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Plena, long handed down within certain families in Puerto Rico, is being revitalized on the street corners that gave birth to it and brought to stages all over the world, even in North Carolina.

Jazz finally taps into plena, one of Puerto Rico's overlooked rhythms 

Street spirit

In Santurce, a poor suburb outside San Juan, Puerto Rico, there's a bus that doesn't run anymore, but the stops it once made—paradas—still lend their names to the densely populated neighborhoods. Ask where something is, and you're more likely to be told the name of a parada than a street. Tourists beware, though: Paradas only appear on the maps that exist in locals' minds.

Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenón grew up in Santurce, so he knows that its musical traditions are as hard to root out as the memory of those bus stops. His latest album, Esta Plena, is a primordial encounter between jazz and the raw essence of the Puerto Rican street: the musical "newspaper" known in Santurce's paradas as la plena. Ancestral and electrifying, Esta Plena, which lost its two bids for a Grammy Award earlier this month to Terence Blanchard and Chucho and Bebo Valdes, is nonetheless a milestone recording. For the first time, it creates an album-length conversation between jazz and plena, setting new parameters for folkloric collaboration and revealing plena's once-neglected potential as a fertile source for Latin jazz. And the timing is right, too—plena, long handed down within certain families in Puerto Rico, is being revitalized on the street corners that gave birth to it and brought to stages all over the world, even in North Carolina.

"I really tried my best to really keep it as close to the roots and the tradition as possible, so that those guys would feel comfortable and so that they would play the way they usually play," says Zenón, whose quartet is joined by a trio of traditional plena musicians, Hector "Tito" Matos, Juan Gutiérrez and Obanilú Allende.

If you've never heard of plena before, that's OK. As folklore goes, plena is relatively young, urban and quickly evolving. Eminently adaptable, its essence is mobility and spontaneity. It's communal, even if its secrets have been guarded by musical families for generations. And though it has gone through several phases of commercial exploitation—in the 1920s and 1930s, with the first recordings of El Canario y su Grupo, and later in the 1950s led by visionary Rafael Cortijo—plena's audiences remain mostly Puerto Rican. With the exception of New York City, plena has rarely gained a lasting foothold beyond the island.

"If you know plena, you know a lot about Puerto Rican society," says musician and author Ned Sublette. "Plena is very much about its specific environment, both in and outside Puerto Rico. It's also very much an expression of pent-up Puerto Rican nationalism."

Like a fiber-optic cable stretching between the 21st and the 19th centuries, plena is a telephone to Puerto Rico's colonial-industrial past. Plena was "fathered," so the story goes, in the 1880s by Joselino "Bum Bum" Oppenheimer, a black man who drove oxen in the fields outside Ponce in a suburb that no longer exists—again, more phantom geography. Plena's fraternal twin is bomba, a family of rhythms played on fat barrel drums. Cozily referred to as bombiplena, these two coastal Afro-Puerto Rican styles are distinguished from the Spanish guitar-based jíbaro music of the rural highlands.

There is no common understanding of plena's exact origins or meaning, but most agree its development is associated with black labor in the sugar industries of Puerto Rico's southern and western coastal cities of Ponce and Mayagüez. By the 1940s, emigrants looking for work in San Juan made Santurce an incubator for modern plena.

"They were almost like musical tweets, if you will—dispatches of the time and place." —Ned Sublette

"When the plena became popular in the 1920s, it wasn't cute and folkloric. Plenas had lyrics like, 'Elena got cut/ And they took her to the hospital,' to quote one famous number by Manuel Jiménez, 'El Canario.' They were almost like musical tweets, if you will—dispatches of the time and place," says Sublette.

Typically performed in spontaneous gatherings on street corners, plena doesn't require much: handheld frame drums in three sizes called panderos or panderetas that resemble tambourines without the chimes; guiro, or a gourd scraper; and call-and-response vocals. The lead drum, or requinto, the smallest and highest pitched, typically solos over steady rhythms.

Plena's lack of an international market highlights one of the key ironies of Latin popular dance music: Even though Puerto Ricans have often been central to its practice, the core rhythms of salsa and Latin jazz have long been dominated by Afro-Cuban musical forms—son, mambo, rumba, cha-cha-cha. Unlike these couple dances, plena steps are more akin to line dancing, so they do not easily plug in to the tropical ballroom scene.

But maybe they don't have to.

Though the 33-year-old Zenón heard plena around Santurce as a kid, he didn't give it much thought until after he moved to New York in 1996.

"I never really paid any special kind of attention to it," he says. "I never considered it special."

But when Zenón started searching for ways to differentiate his jazz, he began exploring the use of native Puerto Rican musical forms in his compositions. The instrumental quartet album Jíbaro, from 2005, was his first attempt in full-length form. He decided to expand the idea with a plena project that would incorporate traditional musicians, instruments and vocals. That record, Esta Plena, grew directly out of his friendship with Tito Matos.

"I was hanging out in Puerto Rico over the holidays, and I started hanging with a lot of pleneros, like Tito, and the people that played with him," Zenón remembers. "I started to put a lot of thought into what plena was, and what it actually meant to Puerto Rican culture. A lot of the music that I ended up writing, especially the lyrics, was specifically with Tito in mind. In a way, it's almost like it's his project."

Using money from a Guggenheim grant, Zenón travelled back and forth between New York and Puerto Rico, attending street corner plenazos, buying records and instruments, and interviewing master musicians and historians. The first person Zenón interviewed was Juan Gutiérrez, founder of New York's Los Pleneros de la 21, who played a triumphant sold-out show last September at UNC-Chapel Hill's Memoral Hall.

"He's so respected in the scene," says Zenón of Gutiérrez, "it was kind of key to have both of them."

Plena's energetic polyrhythms have muscle but also astounding flexibility; they can lope or gallop, mourn or celebrate. On Esta Plena, Zenón doesn't tamper with the basic pulse but adds contemplative lyricism and delicate metrical overlays, never fighting the undercurrent. Five tunes for quartet only are named for various Santurce barrios. The other five combine jazz with plena in its most raw folkloric form.

Zenón's achievement, while revolutionary in scope, is not without antecedents. Matos has recorded plena tracks before on the albums of Eddie Palmieri, David Sánchez and even Ricky Martin on his nostalgic Unplugged. Other champions of bombiplena in a jazz context include trombonists William Cepeda (from the famous Santurce musical family) and Papo Vazquez, who is adamant about applying the term "Afro-Puerto Rican jazz" to his music.

"I think this album of Miguel's took that first step to a different sort of level," says Matos. "The intensity of the plena, you can feel it all through the album. It's not as a background something. It's just right there in your face. That's really, really different from previous recordings."

For Matos, a self-described "street corner singer" with no formal musical training, maintaining this vibrant essence is crucial. In Puerto Rico, he works to keep the tradition of plena alive by organizing monthly plenazos in different parts of the island. In that respect, he's part of a next generation of pleneros who have revolutionized the way the tradition is transmitted.

"For the first time in my generation, we decided that we were not going to continue the tradition of keeping the rhythms and the stories and the tradition only in the major bomba and plena families. They kept the tradition alive for plenty of years and they were great custodians of it, but it was a problem because they were very restrictive," says Matos. "Some of the old masters were dying, and they were taking the information and the music and the lyrics with them. There was some stuff that was lost. We didn't want that to continue," he says.

Now, as bombazos and plenazos spring up, not just in the traditional coastal areas but all over the island, change seems to have taken hold.

"In the last years, there is a big thing happening, with young people especially. It's 'cool' to learn bomba and plena. Everybody goes to La Fiesta de la Calle San Sebastian with a pandereta," says Matos. "And it's not only for professional musicians, everybody goes."

Charlotte-based percussionist Lucas Torres plays salsa with Raleigh's The Latin Project and Latin jazz with his own band Rhythm Plus. But the native of Boqueron, Puerto Rico, a 30-minute drive from Mayagüez, always keeps panderetas in his car, ready to stage a tailgate plenazo at the drop of a hat.

"All you need is panderos, guiro and you're ready to go," Torres says. "I'm Puerto Rican first, before anything else. Plena is part of my DNA."

Even as albums like Esta Plena continue to stretch our understanding of the possibilities for one of the Caribbean's most overlooked rhythms, to some extent, plena may always remain partly underground—a way of writing stories between the headlines of official events. Portable, malleable, visceral.

"Plena is the guys who were playing after working 12 hours under the sun, with a bottle of rum next to the pier, just letting their guts and all their emotions, positive, negative or neutral, into the air," says Torres. "I think in order to preserve it, you need to develop it and you need to experiment with it. We just need to always remember."

A variety of events converge in Durham this week to celebrate plena: Ned Sublette will read from his new book, The Year Before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans, and perform music from his new CD, Kiss You Down South, at The Regulator Bookshop Wednesday, Feb. 10, at 7 p.m. On Thursday, Feb. 11, at 6 p.m., he will lead a conversation with Miguel Zenón and Hector "Tito" Matos at the Bryan Center on Duke's West Campus. Miguel Zenón Esta Plena Septet then plays Thursday, Feb. 11, at 8 p.m. in Reynolds Industries Theater. Tickets are $5-$28. The show is part of Duke's three-day WAIL! jazz saxophone festival. For more, see dukeperformances.duke.edu. Sylvia Pfeiffenberger blogs about Latin music at ondacarolina.blogspot.com.

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