Plena is a traditional Puerto Rican folk music, born in the late 19th century of African percussion and Spanish song forms, and popularized by migrant farm workers, who infused the danceable folk style with lyrics that expressed the tragedy and comedy of their daily live. It was strictly a folk music, albeit a nationally popular one, until the 60s and 70s, when stars such as Ismael Rivera and Rafael Cortijo updated and modernized plena with big-band style instrumentation (heavy on the trombones), congas, and "sonero" type vocal arrangements. This brought on a plena revival that has blossomed in the 1990s, with Gary Núñez as Public Plena Figure Number One. After honing his chops as arranger and bassist in various jazz and salsa bands, he formed Plena Libre in 1994. They became immediately popular.
I would love to see these guys live, because I hear they give a phenomenal concert that shows off the distinguishing features of updated plena at its best: rhythmic drive led by panderos, three specially tuned hand drums that resemble tambourines, and an improvising lead singer that trades verses with his chorus as often as he breathes. On record, however, Plena Libre doesn't quite manage to convey the unvarnished excitement of plena as folk music; nor does it make the updated style interesting on its own terms, as Juan Luis Guerra has done with Dominican styles such as the perico ripaio. All the tracks are finely wrought but there's a certain spark missing, kind of like a platonic relationship. The recording does have some electric moments. "Granada" includes smoking vocals from the plenero (the improvising lead singer) and some wonderful clapped, almost flamenco-style sections. "Plena Conciencia" combines African percussion with almost rap-style vocal work, lending a streetwise sensibility to the music. - Elisa Murray