Néstor Murray-Irizarry and J. Emanuel Dufrasne González
Puerto Rico y su plena: nuevas fuentes para estudio, Volúmen I
Guilarte Editores, 2018
309 pages

Reviewed by John Paul Bimbiras

Puerto Rico y su plena: nuevas fuentes para estudio (Puerto Rico and its Plena: New Sources for Study) is a new book about the origins and practice of the Puerto Rican plena. Through a series of essays, anecdotes, poetry, photographs, and illustrations, it weaves together a compelling narrative about this highly syncretized genre and how it came to be such a potent symbol of Puerto Rican national identity. It presents and critiques competing hypotheses about the origins of the genre while suggesting some possible connections between them. Although plena is one of the most popular and representative genres of Puerto Rico, few extensive academic investigations have been made into its origins and cultural context.

Néstor Murray-Irizarry is a cultural historian who founded the research center Casa Paoli in 1986.  J. Emanuel Dufrasne González is an ethnomusicologist at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras. Dufrasne co-founded the folkloric ensemble Paracumbé with his wife Nelie Lebrón Robles in 1979. While the two authors may approach plena differently, they are clearly in dialogue with each other. They both agree that plena developed in Ponce during the early twentieth century. This was a volatile period in Puerto Rican history with the island in the initial stages of U.S. colonization. They also agree that it developed from a range of distinct influences including bomba, guaracha, and even the music of the English-speaking Caribbean.

The first part, by Murray-Irizarry, examines historical and cultural dimensions of the genre. Interviewing olderpractitioners of plena (known as pleneros) and analyzing articles from contemporary newspapers such as El Águila de Puerto Rico, Murray-Irizarry traces the origins of plena to the La Joya u Hoya del Castillo in Ponce. Newspaper accounts portray an extremely violent atmosphere around plena dances in La Joya u Hoya del Castillo and other areas of Ponce during the first decades of the twentieth century. The first mention of plena in newspapers is found in 1907, and in its early decades the term is often placed in quotation marks, suggesting that its definition was not yet entirely fixed. Murray-Irizarry considers several potential early influences on plena, including the chansoneta, baquiné, guaracha, and bomba. He also considers the role of the Cuban bufo theater troupes that began visiting Puerto Rico toward the end of the nineteenth century and asks whether Cuban bufo theater was responsible for the professionalization of plena? Regardless of its origin, Murray-Irizarry insists that plena is quintessentially Puerto Rican and that it developed, much like jazz and tango in the United States and Argentina, among economically marginalized Afro-descendent communities. He concludes with a call for further research about the plena and other aspects of Puerto Rican folkloric music.

In the second part, Emanuel Dufrasne Gonzalez seeks not only to examine the origins of the plena but also to clarify some of the misinformation that has resulted from poor initial investigations. Part II is more musicological in its focus. Dufrasne draws on his intimate knowledge of Puerto Rican music that developed from years of experience with his folkloric ensemble Paracumbé. Dufrasne begins his part with a poem he composed entitled “Prólogo Plenero.” He then presents several short anecdotes that help to provide historical context, including one about his grandfather who was a plenero and another about a man named Quique who played plena rhythms on a guitar with no strings, among other stories. Within these anecdotes, he analyzes the melodies and lyrics to several songs while discussing the musicians that played and composed them and the stories that inspired them. One of the most comprehensive essays in the book is “La Plena y sus orígenes” (the plena and its origins). Dufrasne states that the plena “is a complex percussive rhythm that is generally interpreted with two or three panderetas and güiro.” However, often guitars, cuatros, and accordions (aka sinfonías de mano) are often included in the ensemble, and sometimes wind and brass instruments as well. The poetic structure often consists of four irregular verses, with the third or fourth verse longer than the initial verses seemingly creating an acceleration, not in tempo, but in text. The estribillos (choruses) usually consist of eight bars in two-four time. It is the instrumentation and formal structure of the plena which distinguishes it from other similar and related forms of Puerto Rican music. In the early 1900s, the plena was still relatively contained to the area around Ponce but by the 1930s it had become popular across the island. Dufrasne attributes its spread in popularity to traveling workers in the sugarcane industry but also largely to the dissemination of plena recordings made by Puerto Ricans in New York such as Manuel “el Canario” Jiménez and the lesser known Vicente Velázquez-Santana beginning in 1929.

On the origin of plena, Dufrasne discusses three competing theories. The first theory is that of Francisco López Cruz, who claims that there were songs with similar melodies and poetic structures found in modern plena that already existed in Puerto Rico during the nineteenth century, but that they were not yet called plena. The second theory comes from Félix Echevarría Alvarado, who points to black migrants from the English-speaking Caribbean (los ingleses), from islands such as Barbados. These migrants brought their music to Ponce where it melded with localized styles such as bomba, aguinaldo, and guaracha. There is some support behind this argument when one considers that the representative instrument of plena, the pandereta (a tambourine without metal jingles), is very similar to the pandero used by black migrants from the English-speaking islands and the Dominican Republic. A third theory from Vicentico Morales states that the plena developed from playing bomba rhythms on the panderetas. Bomba rhythms such as the güembé, cunyá, and belén were particularly well suited for adaptation to the lighter and more portable frame drums. Large barriles (the drums used in bomba) were heavy and difficult to transport. Also, in some areas bomba dances were banned by law and panderetas may have been used initially in place of the barriles. Dufrasne presents his own fourth theory: that the plena developed from a confluence of all three of these theories. The remnants of these influences can still be seen and heard in plena today, but by the turn of the twentieth century they had already concretized into a distinct cultural form.

Puerto Rico y su plena: nuevas fuentes para estudio provides new insights into the study of the plena while recognizing that there is still much work to be done. This book would be helpful to anyone who is interested in learning about plena, Puerto Rican music, and/or Puerto Rico’s history and culture in general.