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Plena Libre 

Mas Libre (Rykodisc)

The majority of the Hispanic population in Northeast Ohio has its roots in Puerto Rico, which has been a U.S. commonwealth for over a century, but retains its Spanish- and African-derived culture. The island's most well-known folk music form is the plena, which often contains topical lyrics and employs hand drums called panderos. Plena has survived in an updated form due to the efforts of Plena Libre, a San Juan-based group that has developed a following not only in Puerto Rico, but in Latino communities in the States, and has even gained some international attention.

The basic group here contains not only a vocalist and rhythm section, but also a trombone section, and in that respect it is reminiscent of Manny Oquendo's popular Libre band. A number of guest artists also appear, including trumpeter Charlie Sepulveda, pianist Papo Luca, and vocalist Juan "El Canario" Alberto. The arrangements are tight and the performances spirited and clean. Though the plena originated in Puerto Rico, the music of Plena Libre has a strong Cuban influence, which is evident in the vocal harmonies and the exchanges between the lead singer and vocal chorus. If you understand Spanish or read the English translations provided in the booklet here, you'll find that some of the lyrics are amusing too. During "Somos Diferentes" the singer notes that his girlfriend digs romantic ballads, while he digs more jumping music. He remarks, "If she takes away my Plena Libre/There's just no way/And no matter how much I love her/ I'll go back to my rumba and plena." The selections are taken at medium and fast tempos, and are eminently danceable as well as listenable.

More by Harvey Pekar

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