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From Popular Tradition to Commercial Success

There have been several seminal figures in plena's rise from a traditional, community-based genre to the commercial success that it enjoyed on and off from the late 1920s to the '60s. Canario, César Concepción, Mon Rivera, Rafael Cortijo, and Ismael Rivera are the most significant and influential of these. Through them it is possible to trace not only the history of plena, but also the history of plena's role as a symbol of national identity for different segments of society.

     In the late 1920s, RCA Victor, seeking to expand its market to include the Caribbean, capitalized on plena's popularity. It brought Manuel "Canario" Jiménez, a dock worker, merchant marine, and locally popular plena singer, into the recording studio. Canario took the plenas sung in the streets, bars, house parties and neighborhood celebrations, and popularized them beyond their local neighborhoods. Plena's message became popular throughout the island and in New York, where a sizeable Puerto Rican community had already begun to form. Canario retained the traditional plena instrumentation of panderetas, accordion, giro, and guitar, and added trumpets. 

     In the Canario years -- 1930s-40s - plena remained a music of working class people in the barrios of Puerto Rico and in New York, to which some of the island's best pleneros had migrated. While plena never ceased being a music of the barrio, its popularity expanded in the late 1940s. As class barriers and racial prejudices once again shifted, this time in the context of the island's post-World War II industrializing society, plena gained popularity in the upper levels of society. This was accomplished largely through the work of César Concepción, a well-known ballroom bandleader popular with tourists and the Puerto Rican elite, whose repertory consisted mainly of European and Cuban dance music. Concepción adapted plena to the Latin popular music orquesta that included trumpet and saxophone sections, congas, timbales, güiro, bass, and piano. Notably absent from this instrumentation were the panderetas the heart of the plena ensemble.

     Concepción's plenas, called "salon plenas," were sanitized versions of the plena from the barrios. But it was perhaps because of this "whitewashing" that plena came to be accepted by the elite. By the end of the 1940s, aided by the increasing influence of the recording industry and radio, plena's popularity and commercial success had spread throughout all levels of society. It had reached salons and ballrooms, gained recognition among the cultural elite, established itself among Puerto Ricans in New York, and set the stage for the emergence of Mon Rivera, Rafael Cortijo, and Ismael Rivera.

     These three legends became tremendously popular among poor and working class Puerto Ricans on the island and in New York in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Mon Rivera, an arranger, vocalist, and bandleader, integrated plena into the predominantly Cuban dance repertory of Moncho Leña's band, Los Ases de Ritmo, for which he arranged and performed. Somewhat later, bandleader and percussionist Rafael Cortijo, with his idolized vocalist Ismael Rivera, brought plena back to the barrio in the popular conjunto7 (small band) format of the time. While Concepción had popularized plena beyond the barrios, his plenas were not accepted on the streets. Cortijo's and Rivera's were. Moreover, this team did what no one had done before: popularized bomba. This was probably more important socially, symbolically, politically than musically.

     Among Mon Rivera, Rafael Cortijo, and Ismael Rivera, Cortijo's influence on contemporary and future generations of musicians was the strongest. His legacy is still felt in plena groups that combine a strong pandero section with the horn sound of his conjunto.

     Although he did not leave the same musical legacy as Cortijo, there was something "magical" about the relationship between Ismael Rivera and the Puerto Rican people that transcended the popularity of Mon Rivera and Rafael Cortijo. Photographs of him are still prominently displayed in homes, restaurants, gas stations, bars, and cafetns in Puerto Rico; women still get teary when they hear one of his ballads; and T-shirts with his likeness are still being made and worn by musicians and fans. One avid fan can be seen around the San Juan area with a giant boom box, singing along to "music minus one" versions of Cortijo/Rivera tunes. Copying even the nonverbal sounds of Rivera, as well as his phrasing and vocal inflection, this afficionado has created a following of his own.

     The popularity of these three major figures was to reach its peak in and last throughout the 1950s and into the '60s. They mostly played the Cuban-based forms that dominated the Latin popular music scene in New York since the 1930s (especially son, and later mambo and cha-cha-cha8), but their popularization of plena and bomba in the conjunto format was, perhaps, one of their most influential and innovative contributions. This popularization was not a significant factor in the development of salsa9 -that commercially successful Latin popular music which gained international popularity in the late 1960s - but it can certainly be counted as an important source, affectively if not musically.

    The majority of Latinos playing popular music in New York at that time were Puerto Rican, although there were many Cubans and a sprinkling of other Latin Americans as well. New York Puerto Ricans had, for the most part, been playing the popular Cuban-based styles since the 1930s. With the exception of the work of Rafael Cortijo, Ismael Rivera, and Mon Rivera, plenas were not normally part of their repertory. It was the Cuban-based styles that formed the main roots of salsa.


                                               Photo by Roberta Singer

                   and the beat goes on. Philadelphia, Pennsylvannia, 1992 

    In New York, changing and diminishing opportunities and venues for the performance of traditional music, combined with the popularity of commercial music, overshadowed and threatened the vitality of traditional expressive forms. Nonetheless, jíbaro music, plena and, to a lesser extent, bomba, continued to be part of family celebrations, holidays, and special occasions. The large and powerful Latino identity movements of the late 1960s and 70s, in which Puerto Ricans played a dominant role in New York, brought about a renewed interest in traditional music styles among younger New York Puerto Ricans.

     Like most identity movements, the Puerto Rican movement was multifaceted, focusing on social and economic justice and political access, as well as on seeking and reinterpreting the roots of their own culture. Ethnic groups tend to utilize cultural symbols for definitions of their own identity; the use of symbols of tradition renders the past important not for its own sake but for the continuity and grounding it offers for contemporary existence. Some Puerto Ricans believed that perpetuating their traditional heritage, including playing bomba, plena, and/or jíbaro music, was the appropriate route. For Puerto Rican salseros (salsa musicians), plena, bomba, and jbaro music became sources of inspiration. It must be noted, however, that while they were playing primarily Cuban-based styles, for a generation of New York Puerto Rican salseros who had grown up with both Cuban and Puerto Rican music, there was no disjuncture: salsa was their music. And, as mentioned, a decade earlier Rafael Cortijo, Ismael Rivera, and Mon Rivera had already established a symbolically powerful, if not wide-spread, precedent for the reinterpretation of Puerto Rican traditional forms in Latin popular music.

     In the 1970s, Willie Colón, a popular New York Puerto Rican salsero, made a series of highly influential albums that not only reinterpreted traditional forms in salsa format, but featured well-known traditional exponents of the styles. In the early 1970s he recorded two albums with the Puerto Rican cuatro10 master Yomo Toro, which featured a variety of jíbaro music forms played in a New York salsa style. In 1975-76 Colón again turned to his roots and made two albums with Mon Rivera, featuring plenas and bombas, also à la New York salsa style. All four of these albums were important because they served to validate the traditional music forms for Puerto Rican youth who were "into" salsa but considered the traditional styles old fashioned and passé . While featuring master traditional artists in salsa recordings or performances did not catch on or become standard in the salsa world, most New York salsa groups include references to or interpretations of plena in their performances.

     In the contemporary reality of New York City, the hegemony of Puerto Ricans in the salsa industry is being supplanted by the growing participation of Dominican musicians playing both salsa and merengue.11 Growing communities of peoples from other areas of Latin America have created an expansion of the Latin popular music scene and the types of music being played. Salsa groups, in response to the needs of more diverse audiences and influenced by an infusion of traditional and popular musics from elsewhere in Latin America, have been adapting forms such as Dominican merengue and Colombian cumbia to the salsa format.

     In addition to the impact of the identity movement on the commercial music scene, there has been renewed interest in traditional music, especially plena, among younger New York Puerto Ricans since the late 1970s. More young people are now participating in informal music-making at the community level, and are organizing intergenerational or predominantly younger groups to perpetuate the traditional styles and to present them to both in-group and more general audiences at folk festivals and concerts. The basic instrumentation of the plena ensemble has been retained, but some groups add conga drums and bass, and may substitute a cuatro for the harmonica, accordion, or guitar.

     The repertory of these groups includes "standard" plena tunes that have withstood the test of time. Many were written and/or popularized by the Cortijo/Rivera team, or by Mon Rivera, Canario, or other well-known pleneros, and have endured because of the powerful influence of the pleneros who wrote them and/or because of the story they tell about the Puerto Rican people. Others have endured because they symbolize and recreate a time, place, event, person, condition, or struggle that is invested with meaning in the contemporary reality.

     New plenas are also being written. On a visit to Puerto Rico in January 1991, I heard several plenas about the Persian Gulf War (being waged at that time) and others about the plebiscite12 (being discussed in Congress that month).

     In New York, as on the island, new words are being written to old plenas. One, for example, set to the tune of " Alo? quien Llama?" (cited earlier), laments the loss of jobs to computers. New plenas are being written about contemporary conditions, such as one that applaudes the participation of women in the traditionally male-dominated domain of plena in New York. Another tells the story of the 1992 Rodney King beating, expressing the pain caused by the institutionalized racism that allows such a thing to happen. New plenas are written on old themes of community, lauding its strengths, or mourning its destruction in the path of "progress."

    Born in the working class barrios of Puerto Rico a century ago, plena continues to be created and recreated and used as a vehicle to record and comment upon historical and contemporary reality. Plena is so deeply rooted in the everyday lives of its creators and community that it has endured for a century, survived transplantation, and been a source of national pride and identity. That is the power of plena.

7 The conjunto generally consisted of saxophones, trumpet, bass, piano, congas, timbales, bongos, campana (cow bell), and güiro.

8 The Cuban son, fusing a variety of African- and European-rooted rhythms and styles into an instrumental and vocal dance music, was adopted by musicians in Puerto Rico and also gained an international popularity in the 1920s (under the misnomer rumba), which lasted for decades and led to the mambo craze of the 1950s. The mambo was developed out of the rhythm section of the son and danzon into a popular style in its own right. In New York's predominantly Puerto Rican and Cuban Latino community, mambo took on a distinctly New York flavor and style, laying the foundation for the music that came to be called salsa in the late '60s. Cha-cha-cha was brought to New York in the late 1940s by Cuban charanga orchestras (flutes, violins, rhythm section). The cha-cha-cha was incorporated into the Latin big band repertory which already included mambo; the two became internationally popular in a dance fad that lasted throughout the 1950s. (See Boggs 1992; Murphy 1991; Singer 1982, 1983.)

9 It was the Cuban-based styles as played in New York that formed the primary basis for the development of salsa. The term salsa literally means "sauce" in Spanish; it refers to the kind of feeling musicians put into their performance,such as playing con salsa ("with soul"). Since the late 1960s the word has become a commercial tag for popular Latino music emerging out of the New York Puerto Rican and Cuban music scene. Currently in Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, and other Latin American countries, salsa is used to identify the popular music styles that derive from their own root traditions while incorporating a range of elements from the New York styles. (See Boggs 1992; Rondn 1980; Singer 1982.)

10 The cuatro is a l0-string instrument generally associated with jíbaro music.

11 The Dominican merengue is challenging the dominance of salsa in the Latin popular music scene in New York as well as in Puerto Rico, where it is often easier to find merengue being played on the radio and in local clubs than it is to find salsa, not to mention plena or jíbaro music. Salseros, who began including merengue in their repertory prior to its recent ascendency, continue doing so for audiences of all backgrounds who sustain its popularity.

12 Puerto Rico has been successively a protectorate, colony, and commonwealth of the United States since 1898; Puerto Ricans were made citizens in 1917. As has happened several times before, the question of Puerto Rican status was again being discussed in Congress; the options available to the island - pending congressional approval are statehood, retention of commonwealth status, or independence.



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