With a passion for celebrating Puerto Rican culture, Plena Es specializes in plena and bomba, percussion-driven musical traditions that reflect the island’s African heritage. Based in South Florida, the group performs across the region and serves as the Miami Marlins Pachanga Band. These pleneros have shared the stage with renowned musicians Willie Colón, Tito Puente, Victor Manuelle, and many others.
More about Plena Es
(The following is from an interview HistoryMiami conducted with Pierre Ramos in 2014.)
What is your name and where were you born?
My name is Pierre Ramos, and I was born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico on June 13, 1961.
Where are the other group members from?
David Lucca (Co-Bandleader, Musical Director, Conga) – Puerto Rico
Somar Poveda (Trombone) – Nicaragua
Daniel Lopez (Trombone) – Cuba
Gamalier Reyes (Tumbador) – Puerto Rico
Raul Galimore (Piano) – Panama
Mike Rivera (Bass) – Puerto Rico
When and why did you move to South Florida?
After serving in the U.S. Army, I returned to Puerto Rico and worked there for 7 years. I decided to move back so that my children would be born in the United States and could maintain the English language. My daughter was born in Killeen, Texas and my son in Hilo, Hawaii. I transferred to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and made it my permanent home.
What is the history of plena and bomba music? How are these two traditions related?
The bomba came to Puerto Rico with the African slaves. The island was used by the Spanish as a temporary stop to shorten the distance of the trip between Spain and the Americas. In Puerto Rico, the slaves used the drums to communicate during the night, using different rhythms with different meanings. As the years went by, the rhythms evolved, and the music became bomba.
The plena also has African roots. When America governed Puerto Rico, most of the Puerto Ricans were under extreme poverty, but that did not stop the people on the island. The media was controlled by the Americans at that time, and any news communicated to the community had to be approved by the government. A group of Puerto Ricans came up with the idea of creating a hand drum that was easy to carry, and they walked through the cities playing and singing about politics, religion, neighborhood gossip, and everything that came to mind. That became the people’s newspaper. There are few theories on how the rhythms got the name “plena,” but the town of San Antón in Ponce is known to be the first one to play the rhythms.
“La plena que yo conozco no es de la China ni del Japón, porque la plena viene de Ponce, viene del barrio de San Antón”.
[The plena that I know is not from China nor Japan because the plena that I know comes from Ponce, comes from the neighborhood of San Antón.]
(Song lyric from “La Plena Que Yo Conozco” by Dennis Flores)
In what types of settings are plena and bomba traditionally performed?
The bomba was traditionally played in backyards and private parties. These rhythms were considered to be low-class. The plena then went from being played in the streets, to the town plaza, and finally among high-class Puerto Rican people. There is a myth that plena music is played only during Christmas festivities, but the reality is that the plena is played during all occasions because the lyrics can tell so many stories.
What musical traditions do you practice? Where do you perform them?
I practice all of my traditions, but bomba, plena, and jíbara (music from the mountain regions of Puerto Rico) are my passions. We perform at festivals, concerts, and private parties, and during Christmas time we perform the musica Navideña (Christmas music).
How did you learn to play? Who taught you?
Los Pleneros del Quinto Olivo is one of the bands responsible for keeping plena music strong among Puerto Ricans all over the world. During the 1980s, Eddie Olivo (the founder) and his brother Pepe Olivo, the greatest quinto pandero (hand drum player) in his class, inspired me to get into this music. I went to a lot of their shows, and during that time they were the hottest plena band in Puerto Rico. I was born with the music in me, and I have been dancing salsa since I was 7 years old. I used to play guitar. When I decided to play bomba y plena, I picked up a pandero drum, and I practiced until I created my style. And to this day, I haven’t stopped playing.
Tell me the story of how Plena Es was founded.
After performing with other groups and being a quinto (hand drum) player, singer, and writer, I needed to show all I could do. Juan Carlos Rivera, a tumbador (hand drum) player and singer from the city of Mayagüez, worked with me in these other groups. We decided to gather some friends, started playing, and Plena Es was born. This was in 2004. After my conga player left, David Lucca from the city of Ponce came in with his great talent, adding a different beat to enhance our plena. He quickly became my partner in the Plena Es project.
The name of Plena Es came to me because I love Puerto Rico, my culture, and my music. I wanted the group to have a catchy name, and it was simple. I thought, “Plena Es Puerto Rico” [Plena is Puerto Rico], “Plena Es Mi Tierra” [Plena is My Land], and “Plena Es Mi Gente” [Plena is My People], etc. because plena represents all about the Boricuas [Puerto Ricans]. This is like when Americans say, “America is freedom,” “America is opportunity,” etc. I wanted to make sure that my band name would be used in every sentence, every comment.
Tell me about how the instruments you use are made.
The original panderos are made of wood and goat or cow skin and shaped in different sizes. The biggest is the tumbador, and the medium is the seguidor, followed by the quinto and requinto, the two smallest ones. Different styles and materials have also been used, like fiber glass, metal, PVC pipes, etc., but nothing beats the panderos made of real skin.
What do you all enjoy about playing plena and bomba music?
The music is so up-beat and dynamic that it will move anyone that listens to it. The singer’s interpretation and the lyrics telling those amazing stories are nowhere else to be found. The essence of the instruments, when well-performed, creates such a powerful force that it doesn’t matter where you are from, I bet you will move. There is so much more to tell about these rhythms, that we could spend years talking about them.