Libre Rising

We've all said it. It's 9:40 on a Friday night, and you're alternately trying to find your coolest clean shirt and perusing this week's club listings for something, anything to do that's a little different. When it becomes clear that tonight's options are limited to the same usual indie, hip-hop and rap-rock suspects you've been seeing for the past six months, exasperation boils over into vulgarity:

"Fuck that, man, I just wanna groove to some plena!"

OK, so not really. Most Americans wouldn't know Puerto Rico's traditional folkloric rhythm from the mariachi band down at Paco's Taco Barrio. For a culture whose exposure to Latin music consists of "Oye Como Va," Miami Sound Machine and Ricky Martin's hips, real Afro-Island styles tend to sound pretty much the same. It's easy to lump samba, salsa and merengue together under the world beat umbrella; easier, certainly, than developing an ear for the nuances that define each of them.

Plena Libre, a 13-member Puerto Rican dance-floor aggregation, understands the situation perfectly. But this won't stop the outfit from claiming a little room in the Latin-music spectrum for the sounds of its homeland.

"What we're trying to do is create space for the plena as part of that complete rainbow," says Gary Nunez, the band's composer, arranger, producer and bassist. "There are other rhythms that are more widely known, particularly Cuban music, but what we're doing is creating a space, letting people know that this is the rhythm of Puerto Rico. It's a happy rhythm, complex but very danceable and joyful music."

The plena shares many attributes with Cuban and other Latin-American styles, to be sure. But the genre trades a bit of its counterparts' sensuality for a raucous exuberance; bawdy piano, jaunty horn melodies and enthusiastically chanted choruses inform Plena Libre's tuneage as surely as their sinuous polyrhythmic grooves. The overall effect lends more of an uplifting, lighthearted party vibe — and less of an overtly sexy one — than most of the plena's closer relatives. Of course, the band members are by no means purists, updating the traditional roots with touches of everything from jazz to pop, giving their sound an eclectic edge accessible to even the most pedestrian music fan.

"Plena Libre is a band that combines the basic plena rhythm concept with many contemporary styles of music," Nunez affirms. "I think it's very important to do that. We're sort of trying to renovate, put new blood into that rhythm, make some kind of fusion, you know? We keep it very close to the origin, but then the orchestra arrangement and the style of playing is more contemporary."

Nunez sees the responsibility to experiment as the necessary flip side to a reverence for heritage:

"The way I look at it is, keeping up the tradition also conveys the obligation to renovate. Every generation has the opportunity, the duty, to keep up the origins of a style, but at the same time contribute its perspective of what the music should be at its time."

The composer laid the groundwork for Plena Libre more than seven years ago, while participating in a series of impromptu plena jam sessions. Already a successful professional musician in Puerto Rico, Nunez immediately recognized where his creative future lay. To the dismay of his peers, some of whom suggested that he was committing career suicide (as in "dude, plena is, like, soooo over") he went about assembling the group, drawing from a wealth of disparate experiences and influences to develop Plena Libre's trademark combination of old and new.

"I'm a firm believer that as an artist, you have to create your own sound, your own way of doing things. You can't be just another "me-too,' you know, a copy of somebody. You try to create your own voice," he says. "What I try to do is create a style that's unique for this group. So that once you know the group, when you hear the first two bars (of the song) you know it's Plena Libre."

Given the obscurity of the group's stylistic foundation, Plena Libre's success to date has been nothing short of staggering. Their eight releases have generated more than 15 hit tracks — one, "El Party," from their first recording Juntos y Revueltos (which was re-released for the international market in 1998 by current label Rykolatino) was the first plena song to chart in nearly 15 years. Mas Libre, the band's latest effort, has been nominated for a 2001 Latin Grammy Award in the Best Tropical Album category.

Naturally, the band has sold hundreds of thousands of albums at home in Puerto Rico, but perhaps their most meaningful accomplishment comes in the form of having turned folks on to plena globally; they've become a world-music festival highlight, generating an astonishing response from Munich to Kuala Lumpur. No, seriously. Nunez admits to being consistently surprised and dazzled by non-Spanish-speaking cultures' acceptance of the band (all of Plena Libre's lyrics are in Spanish).

"Especially Germany, because that was our first trip to a culture that's very different (from our own). It was amazing for all of us that we were able to communicate and make the people have so much fun. Then that success just kept repeating itself. I don't know what it is that we're doing, but we must be doing it right," he says with a laugh, "because people are enjoying it. It's been a hell of an experience. We're so very grateful that we're able to do this, share the plena with the rest of the world. It's a privilege for us, that's the way I look at it."

Here in America, where we embrace a time-tested and noble tradition of ignoring the shit out of most music sung in any language other than American, er, English, Plena Libre remains a phenomenon relegated to community radio, ethnic neighborhoods and David Byrne fans. The band's roots-reverent sound was a little too Latin to capitalize on the recent pop/crap-intensive "Latin explosion," a telling paradox in itself. In the future, mainstream tastes may widen enough to accommodate Plena Libre's exhilarating style, but one thing is for certain: Plena Libre isn't about to change in the name of American success. They're having more than enough success, and fun, bringing plena to receptive crowds elsewhere.

"That's a simple one. I think that success is something that isn't worthwhile if in order to get it you have to become something you're not," says Nunez. "I'm a firm believer in the importance of being truthful to your emotions and your view. It's not worthwhile to achieve mainstream success if you're not truthful to what you are as an artist and a person."

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