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Although transnational, contemporary, and based on the Cuban son, salsa is often assumed to be Puerto Rico's national song. Enter Plena Libre, purveyors of Puerto Rican pride and promoters of plena, a traditional Boricua music style that remains little-known to mainstream audiences outside the island of Borinquen.
"We'd really like to share this secret that we Puerto Ricans have kept to ourselves," says Plena Libre leader Gary Nuñez. "It's time to take it out and share it with other people and other cultures -- and why not have a hell of a time doing it?"
That's been Plena Libre's mission since 1994, when Nuñez, a seasoned bass player, composer, and arranger, founded Plena Libre to spearhead a plena renaissance and just make some great dance music. Mi Ritmo, the thirteen-piece band's heady followup to its Grammy-nominated disc Mas Libre, expands the boundaries of plena by emphasizing flavor over folklore.
Born as country music at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, when it was played on tambourine-like panderetas, plena is the most Spanish of Puerto Rican roots rhythms. Like Cuban guajira music, the anecdotal lyrics of plena troubadours created a running commentary on daily life. Plena's popularity decreased in the Sixties, when offices of multinational labels that ignored the insular genre replaced Puerto Rican record companies, and the radio waves were taken over by mainland pop music, then salsa.
"Plena kind of went underground," says Nuñez, who is 50 years old. "It died out commercially but the rhythm didn't die out. When Puerto Rican people get together to have fun they still play plena -- whatever song it is, they sing it in the rhythm of plena. We formed Plena Libre to bring plena back in a major way."
Nuñez, whose goal is to make traditional Puerto Rican rhythms accessible to younger generations "and the whole world," reinvented the music with jazzy arrangements, salsified horns, electric guitar, and catchy choruses.
"Plena is happier than Cuban rhythms," Nuñez notes, "and it's easier to dance to than salsa." Making it a natural for international audiences. Appealing to a wide range of listeners was a priority for Nuñez on the Mi Ritmotracks, which were written and recorded over the past year. "This is a product of our experience traveling on tour to the States, Europe, and Asia," the bandleader says. "It was important to deliver not only what Puerto Rico expects from us but what international audiences are looking for in Plena Libre."
Highlights include Eddie Palmieri's solo on "Plena,Plena,Plena," which the piano monster also wrote. Rockero Millo Torres and master percussionist Angel "Cachete" Maldonado join other all-star Puerto Rican guests on the album. Among the infectious arrangements is "Olandera," incorporating Puerto Rican Afrobeat bomba rhythms that Nuñez tinged with Latin jazz. Relentlessly upbeat, Mi Ritmohas enough intricacy to make it engaging all the way through. There's not a bum song on the album.
"The rhythm has to be very clear," Nuñez stresses. "That's what the people will respond to on this album. The idea is that the rhythm section is really working and the choruses not only say something, but they have the kind of melody that people can catch on to quite fast.
"And of course that they can dance to it," he adds. "Dancing is the key to getting our message across."