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Still Beating: A Bronx Festival Celebrates Centuries-Old Puerto Rican Rhythms

by Carol Cooper

Every two years since launching at Hostos College in 2000, the BomPlenazo festival has come to the South Bronx to celebrate Puerto Rico's traditions of bomba and plena music. Through concerts, dance, film, and master workshops, New Yorkers experience firsthand how the twin art forms can create and empower communities. This year's edition (October 6-9) adopts a theme of "Between Generations," setting longtime masters alongside younger players for a dialogue that spans decades.

"I see my generation of performers as a bridge between the elder practitioners in their seventies and the millennial kids," says 48-year-old Héctor "Tito" Matos, a plenero (plena musician) of the San Juan-based group Viento de Agua. "Our elders didn't do teaching workshops or street corner encounters -- it wasn't their way. But my generation [wanted] to democratize the way people interacted with our music."

Matos, who performs in a Saturday-afternoon showcase, is one of many artists attempting to re-establish bomba and plena performance as a collective public activity within the Puerto Rican diaspora. Bomba began this way in the seventeenth century, among enslaved Africans, as a communal way to shake off the psychological devastation of slavery and oppression. Plena, an offshoot that emerged in the early twentieth century, became a political tool of working-class rebellion, as well as a way to cope with life's daily frustrations.

As folk arts, both have been influenced by pop music over the decades. There were upscale, big-band versions in the 1930s that subtly gentrified music initially created as a form of resistance. In the '50s and '60s, influenced by American civil rights protests and rising activism within the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, Rafael Cortijo and other luminaries reversed this trend by performing more traditional-sounding songs that specifically identified their protagonists as black. But by the 1970s, the commercial dominance of Afro-Cuban styles like mambo and rhumba pushed plena and bomba to the background, where they were assigned token appearances on salsa albums. Recognizing the possibility that these styles might be lost entirely, the government designated specific families of "folklore preservationists" to continue the tradition. Today, few bomberos and pleneros specialize; instead, they learn to master both genres, to better strengthen them.

One of these dual practitioners is Juan "Juango" Gutiérrez, who in 1983 founded Los Pleneros de la 21, a Spanish Harlem-based nonprofit that teaches bomba and plena to local Puerto Ricans and has a performance group that tours the U.S. He and his youngest daughter, Julia Gutiérrez-Rivera, will perform together in the BomPlenazo Artists Collective on Saturday night, the anchoring event of the festival. Gutiérrez-Rivera was named the artistic coordinator for BomPlenazo this year and remembers how, in 2003, her father's plena "La Isla Nena" became a rallying anthem for a grassroots campaign to expel the U.S. naval base from Vieques; years of military occupation on the island, off Puerto Rico's eastern coast, had brought environmental and economic damage. "Plenas have traditionally been the voice of disenfranchised communities who don't have access to broader media outlets," she says. "So when all of these students were protesting at the height of the Vieques controversy, it was expected that plena songs would come around to capture what was going on."

While plena serves as the voice of the common people, bomba is a healing form of self-expression that often uses no words at all. The music and its accompanying dance are inextricable: There are sixteen traditional rhythms in bomba, each associated with a signature basic step; the best bomba dancers know all of these by heart. "The dynamics of the dance are very interesting," explains Oxil Febles, a lifelong practitioner who will teach a bomba class at BomPlenazo on Friday evening. "There is an understanding that what I do with my body will be reflected in the music. There is a protocol."

In other words, rhythms can evoke, trigger, or release a mood: Whenever a dancer leaves the common circle to "speak" to the drums, they improvise gestures to convey fleeting emotions. The main drummer in the group listens intently, anticipating and mirroring the dancer's movements in a rhythmic echo. It's this intimate rapport between dancer and drummer that makes a bomba performance so riveting, drawing the audience into the conversation. "There is an energy being built among all the people involved in the bombazo, whether they are singing, playing, or dancing," says Febles. "It's like a unifying psychic energy is released."

That experience of catharsis comes from bomba's roots in slavery and hard labor, but contemporary practitioners see plenty of parallels today. Matos points out that many of Puerto Rico's hip-hop and reggaetón artists are from blue-collar communities, the same kinds of places in which bomba and plena thrive. Some of them, including stars like Tego Calderón and Ivy Queen, reference bomba and plena rhythms in their chart-topping singles. "Younger people are coming into this tradition now with a beautiful energy," Matos says.

That leaves longtime practitioners hopeful about the future of bomba and plena, which flourish only when new generations can connect to the genres' deeper, universal meaning. "[The] purpose of this music is to build a positive, empowering communal energy," says Febles. "That hasn't changed in five hundred years."

Published in: Village Voice, October 5, 2016