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Bomba y Plena

Plena is generally linked with bomba in scholarly discussions of Puerto Rican traditional music. There are historical, contemporary, and musical reasons for this connection. Plena's early roots are thought by many to lie predominantly in bomba, in large part because both share many characteristics and are commonly perceived as distinctly West African-derived Puerto Rican musical genres. In fact, the two names, "bomba y plena," are often elided in speech as "bombayplena." Both are social or entertainment genres that use two or three drums of different sizes and pitches playing interlocking or meshing rhythms, both use a solo singer with a ch and the lyrics of each relate to the everyday life of people in the community.

     Despite these commonalities, there are sharp musical and social distinctions between the two genres that include the type of drum each uses, the nature and importance of the dance, and the verse structure and its content. Bomba drums are barrel-shaped (often they are pickle or dried codfish barrels), which either sit upright on the floor or lie on the floor with the players sitting astride them. Those used in plena - called panderos or panderetas-are hand-held frame drums.3 The dance in bomba is as integral to the performance as music dancers competing with one another and "dialoguing" with the lead drummer.

  Photo by Roberta Singer

                  Pleneros from New York and Puerto Rico jamming together in Ponce, Puerto Rico


     In plena, dance is not such an integral part of the performance, and the dancers do not dialogue with the drummer. Traditional bomba cannot be performed without dance; plena often is. The verse structure of bomba consists of an alternation between solo singer and coro (chorus) in a one-line call-and-response pattern. The lead singer presents the textual and melodic theme, upon which he will improvise, and the coro sings a fixed response. In plena, there is also a lead singer and a coro, but the structure is a four-line solo verse with a two-line coro refrain that may be repeated. In bomba, which is more percussive than plena, even the singing is percussive. Plena is much more melodic than bomba, both in the vocal line and in the use of melody instruments such as accordion, harmonica, and guitar. While these melody instruments are not a requirement for a plena ensemble, they are not normally part of the traditional bomba group.

     There does not seem to be general agreement as to whether or not the early pleneros (performers of plena) were originally tocadores de bomba (performers of bomba). This would be a fruitful area for further investigation. What is known is that bomba was a well established tradition when plena was emerging, and at that time the contexts for the two genres and their practitioners were, despite varying degrees of overlap, basically different -- one rural (bomba), the other primarily urban (plena); one mostly black, the other black, white, and mulatto.4 By the 1920s the basic instrumentation of the traditional plena ensemble and its verse form had become crystallized, and remain fundamentally the same today: four-line verses sung by a soloist; two-line coro response, which may be repeated. The instrument most characteristic of plena is the pandereta (or pandero), a hand-held frame drum similar to a tambourine but without the cymbals. Panderos are of different sizes and pitches; three are needed for a complete plena ensemble. Two supporting drums, called seguidora, provide the rhythmic foundation, and a lead drum, called requinto,5 reinforces and accents portions of the rhythmic structure of the song text as well as taking improvisatory solos.

    An indispensable part of the plena ensemble is the güiro (scraped gourd), whose primary role is to play a fixed rhythm but which may also take solos. The traditional ensemble may be rounded out by an accordion or harmonica and sometimes a guitar. Some early plena groups included trumpet, clarinet, or some other wind instrument, testifying to the claim by many musicians that one of the characteristics of plena is its flexibility in absorbing different instruments into the basic ensemble format.6

3 These drums are often referred to by musicians and community cultural scholars as "Arabic" or Arabic-influenced, referring to the Moorish elements of Spanish tradition.

4 There is evidence that in the 18th century, bomba was not as strongly rooted in African traditions or as confined to black society as came to be the case in the 19th century. The earliest written account (1798) claims that a drum called "bomba" was used to accompany the dancing of a group of white, mulatto, and black workers; another account cites the presence of both a drum and guitar, also in a racially mixed setting. According to Roberts, it is likely that the dances described in these reports were "re-Africanized" by Haitian slaves brought to Puerto Rico after the Haitian revolution (Roberts 1974:42).

5 Interestingly, the term requinto applies to a string instrument in Spain and in many parts of Latin America.

6 On a recent visit to Puerto Rico I observed informal, spontaneous plena performances taking place at town or saint's day festivals. In addition to the panderos (from 3 to 7) and güiros (1 to 3), I saw a trumpet in one town, an alto saxophone in another, and a cornet in yet another. The musicians told me: "You play plena with what you've got" (or some version thereof).


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