at some point, each one of us decided that we were going to go deeper into that thing—the story of that thing, to try to comprehend it, and make it a part of our lives, and dedicate part of ourselves to it. So I don't really have a set memory or decision I remember making; it’s more like a continuous thing, because it's really part of a tradition, from being a child to growing into an adult. It’s the same thing with bomba. Maybe some of the other folks can give you their impression.

Etienne Rivera: In my experience— My mom used to dance in a folkloric ballet in Puerto Rico called Areyto. Since I was a kid, they used to play bomba and plena, and they always encouraged me to learn those rhythms. My dad used to bring me to street parties just to listen to the music and see all the people dancing and playing. It's a really cultural thing in Puerto Rico, so on every corner, you can see people playing bomba or playing plena. I think we were born with this and we're always listening to it, even if you don't want it; if you have to clean your house, it’s like, “here’s the broom, play some music and start cleaning the house,” and usually it’s either plena or bomba that’s playing.

LN: It’s like, if there’s a family gathering, there’s plena and bomba. If you go to a sporting event, like a basketball game, there’s plena. If you go to a political thing, there's plena. So at least for me—and I'm the son of Gary, so I was like, four years old when Plena Libre was born—there isn’t a specific time that comes to mind, because it is a current thing that is always right there. It’s a cultural thing. Basically everywhere you go, it doesn't matter the event, there is a group of pleneros or somebody out playing with hand drums.

VV: Actually being bombero or plenero—that is, a practitioner of this style of music—is a way of life. We live this every day; we have bomba and plena for breakfast, for lunch, and for dinner.

UCP: Touching a bit on the origins of bomba and plena—clearly, they’re deeply ingrained in your everyday life. Where did they actually come from? I understand that plena sort of grew from the same “musical tree,” so to speak, as bomba did.

GN: The official history is that it came from a family with the last name Clark, who came in from the smaller Antilles and settled themselves on the south side of Puerto Rico. They mixed their music with what was happening in Puerto Rico and created the genre of plena—that's the “official” history. My contention is that—and we’re talking 1800s, early 1900s; remember, it's the youngest genre of music in Puerto Rico—and I’ll let one of the other guys take it from here.

VV: Right—plena is the youngest genre in Puerto Rican music, but bomba is actually the oldest form of music in the Caribbean. So many people, like you said before—these are theories, actually, as it was never documented—many people say that plena evolved from bomba. Like Gary said, there are different stories and different theories to it, but bomba actually is pretty old, over five hundred years in Puerto Rico. I'm not going to say that it was actually born in Puerto Rico, because its roots were brought over with African slaves, but it was actually developed over all these centuries in Puerto Rico. So that's why we claim to have adopted it, or call it a Bomba Puertorriqueña—bomba from Puerto Rico—because in that form, it’s practiced only in Puerto Rico, or by Puerto Ricans outside of the island.

GN: But the thing about plena becoming a national rhythm, like bomba, is the way it happened. This music was the music of agriculture workers. They traveled around the island, and they carried this form of music, telling the stories of what was happening around the island, and very soon this music became mostly for celebration all around the island, and became very important as a tradition of Puerto Rico. Again, the bomba comes from the area where mostly the black communities lived—slaves or former slaves, or their descendants, that worked in the sugarcane fields. They had established in some specific different points throughout the island. The plena traveled, was really disseminated around the island, by the ones that moved from city to city or from town to town. And it became a very, very important part of a tradition, just like bomba.

VV: As opposed to bomba, which was actually centered in the coastal area.

GN: And in the black communities.

UCP: As old as the lineage of this music is, as you’ve just described, Plena Libre is much younger by comparison. With that has come an updated take on plena and bomba that incorporates different musical traditions into the music of Puerto Rico. What are those other stylistic influences and how do they come through in Plena Libre’s sound?

GN: There are two ways to work with folkloric music. One is to keep the tradition and stick to all the styles that you know, and that's the root of that kind of music. You take plena, and you play with two or three hand drums or whatever, but you stick to the form of what it is. And then the other way to deal with folklore is when you try to bring it to the present. In my case, when I started Plena Libre, I was going the second route. I decided this because my thought is, there are enough groups that can do the root music very, very well, so, there’s no need for another. We’ve got to find some way to get this out to all the people, the younger generations, and future generations.

And then what I did was, I thought, we’ve got to change the language, the words, in the music; I have to use whatever musical knowledge I have of other music and bring it in without losing the root of what I am doing. You know, this is a plena group and bomba group, so the starting point of the music is at the root—the style, the way you play it. But then, on top of that, and also influencing that, is your knowledge of whatever music—from Latin America; from Africa; from the Caribbean Islands, Santo Domingo, Cuba; South America; the States; European symphonic music—whatever my knowledge was at that point, I started experimenting with that. And the idea behind that is to evolve so that it can reach the common folks now.

I’ll give you very specific examples. I found a lot of music in this tradition dealing with trains and sugarcane. Now in Puerto Rico, there hasn’t been a train for, I don't know, maybe fifty years, and sugarcane is really not as important as it once was. That doesn't relate to me or my contemporaries or to younger generations, so I try to talk about things that relate to these people at this point. I guess that's what they did in the beginning, in their own way, you know; they talk about this thing, because everybody had that experience. So we have to look out for the experience that we have now today, and we have to try to evolve as far as we can get.

We're happy to know that it’s happening. When I started this group twenty-five years ago, you couldn’t think of a single jazz project that was based on plena and bomba music. Now, I can name you at least three, just to give you an example. Twenty-five years ago, there was no plena on the radio except at Christmastime, and then Plena Libre came around in ’94, and then things started to change.

LN: I want to add one thing about this residency—I think it puts not just our work, but our rhythm and our culture, at a level of respect that it deserves and, for many reasons throughout history, it hasn’t had. The fact that this university, being so respected and so big, with so many great professors and students—a Class-A university, basically—would bring us to play here, to give lessons and teach students, and to learn from the students and their professors, too—because I can assure you this, we are learning a lot from you guys, and having fun, too—this cultural exchange is really special for us. Obviously, we have done this work all of our lives—especially my dad, Victor, [Raphael] Falu, basically all of us—and not just us, but also the people that came before us, our ancestors, and the pioneers of these rhythms. So this residency is very important to us, and it’s a joy to be a part of it.

VV: One of the most significant things about this residency is that it’s being documented. That's one of the problems that we’ve had before; so much work was being done throughout the years, but it wasn't being recorded. This residency gives proof of the hard work that Gary and the group have done throughout the years in order for us to travel here and do this, so it brings a lot of joy.