Rhythm of the Pleneros: Paulina Guerrero’s Plena Doc at U Street Music Hall
Before Virginia band Bio Ritmo’s salsa gig at U Street Music Hall Saturday night, folklorist Paulina Guerrero will show her work-in-progress documentary, A Story of Plena. Plena is a Puerto Rican genre in which participants engage in call-and-response chants over funky rhythms tapped on large tambourine-like instruments and on guiros, or hollowed-out gourds. For her documentary, Guerrero filmed plena musicians participating in San Juan’s Saint Sebastian Street Festival. I asked Guerrero some questions via e-mail.
WCP: Was seeing plena at the Smithsonian Folklife Fest your first involvement with it?
Paula Guerrero: The first time I saw bomba y plena was when I worked at the Folklife Festival and watched a group called Viento de Agua. I had been an avid salsa fan for years and years, and had even done research about the beginnings of salsa in New York in the early 20th century after the Puerto Rican and Cuban migration. But plena hooked into me pretty quick. Not just the songs, but the way the pleneros performed. It was really different for me than the rest of the acts I had seen at the Folklife Festival. There were so many amazing musicians in all the music groups that year, but there was a relevancy to plena that drew me in. Sometimes with folk-music genres they remain beautiful but don't evolve over time or make a connection to the present day. Plena does that by making commentary on current events or relaying subversive messages that you don't hear in mainstream media. There are certainely other music genres that do that. The Mexican corrido and hip-hop are great examples; blues and country music used to, but in my opinion not so much anymore. I'm happy to have someone prove me wrong on that, though.
So plena at the Folklife Festival was for me a brief little glimpse into this whole world I really knew very little about.
WCP: Are you Puerto Rican? Grow up there?
PG: I'm not Puerto Rican. My father was from Spain and my mother is from the U.S.—the Midwest. My brother and I were born in Italy and we moved to the states when I was very little. My parents were sort of hippie artists.
WCP: Is the movie filmed all in Puerto Rico?
PG: Yes. Specifically mostly in Old San Juan and some in Mayaguez.
WCP: Will it be longer than 28 minutes if you get funding?
Guerrero: Maybe. Mostly, I wanted to tell just one little story of this whole world that I got to peek into. It would be impossible to try and encompass what plena is, means, has done, and where it comes from in just a half hour, much less an hour, two hours, or three. There are people in San Juan who are making their own documentaries like some of the plenero musicians that I interviewed. It would be great to have my documentary short, maybe start a broader interest in plena, and have the funding and the crew to really do it right. To really collaborate with the plenero community to make a whole series. Almost an equivalent of some of the documentary series that have been done about rock 'n' roll. That is my personal fantasy.
WCP: Does it focus on specific plena musicians?
PG: Yes, mostly musicians Juan Martinez and Hector "Tito" Matos from Viento de Agua, and also a plenero master named Ismael Cocolay Rivera. There are other great musicians as well that you get to see perform, and an all too short interview with Joe Medina and and Prof. Edwin Albino Pluegues. I also got an amazing interview with an artisan/high school teacher named Jose Cruz Candelaria that really spoke to a lot of the themes I kept hearing about identity and community.
WCP: Do you have a crew helping you film? People you know from school or elsewhere working on this?
PG: When I was filming the first time I had two friends come down to help me. The second time I was mostly filming on my own, with some help from friends down there. In post-production I've gotten great amount support from different organizations, my graduate school [George Mason], and amazing friends and family. So no official crew, just a great network of friendships and support.
WCP: Will you show it at film fests on completion?
PG: Absolutely. I look forward to showing this at film fests and getting feedback and questions.
“A Story of Plena” screens at 8 p.m. Saturday prior to a performance by Bio Ritmo at U Street Music Hall, 1115 U St. NW. $8. (202) 588-1880.