Album Review: La Máquina Insular – Somos La Plena [Vampisoul, 8th April 2016]

It is undeniable that the 2016 single by La Máquina Insular pays tribute to Rafael Cortijo, the Puerto Rican orchestra leader and composer, who was renowned (and remains renowned) as an advocate of the plena. In 7-minutes, this Vampisoul’s Saoco series single lifts the spirit and tradition of Puerto Rican street music of the middle of the last century.

This vintage edition is an homage to the most important pleneros (plena musicians) of the 1950s and 1960s, whose roots can be found more than a century back. This stimulating and powerful chant and dance music is embodied by the vitality of basic instrumentation. This is symbol of spontaneity, simplicity, and virtuosity.

The recognised virtuoso Héctor ‘Tito’ Matos leads his plena group, sings and plays his guiro made of a gourd scraped by a metallic brush. The guiro provides an almost continuous drone. This is followed by four-different sized tambourines played by Luis ‘Lagarto’ Figueroa, Erik Noel Rosado, Guillermo ‘Willie’ Cubero, and Joksan ‘Joko’ Ramos. The sound of the panderos triggers a frenzied atmosphere. The clarinet, played by Ricardo Pons, has an improvised character and acts as a countermelody and dialogue with the singing.

“Somos la plena” (We’re the plena) is a direct praise of Cortijo and his contemporaries. This was written by Tito Matos, who actually sing it. The lyrics refer to the tradition, flavour, reinvention, places, and vigour of the genre. “Ven a bailar” (Come to dance) was written by Rafael Cepeda, known as ‘the patriarch of the bomba and plena.’ This is sung by Luis ‘Lagarto’ Figueroa. This piece is an invitation to dance plena with sensuality and provocative body movements.