Bomba, Plena, Salsa, and Son from the Island of Enchantment
However unlikely it might have seemed, the music of the Spanish Caribbean has found its way again onto the radio and into the mainstream. Who can be unaware of Puerto Rican artists like Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, and Jennifer Lopez, the most popular musicians in the recent Latin music explosion. This triumvirate has been the leader of the Latin pop music boom and successfully crossed over into major radio play. There’s no denying their music has a broad appeal. I returned home once to find my husband, a devotee of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, enthusiastically captivated by a Marc Anthony performance on TV. Puerto Rican music gently worms its way under your skin. The common ground for Ricky, Marc, and Jennifer (and so, for us) is the traditional music of their homeland, Puerto Rico.
“Bomba, Plena, Salsa, and Son” gives a good indication of where some of this music comes from. This record showcases the Latin rhythms as they are played in Puerto Rico. For my untrained ear, the Puerto Rican interpretation is a gentler treatment of Latin rhythms. Even the salsa is less bombastic than what we’re accustomed to hearing as “salsa” but a vigorous and enticing form, especially “Café” as brewed up by the legendary Eddie Palmieri. On the other songs, though there is use of brass, the trumpets are many times muted for a softer sound. Several of the songs here feature good use of the clarinet, an instrument you can only hear in the more temperate Latin stylings. Because of this gentleness, it’s as though every individual percussion sound is distinguishable, which allows the listener to follow and better partake of the richness of these complex polyrhythms. You can easily hear the rhythm shifts that make Latin music so friendly about being dropped in to other forms of music.
Every track on Puerto Rico has appeal. If I have to pick one, the showstopper for me was a taste of musica jibara, the country music of Puerto Rico. “Seis Milonguero” as performed by Edwin Colon Zayas is nearly enchantment. Sr. Zayas is a virtuoso on the cuatro, a small guitar-like instrument from South America with four (“cuatro”) sets of paired strings. Here, the song is a “seis,” one of the forms of jibara. The seis here is sung in a visceral and passionate style, the words a breathtaking lyricism. The popular plena mixes the singing style of the rural jibaros with Afro-Caribbean percussion. The plena is well represented here by the gifted composer Pepe Castillo. For bomba and son, I encourage you to get the disc and have fun figuring them out.
I’ve been flirting with Putumayo for awhile, but now they’re starting to win my heart. Even though many times the company seems to mix in what I see as an academic approach to the music, that can work well sometimes. After all, if people like the music they’re listening to, of course they’ll want to learn more about where it comes from. Putumayo helps ease the way and includes liner notes in both Spanish and English. If you want to hear more traditional Puerto Rican music on the radio, with a visit to Putumayo’s website you’ll find a list of the radio stations and Internet stations that broadcast “world music.”
I’m still coming to terms with the idea of “world music.” What I like about Putumayo is many times they use the phrase “the world’s music.”