Times Square Records
Plena Libre celebrates their 10th anniversary with estamos gozando! which thus becomes a celebration also of the classic Puerto Rican plena rhythm that arose less than two centuries ago when immigrants from Barbados brought the African bomba dance to the island but which in the 70s was displaced by the salsa and merengue rhythms from abroad. Returning to the traditional plena of the farm workers and labor strikes, bassist/bandleader Gary Nuñez launched Plena Libre in 1994, intending to repossess this folkloric style for the younger generations of listeners. Traditional plena centers on a trio of hand drums called panderos which have parallels in the trio of Yoruban/Cuban bata drums. Add the güiro gourd scraper and the call-and-answer soloist/chorus vocal ensemble and you're ready to plena.
Alas, Nuñez who worked with Moliendo Vidrio and Caribe Jazz while championing the use of the cuatro guitar now adds bass, keyboards, timbales, congas, trombones, bayou-reminiscent accordion and Cuban violin ace Alfredo de la Fé to the original plena ensemble. He also does some rhythm shopping in the Caribbean on the side, for variety and spice. On estamos gozando! -- We're having Fun! -- the Plena Libre group then pays tribute to past greats Ángel Torruellas; the quintessential 70's plena band Los Pleneros de Quinto Olivo; trumpeter César Concepción and percussionist Rafael Cortijo of Ismael Rivera fame; Mon Rivera who invented the trombone quartet inclusion into Afro-Rican styles; Rafael Cepeda, Toñin Romero and Manuel Jimenez "'Canario', the first commercially recorded plena singer from the 20s and 30s.
Estamos thus becomes the answer for "Everything you always wanted to know about plena but didn't dare ask". With Victor Muñiz and Carlos Villanueva on leads vocals and Kayvan Vega, Gina Villanueva and Kevin Vega on chorus (further augmented by guest singers Yanira Torres, Josué Rosado and Wichy Camacho), the gun ship is loaded to the hilt with tongue-breaking hi-speed lyricizing, spicily syncopated harmonizing and colorful leads, translation of which reminds you why it's the simple folks rather than the city slickers who're having all the fun.
This is unabashed happy and carefree up-tempo music meant to shake booty. It's also tight and infectiously muscular, with a cooking boiler room of complex hand drums, shifty brass accents, Zydeco accordion, percolating piano and fiery trumpet solos. I doubt that the uninitiated can tell plena apart from other Latin dance music. But technicalities are utterly besides the point when the album title tells you to have fun. It's party time, after all - make sure your shirt's unbuttoned three or four down while the ladies compete for how much leg to show. I didn't know plena from plural but now that I've heard it, I understand why Gary Nuñez felt so strongly about this hidden aspect of Puerto Rican music to dedicate an entire ensemble and 10 years to its reintroduction into the mainstream. If you remember what Ry Cooder did for the equivalent Cuban style, you might feel compelled to give plena a try as well. It's more energetic but equally true and authentic. And the recording quality leaves nothing to be desired, either. So liberate your plena and put your boom-boom in dee riddim - okay, that's the wrong island but you get the general idea...