On Thursday night, the Center for Foreign Languages, Literatures & Cultures (CFLLC) brought the Puerto Rican music ensemble Los Pleneros de la 21 to Greylock for a night of music and dance. Founded in 1983 in New York’s Spanish Harlem, Los Pleneros de la 21 seeks to educate audiences about the diverse and unique musical traditions of Puerto Rico and the island’s African and Creole heritage.
The group performs both the bomba style of music, which traces its roots to slaves who would sing of rebellion, and plena, which grew from bomba in southern Puerto Rico in the 20th century to take on more political or satirical commentary as a complement to the musical artistry itself.
The event at the College was a great opportunity for students to be exposed to new types of cultural expression. Faculty and staff from the CFLLC “like to highlight the different cultures of the Spanish-speaking world, and music is a great vehicle for this,” the CFLLC Administrative Director Jane Canova said.
Unlike traditional or typical concerts held at the College by invited guest performers, the chairs set up for the audience in the performance space proved to be wholly unnecessary. Many professors and teaching assistants from the foreign language departments were present and danced for the duration of the show, while across the aisle, over a dozen students danced alone and in pairs, taking advantage of the rare opportunity in Williamstown to enjoy live Latin music.
“We were very pleased with the turnout, mostly students, at such a busy time of the semester,” Canova said. But more impressive yet, in my experience at the concert, was the audience enthusiasm. As Canova put it, “it was great to see how the musicians, singers and dancers all connected with each other and the audience. We, the audience, were immediately drawn into dancing by the beat of the drums, and a few brave souls even tried a few bomba moves.”
As a communal form of performance, the group encouraged such participation through dance to keep the true spirit of musical styles. Personally, I loved seeing Latin dance steps that I haven’t usually seen or done at College events and shows.
While the group was invited to specifically perform bomba music, Los Pleneros de la 21, in keeping with their name, rounded out their performance with a playful plena-style song about pride for the island of Puerto Rico. The style was distinguished from earlier bomba by the use of the panderata, a round hand drum that was the opening solo and focal point of the song.
In addition to playing concerts around the world, Los Pleneros de la 21 are committed to passing on the traditions of bomba and plena, teaching classes and community workshops across New York. We were fortunate to have a chance to see them live here at the College, contributing to the astounding diversity of experiences available to us any day of the week, anywhere one looks. I hope the CFLLC organizes more events like this in the near future.
Canova agreed that the concert was a success, worth noting when planning future programming. “It was a joyful evening of Puerto Rican music and dance,” she said, “and we need more events of this kind at Williams.”