STORY WRITTTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON
For Digital First Media
A piece of Puerto Rico is coming to Philadelphia. The 12-piece ensemble Plena Libre brings its hard-hitting horns, master hand drummers, and song and dance from the island to the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on April 25. The four-time Grammy nominated group is excited to return to the City of Brotherly Love.
“We have great respect for Philadelphia, for the artists that city created,” said ensemble founder and bassist Gary Nuñez. “And we respect all the history that Philly has.”
Plena Libre’s history: they’ve been making music for more than 20 years, including 15 albums and concerts around the world. National Geographic credited them (along with Puerto Rican artists Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, and Jennifer Lopez) in “spearheading the Latin invasion of American popular music.”
Though the group’s music includes other rhythms and styles, focusing on plena (music, chant, and dance native to Ponce, Puerto Rico) and bomba (a traditional Puerto Rican style that mixes the Spanish, African, and Taino cultures) was key for Nuñez.
“Those rhythms are important in musical history of Puerto Rico,” he said.
The group is influenced by Africa and the Caribbean, including lots of drumming and rhythms of salsa, merengue, and samba. The harmonies also reflect and are reminiscent of jazz.
“It’s a mix,” Nuñez said.
But the focus remains on the sounds of Puerto Rico, and high-voltage performance.
“It’s a very energetic show. We create an energy cycle between the band and the people of the audience,” Nuñez said. “Our show is for people to enjoy, not just to sit there and listen. If you want to do that, you can just sit and listen. At some point, you’re going to react. The music will get inside you and you’ll react to that.”
And that makes the experience even more fun for the members of the group. Keeping their energy up to share with the audience isn’t difficult, he said.
“We are very focused on what we’re doing,” he said. “The music takes care of the rest.”
Nuñez grew up in a family of music lovers and loved music all of his life.
“I hear as much as I can,” he said. “I just listen and try to understand what people are doing.”
From the time he was a boy, his tastes have been varied. Nuñez likes classical music, including Beethoven and Bartok. He loves rock and roll. He also has been influenced by some of the greatest musicians of all time: Tito Puente, Miles Davis, and especially John Coltrane. The legendary jazz musician confused Nuñez when he was younger, though.
“At first I didn’t like it, didn’t understand it,” he said. “Then pop — all of a sudden, like a light bulb going off, I loved it.”
One of the things that helped him to love it was learning more about Coltrane’s experiences.
“It was very different, a cultural thing,” he said.
And Plena Libre helps listeners to understand their culture and in turn their music.
“To be able to understand the experience is also a part of our music,” he said. “You have to try to understand a bit where we’re coming from, our culture, our people, our history.”
Some things, however, don’t need to be explained.
“People have talked about music being the universal language. When Plena Libre got out of Puerto Rico and started traveling around the world, then I really understood what that saying was,” he said.
The group sings in Spanish, but music is universal.
“Music is music. It appeals to emotions. It doesn’t matter what language you speak,” he said. “Emotion is what gets you through. That is common to all human beings, animals, plants. The emotion gets across and that’s the important thing.”
It’s also important to Nuñez that people have fun.
“Bring a friend. Come with an open mind. That’s the only requirement,” he said. “We hope that people have a great time and enjoy themselves. We surely will. We don’t want to do that alone.”
IF YOU GO
What: Plena Libre
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, April 25.
Where: Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 3680 Walnut St., Philadelphia.
Tickets: $20-$60. Call (215) 898-3900 or visit www.annenbergcenter.org.
Info.: Visit www.plenalibre.com; @ on Twitter