WASHINGTON – The rhythm spiced up the air while a couple of hundred Washingtonians ignored the chilly night outside and danced or kept time to the cheerful commands of the singers on the stage.
For an hour Thursday,the Millennium Stage and the Grand Foyer at the John F. Kennedy Center became part of Puerto Rico.
2003 Puerto Rican Grammy nominee Plena Libre performed a show filled with Caribbean sounds,coquettish dancing and joyful lyrics about love,freedom and the origins of the “plena” music itself.
Gary Nuñez,52,founder and director of the group,said that when the group always hopes that the public enjoys the music,“and that usually happens all the time we perform.”
The Puerto Ricans were surprised at how many people showed up for the free concert – approximately 300.
“It's great … we never really expect that many people because of the nature of the plena. We are not used to these types of events. I've played in many places,but they are more open stages,” said William Gonzalez,42,timbal player.
The name “Plena Libre” responds to the contemporary influences that this folkloric rhythm receives under Nuñez's guidance. The traditional plena is mixed with salsa,Cuban styles and local Caribbean music.
Plena originated in Ponce,the second-largest city in southern Puerto Rico,in the beginning of the 19th century. Sometimes it's referred to as the “sung newspaper,” because it told the news of the day to the public.
For the last five years,the group has been presenting its music around the country in places without a tradition of Latin music,something group members found odd.
“We've been in some really strange places. We went to Harrisburg,Pa.,in September,and there were lots of Latinos,but in Wilmington,Del.,I saw one or two,at the most,” said Valerie Cox,the group's manager.
Gina Villanueva,31,plays the conga and is also a co-founder of Plena Libre. She is the only woman out of the 13 group members. “They are my family,although they do take too much care of me sometimes,” Villanueva said,laughing.
She was also surprised that so many people attended the show. “That's the idea of all this,that they enjoy our music,no matter the language they speak,” Villanueva said.
“We are groundbreaking … Plena Libre is a group trying to project the Puerto Rican music at an international level. That's what makes us distinct from the rest of the other Puerto Ricans known worldwide,like Ricky Martin and Eddie Figueroa,” Nuñez said.
Holly Meyers,38,who attended the concert,works for Discovery Channel en Español in Silver Spring,Md. She is also a musician,and has known about Plena Libre since she went to Puerto Rico for the first time in 1994,the same year the group was created.
“The thing that makes plena distinct,” Meyers said,” is that it was a tool of communication for slaves. Because the people would be out in the street protesting,but they couldn't bring drums,so they used the ‘pandereta' to communicate whether to run away if the guards were coming.”
A pandereta is a handheld drum with stretched animal skins,usually goatskin,covering a round wooden frame. It's the main instrument for any plena performance.
The origins of the plena are a mystery. Not even Plena Libre's musicians are sure about how it came to be.
The first version says it was developed by a black couple from the Antilles,John Clark and Catherine George,known as “Los Ingleses” (the English),who arrived in Ponce in the early 1900s. Clark would push his wife to sing by saying “play,Ana!,” an expression that became the word “plena.”
The problem is that her name was Catherine,so it's not very accurate,said Victor Muñiz,49,lead vocalist.
Another popular version is that African and Taino (or native) slaves would get together to dance and sing under a full moon,“luna llena” or luna plena.”
The AmericArtes!,a multi-year Latin American event at the Kennedy Center's main stages,was supposed to be in the spring,but it was moved to September. Plena Libre could not come then,so Thursday's performance served as a peek at what will happen in the fall.
Plena Libre is touring the United States most of the year. The group performed Friday in Camden,N.J.,and then will go to York,Pa. The group will also be at the Montreal Jazz festival,the Chicago World Music Festival and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts,in Fort Lauderdale,Fla. In August the group will perform at Lincoln Center in New York.