Music Review: Give Plena Libre room to dance

Plena Libre, the Grammy-nominated purveyors of Puerto Rican plena music that played at Pepperdine this week. Photo courtesy of SRO Artists, Inc.

The music of Plena Libre, the 10-piece, all-action, Grammy-nominated band that played at Pepperdine University Sunday evening, has a unique effect on a listener. One gets the urge to unbutton one’s prim polo shirt a couple notches at the neck, shout Spanish at the top of one’s lungs and join the shimmying.

Founded in 1994 by bassist Gary Nunez, Plena Libre resurrected and popularized the Puerto Rican folk tradition called plena. Plena is a percussion-driven musical tradition derived from enslaved Africans of the early European colonial period in Puerto Rico of the 17th century, according to the Smithsonian Institute’s Folkways Magazine.

Unlike salsa bands, which usually feature two singers, Plena Libre features four or five vocalists in three- or four-part harmonies, intended to be the musical representation of a community gathering.

The 10-person group features several hand drums similar to tambourines, a scrape gourd, two trombones, a bass guitar (played by founder Gary Nunez), a keyboard as well as timbal drums and conga drums. Reflecting the African folk tradition, much of the music is call and response, so in practice every band member is singing in most every song.

Still, while the style is communal, it must be said the lead vocalist Carlos “Kalie” Villanueva’s voice is simply electric.

Plena lyrics are often narratives, as Nunez explained to the crowd in English, telling stories about a flirtatious glance exchanged and never consummated, an angry father you better watch out for, the loneliness that sets in after lost love – there were other subjects, but they never got to them, at least on Sunday.

Because the music is designed to get people to dance, the venue hindered Plena Libre’s performance. Pepperdine’s Smothers’ Theatre is an indoor auditorium with assigned seating, which makes it difficult to get up and move around.

Not that Plena Libre didn’t try. On two occasions, Nunez and his group succeeded in getting the approximately 100 middle-aged, decidedly non-Latin attendees to get up and make an effort at two-stepping in their closely prescribed space. For these songs, the energy of the Puerto Rican group rose noticeably on stage as they fed off the crowd. Here’s to hoping Plena Libre comes back to Pepperdine, hopefully at an outdoor venue where concert-goers can dance and get into the music as it’s meant to be experienced.