Traditional Plena Music of Puerto Rico

It is known that Plena Music originates from the Southern coast of Puerto Rico, and although there is no shortage of stories relating to the history of Plena Music, the most popular version suggests that it was created in the city of Ponce. The exact date of the original introduction of this form of Puerto Rican music varies somewhere between the years of 1875 to 1920, but its founding is not really important, as Plena is alive and still entertaining thousands.

Also referred to as the “Sung Newspaper”, Plena song lyrics often tell of important events and protests. It may speak of historical events and natural disasters. Some are light hearted and amusing, whilst others make use of sneaky satires to get their message across. Scandals are revealed and opinions are given. This form of Puerto Rican music is filled with expression and is embedded in the culture of Puerto Rico.

Originally, plenas were accompanied only by panderos, which is a Spanish tambourine. As the music progressed, instruments such as horns, guiros and drums were added. A pandero (or pandereta) is a small drum like instrument that closely resembles a tambourine, but does not have any cymbals attached to it. There are usually three panderos, of various sizes, that are played together to complete the instrumental accompaniment. The drums that are generally used include conga drums, seguidoras and reguintos. Other instruments that may vary, according to the ensemble, include a single maraca, clarinet, guitar or trumpet. The plena is often confused with the bomba as both musical genres make use of drum beats and have a noticeable West African influence. At times, it is difficult to separate the two by ear, but differences can be seen in the instruments that are used, lyrics and the dancing styles.

Although the plena seemed to fade away through time, well-known composers and plena artists, such as Manuel A Jimenez (El Canario), Rafeal Cortijo and Ismael Rivera, were never forgotten. During the 1990’s new life was breathed into plena by rising artists like Plena Libre. The younger generation was more taken by salsa, but artists have managed to revitalize plena into a new vibrant form, bringing plena back to the older generation and introducing it to the modern world.