The four-time Grammy-nominated ensemble band Plena Libre graced Smothers Theatre Sunday for their first performance at Pepperdine University. The event was unlike any other musical performance, filled with educational tidbits, audience involvement and, of course, the beautiful music of Puerto Rico.
The band’s frontman Gary Nunez formed Plena Libre in 1994 with the intention to expand the world’s knowledge of Puerto Rican music.
“I had been Studying Puerto Rican folklore [for] 40 years, [when] I realized that there are many Puerto Rican people known around the world … people knew about Puerto Rico but they didn’t know where Puerto Rico was, they didn’t know about the culture … they didn’t know about our music … the easiest rhythm to open a gateway was going to be plena … I started the group with that purpose … it was a way to open doors for people to know Puerto Rican music,” Nunez said.
Nunez is a graduate from the University of Puerto Rico and a graduate (magna cum laude) from the Music Conservatory of Puerto Rico. He is also a self-taught bass player and is knowledgeable of other instruments including the drums, guitar, and vibraphone. Nunez serves as the band’s music director, composer and bassist, playing the latter role on the four-string double bass. While many people think Puerto Rican music consists only of salsa, the small Caribbean island has also been at the forefront of a variety of other styles. The plena style was created in the slums (barrios) of Puerto Rico during the early 20th century. It is a fusion of African, Spanish and Caribbean sounds that is very easy to dance to.
Plena Libre infuses the plena and bomba styles as well as incorporating jazz, merengue, cumbia and mambo beats. The band consists of 12 members with “five vocalists singing in lush three- and four-part harmonies.”
In between some of their hits, Nunez educated the audience Sunday night about the plena music and the mission of plena Libre. The band has broken cultural barriers around the world with their rhythms and judgment-free dance environment. Nunez expressed his aim to welcome people from all walks of life to learn more about the music and traditional culture of Puerto Rico.
“I was mindful of the English-speaking people (in the audience) as well as Latinos. I’m glad they are there because they are my people, but the other audiences that are from different cultures, that makes me happy because they are people who are willing to be open to a new experience,” Nunez said.
Throughout the concert, the band encouraged audience interaction through dance, at times instructing certain dance steps to follow for those who were hesitant to move.
When asked why they take this approach, Nunez said, “First of all we want them to have a good time. Having a good time … is always good. When you’re having a good time, you’re more receptive to learn; things stick to you when you are relaxed. When they walk out, what I expect them to feel is that they had a good time and they learned something.”
Besides their four Grammy nominations, Plena Libre has been recognized and loved all over the world. They have toured in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Denmark, England, Belgium, Africa, Malaysia, Canada and various places in the United States. They have also performed at the Mid-Summer Festival at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, the Toronto Jazz Festival, California World Music Festival, The Latino Music Festival and many more events.
Plena Libre transcends generations and cultures because of their approach to music and education. “The whole trick about the thing is to learn to respect the next guy; it doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything … as long as there is respect and you are working for a common goal which is peace and goodness and being human, you will be able to work together while maintaining your differences … to create a better world,” Nunez said.
While at Pepperdine, the band also performed for local elementary schools as a part of Pepperdine’s ARTSReach Program. This program, supported by the Center for the Arts Guild, sponsors free arts experience for children from Ventura and the inner-city Los Angeles area. The schools at Plena Libre’s performance include Riverside Drive and Canyon Charter Elementary, YES Academy and Thurgood Marshall School.
After 18 years and 13 albums, Plena Libre is continuing their work to share Puerto Rican music and culture around the world. “Plena Libre was the first folklore group to be nominated for the Grammys; it never happened before. First of all, as an artist, I’m proud of being recognized … but what made me really proud was that it opened the gate for the music of Puerto Rico to be heard outside of Puerto Rico … After we got the first three nominations there were other nominations for other plena groups… I got to open that space … and then it’s our responsibility to keep it open. “
To learn more about Plena Libre and future tour dates, check out their website at Plenalibre.com