The plena is a type of Puerto Rican folk music. It is characterized by its musical simplicity and the repetition of phrases, especially the chorus. Its lyrics are frequently a commentary sung about day-to-day topics. Among other examples, we can cite some of the songs most popular at festivities: Temporal, which announces the arrival of a hurricane and comments on the anguish of the event; Cortaron a Elena, which comments on aggression against a woman; El Obispo de Ponce, which comments on the arrival and a physical description of a bishop from Rome; and on a different note, Santa María, a request to the Virgin Mary. Traditionally, the song is sung in tones ranging from joking to newsy. The plena is identified primarily with the coastal communities and regions of the island.
The principal instruments of the plena are the tambourines. These are formed by two hoops, one over the other, covered on one side by leather. The songs are performed mainly with these percussion instruments, although the güiro, guitar, maracas, trumpet, trombone and congas are often incorporated.
Plenas are one-part songs developed in eight measures in two-four time. They are distinguished by the participation of a soloist, known as the inspirer, and a chorus. In general, the inspirer begins with a refrain and the chorus repeats it. The inspirer is free to vary the lyrics and melody, but not the chorus. Commonly, couples dance in pairs to the plena.
The origin of the plena has always been a controversial topic. Many people argue that the plena originated in the early 20th in Ponce, a city on the southern coast of the island. However, some scholars, such as Francisco López Cruz, believe that in the 19th century in the areas of Bayamón and Naranjito popular songs were being sung that were plenas, although they were not known as such.
During the same time, a similar rhythm was developed in the Dominican Republic, in which eight-syllable verses were sung and which Dominican folklorist Flérida Nolasco called Cantos de Plenas. Other similar rhythms are the Dominican merengue, the porro of Colombia, the Mexican corrido and the calypso of Trinidad.
The first explanations of the origin of the term plena began to arise during the 1930s. One of the theories was that the plena was danced to under the light of a full moon, a “luna llena” or “plena,” and with the passage of time the music and the dance adopted the word “plena.” Another theory suggests that in Ponce a dancer possessed by the frenzy of the dance exclaimed “Plena!” and from then on it was called that. A third theory identified a married couple from Barbados, Catherine George and John Clark, who sang in the streets of Ponce in the early 20th century, accompanied by a guitar and tambourine. Mr. Clark said to his wife, “play Anna,” and the Puerto Ricans, hearing it, twisted the phrase into “plena.”
What is not in doubt is that many popular plenas came from Ponce. They were composed anonymously and later became known in the rest of the island. It was in Ponce that the plena first became popular and was polished into a musical genre and a dance.
What is known about the origins of the plena is that its roots are African. Ethnomusicologist Emanuel Dufrasne González asserts that is a mix of musical elements from the lesser Antilles, like the Puerto Rican bomba, a dance in which drums called bombas are used.
Some popular plenas are: Los muchachos de Cataño, Tanta vanidad, Cuando las mujeres, Elena toma bombón, Tintorera del mar and El diablo colorao.
Adapted by PROE Editorial Group
Original source: Francisco Marrero Ocasio, Los instrumentos de cuerda en Puerto Rico, 2003. CD Vuelvo a mi Estrella. Taller Musical Retablo.
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 11, 2014.
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