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Making Things Plena

A Profile of Gary Nuñez of Plena Libre

by John Child (

John Child spoke to Plena Libre's leader, bassist, composer, arranger and producer, Gary Nuñez, after the band's high energy UK debut gig at London's Jazz Café in March. John found Gary to be an impressive advocate of the promotion and development of Puerto Rican musical traditions, a cause he has dedicated himself to for the last 28 years.

Plena Libre were coming to the end of their first European tour to promote their RykoLatino releases Juntos y Revueltos and Plena Libre when I met the band's founder Gary Nuñez. How had the tour been going? "We've been very pleased with the response we've been getting," he enthuses. "Surprised and very pleased bearing in mind we are playing plena and not the traditional Latin music audiences are accustomed to. We were apprehensive every time we went on stage, but audiences have been so beautiful. We've really been enjoying the tour."

The idea for Plena Libre emerged from popular jam sessions involving a set of Gary's friends in clubs. The first six months of the band's history was packed with over 90 dates and the recording of their debut album Juntos y Revueltos (1994 on A&F; reissued on RykoLatino in 1999). Juntos y Revueltos was issued in the run-up to Christmas 1994 and quickly entered the CD chart of leading Puerto Rican music magazine Farándula , selling over 20,000 copies on the island alone. The album spawned the hit single "El Party," the first plena to chart in Puerto Rico in over 15 years. Their 1995 follow-up !Cógelo Que Ahí Te Vá! on SJ Music included the hit "El Celular." In 1996 and 1997 they were nominated for a Farándula award in the Best Plena Group category. In 1998 their fourth album, De Parranda (1997) on Peer, was nominated for a Farándula award in the Best Plena Album category. "This was my first Christmas album," explains Gary, "which we did for ourselves in Puerto Rico. It was very well received. We sold a lot of records and one of the critics described it as a classic Christmas album." The following year the band's debut on RykoLatino, Plena Libre (1998), garnered a Farándula award for Best Plena Album Of The Year.

Gary was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, in 1952. He lived his early childhood in Cataño, a small town across the bay from the island's capital, San Juan, and was then raised in the metropolitan area of Río Piedras. He began studying piano at four years of age with a teacher in Santurce. "She used to give me piano lessons with cookies," remembers Gary. "So my love of music started very early." He attended two private colleges in Río Piedras. "I was fired from the first one," he comments and then laughs. "From there I went to the University of Puerto Rico, where I studied psychology major with minors in music and politics. That's where I got my first harmony and music history classes. Then I did two years at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Some years later I also graduated from Puerto Rico's Conservatory of Music."

I asked about the instruments he played and how he came to switch from piano to bass. "Around 13 I started drum lessons. Then I went into guitar, which I learnt on my own. Then I played some vibraphone and Latin percussion, experimenting until I found my real voice on the bass instrument. I had four or five bass teachers, but mostly I'm a self taught musician." What band was he playing with at that stage? "I started leading a band of close friends when I was 14. We used to do a mix of Latin music with rock."

At the early age of 20 Gary had a definitive vision of his intended career path. "In 1972 my spirit was already mature and I made a clear decision that I was going to devote my professional career as a musician to the development of Puerto Rican music." He started digging into his musical roots and in 1975 he organised and began directing Moliendo Vidrio (meaning: Grinding Glass) for the next 18 years. "They became one of the most important groups in the new song movement. These were songs with a social content. It became a very big movement within which Moliendo Vidrio helped rediscover one of Puerto Rico's most important instruments: the cuatro. A 10-string short guitar with a sound close to the 12-string guitar but a bit higher in pitch. Now today we have so many fine cuatro players." Gary played cuatro as well as bass and vibraphone on Moliendo Vidrio's first album. After playing the instrument again on two cuts of the band's second album, he handed the cuatro over to another performer so he could concentrate on the bass.

Moliendo Vidrio's dedication to promoting Puerto Rican music was inextricably connected to the struggle for independence from US political and cultural domination of the island. In 1979 they performed at a rally to welcome the return of four Puerto Rican "independence fighters" who had been released from jail in the US after 29 years imprisonment. A brief excerpt of their performance was included in Jeremy Marre's influential TV film Salsa, commissioned for ITV's arts series The South Bank Show. The film, which featured Charlie Palmieri, Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Willie Colón, Rubén Blades and others, represented a milestone in creating interest in authentic Latin music in the UK. Salsa was subsequently rebroadcast on Channel 4 in 1985 as part of Marre's series of world music films, Beats Of The Heart, and released on video in the US by Shanachie (Salsa: Latin Pop Music Scene).

I was curious how the salsa boom raging in New York and Puerto Rico during the 1970s impacted on Moliendo Vidrio. "The way I related to that was according to my position as a musician and as a Puerto Rican. I took the very strong influences of salsa music that was happening around the world and used it to develop a new approach to Puerto Rican music. For example, Moliendo Vidrio got a bigger sound. In the beginning it was cuatro and some flutes, and then it became bigger and bigger until it was really a full brass section with a combination of two trumpets, trombone, tenor sax and flute and a full rhythm section. But I showcased the cuatro instrument in the orchestra and I played the bomba and plena rhythms. Moliendo Vidrio became like a symbol of how my musical knowledge and interests were growing. So what happened was that even though I was being influenced and I admire all these guys like Eddie Palmieri, who is one of my favourites, and Puente, and arrangers like René Hernández. What I was doing was taking these influences and developing a richer Puerto Rican sound and not a New York sound or a Cuban sound."

Gary made five albums with Moliendo Vidrio, including two with the major Alhambra International label whose roster included Julio Iglesias at the time. "The first two albums were very experimental," he explains. "Especially the second one, which had strong jazz and descarga influences. On the third album, La Fiesta , I explored the possibilities of the cuatro. I used cuatros like a brass section with harmonies for three or four cuatros and counterpoint. It featured some tunes by Tite Curet Alonso. For the next album, El Hosco , we used young composers to convert short stories by Abelardo Díaz Alfaro into songs. After that we did an album based on one of the most important composers of Latin music, the Puerto Rican Rafael Hernández (El Jibarito)."

His falling-out with Alhambra International turned out to be a blessing in disguise. "I asked for my release," explains Gary, "and they held out for about two years and a half. From then on necessity opened a new door for me. I became one of the first young independent producers in Puerto Rico. And the rest of the Moliendo Vidrio albums were produced independently by myself. This then became a very important trend in Puerto Rico. Actually the first recording we did with Plena Libre in 1994 was an independently produced record. Plena Libre has produced three of its seven records alone."

He took a couple of years off after deciding to end the Moliendo Vidrio project in around 1992. "I took a break from leading because the director thing is a very demanding job when you're not only directing but also arranging, composing and working in all sides of the business." During his respite he participated in a couple of Puerto Rican oriented jazz projects. "I also directed Ismael Rivera Jr.'s band somewhere around '92, '93. I started as a sideman and then I got into directing the band and doing some arranging. Ismael is a very close friend of mine. I really love him. At that point he was not recording, but he was doing gigs. So he was kind enough to invite me into his band." So this close friendship gives him a link with the tradition that came through Cortijo and Rivera? "Yes, yes. Besides my admiration for those guys, it was a real pleasure playing with Maelito. I got a chance to play Javier Vázquez's original arrangements for Ismael Rivera Sr., which are great! Javier did that perfect combination of trumpet, alto sax and trombone to accompany Ismael's singing. I have never heard such a nice sound and swing. I think it's great. Rafy Cortijo was also playing in that band. They are very close friends. I love them very much."

I ask whether plena exponent Mon Rivera's use of the all trombone sound on his legendary 1963 Alegre album Que Gente Averigua and mid-'60s trio of albums on Ansonia had been a factor in his choice of a trombone frontline when he organised Plena Libre in 1994. "Mon Rivera is closer to us because of his collaboration with Willie Colón in the '70s (the album There Goes The Neighborhood/ Se Chavó El Vecindario '75 on Vaya)," responds Gary. "Picking up on Mon when his career had died down is one of the greatest contributions Willie Colón ever made to Latin music. Mon also has to be credited for having the first Latin band with a brass section made up of trombones. However my decision was based not so much on the style but on getting a strong sound behind a strong rhythm section. See, we have congas, three panderos, a timbal, a güiro and bells and all that type of stuff. So I needed a strong brass section which was not that many people. Then I decided, let's do this with trombones, which is a big round sound that can carry the load of so much percussion in front. Actually it was an experiment for me because I've never done arrangements for only trombones. Also the trombone is a very peculiar instrument: it can be loud and noisy and it can also make a beautiful melody when you require it. So it became a really good discovery for me. I just followed my instinct on that one."

Gary introduces me to Rafy Torres, one of Puerto Rico's leading trombonists currently playing in Plena Libre's three-piece 'bone section: "He's one of the beautiful things we have on this tour." "I used to play with Eddie and Charlie Palmieri," says Rafy. "Now I play plena, the folkloric music of Puerto Rico, and that is very important for me."

Did he regret leaving the cuatro behind for the time being? "No. I think it was like Moliendo Vidrio, it had a time, it had a purpose, and the objective was achieved. So then it was time for me to move on and find some other goals to work for and some inspiration in other types of work. At this point in Puerto Rico there are so many young cuatro players who are really very good. So 25 years later - even after 15 years of Moliendo Vidrio in Puerto Rico - young cuatro players were really going into the instrument and studying. The instrument was getting the exposure and respect that I, as a Puerto Rican, think it deserved. So it wasn't a priority anymore.'

Where had he drawn Plena Libre's musicians from and what were their backgrounds? For instance, I tell Gary that I remember seeing singer and percussionist Giovanni Lugo credited as a co-lead vocalist on Bobby Valentín's albums Como Nunca (1990) and 25 Aniversario del Rey del Bajo (1991) on Bronco. He talks with pride about the band's stability and mixture of seasoned and raw personnel: "From the nine-piece band Plena Libre were at the beginning, we've still got five original members six years later, which is quite an accomplishment in the way this business works. What I've got in this band is a combination of fresh talent with experienced musicians. It's a round-up of new blood, bringing their influences, being guided and directed a little bit by us, the older folks. Some of the new musicians coming on this tour have been playing with us for up to four months. For example, Rubén Román, one of the singers tonight, comes after recording the album Café Con Leche y Dos de Azucar (1996 on RMM) with Luis "Perico" Ortiz. The other singer, the young kid, Gabriel, is only 20 years old and he is learning the trade right now from the other cats. The third singer, Victor Múñiz, has been with us for almost four years. Victor has a big tradition in the plena thing. He's one of guys young kids look up to as a plena singer. He sang with many plena groups in Puerto Rico before joining us, and was doing almost nothing at the time I called him. As a leader I want my singers to feature in certain specific ways, ranging from the sonero side provided by Rubén, to traditional plena which Victor brings, to the young guy, which is Gabriel at this point.'

How does he relate to contemporary salsa, the Victor Manuelle's and Frankie Negrón's of this world? Gary begins with a throaty laugh: "In most cases I respect their talent. This is not strictly a Latin phenomenon, it's a big company phenomenon. It also happens with Plena Libre. Big companies have such big budgets and have to make such big compromises in order to keep filling up with money. Actually, it's very hard for them to try new formulas. Sergio George created a sound and then everybody is going that way. It's selling records but musically speaking there is very little identity. You've got to wait for someone to open their mouth and then you know who's singing. Whether it's Victor Manuelle, DLG or Marc Anthony. It all sounds the same. Most of the time it's the same musicians and same arrangers. There's no personality there at all. That's what I miss as a musician: the personality thing. But then again, maybe I'm just getting too old. Maybe Eddie Palmieri has to do another Sun Of Latin Music or something like that.'

"You mention Sergio George, who obviously is a key figure in all this. This reminds me of the bomba and plena album Mi Encuentro (1997 on WEA Latina) he did with Yolandita Monge. What was your view of that?" "Yolandita is a big star in many countries. I don't think she's a world star, but she's a Puerto Rican big star. She didn't need to do that type of album at all, and I give her my full respect for that. She just didn't need it. She was doing it because she wanted to do something with Puerto Rican music. That deserves respect and acknowledgement, and I am very glad she was brave enough to do it and take it to the world. Not only record the album, but saying: "Here I am doing this stuff." So it took her a lot of courage. And it actually took its cost doing that. On the other hand, from my humble perspective, the album lacked orientation and focus. Those who know Yolandita for her soft tunes, ballads and great pop hits, didn't want to hear her doing bomba. Plus I don't think the arrangements worked well. Sergio George is a great arranger, and I respect him a lot, but in Puerto Rico there are cats that could really do that job, and get the real feel of what bomba and plena are all about. I think this lack of focus is why the album didn't really make it. Maybe if she had taken another direction the album could have made it, which was really my desire. It was my hope that Yolandita's album would do well in terms of my pride as a Puerto Rican - my music. Because then we would have had a big star doing this stuff. Plena Libre is a very important group in the development of this thing. People were forgetting this stuff and we took it out front. And now Jerry Rivera has done a plena on his next album. I'm hoping Roberto Roena does one of the tunes I gave him. In the end I know, by ourselves alone, we are not going to make it. Not that it's not going to happen, but it's going to be harder for us to do it just by ourselves."

Although it wasn't a great success, does he feel that Yolandita's album created openings for Plena Libre? "Actually we did the opening for her," insists Gary. "Plena Libre shined light onto the plena which was not there. It wasn't dead because plena is part of our nationality. It is part of what we are as Puerto Ricans. It has always been there for the last century. So we shone light onto it that was not there since Cortijo and Ismael. That created a little opening and I think Yolandita saw that. Other guys were doing it, but she was in the forefront and said: "I'm going to do that now." So we hope the memory of Yolandita's failure with her album has faded and other artists will try it."

What does the future hold for Plena Libre? "We were very lucky. We had offers from other companies to record, but we decided to sign with RykoLatino because we felt they understood what we are trying to do. And it's happening. Although we've been to the States before, we've already done a real tour there. We did a little thing in Mexico and now we are in Europe. And in Puerto Rico everything is going fine. We are hoping this alliance will carry on. We are going back to Puerto Rico and we should start recording sometime before the 15th of April, which will be our eighth album and our third recording with RykoLatino. Our hope is that this next album will ensure that a space for our work is established. This is the album that is going to decide whether we stay or whether we disappear. And I think the chances are pretty good that we will stay."

Though plena is clearly the band's raison d'être, will the next album continue to be a 100% diet of plena? "When we decided to do the Plena Libre thing, we didn't want to do straight traditional plena, because that wasn't getting to the new generations. It was very important from my standpoint that the work we do incorporate contemporary influences from what is happening in the popular music scene. We also incorporate other influences like some jazzy phrases on the trombones, Cuban rhythms, styles like rap - we've done some plena with rap. We've done some plenas in a ballad style. We've even done some plena with a disco style. I believe folklore is not a static thing. It has to move in accordance with the times. When you hear plenas by Canario (Manuel Jiménez), and then you hear Mon Rivera, and then you hear César Concepción, and then Cortijo, and you hear the other guys. What happened was that each one of them took the plena rhythm and made it his own. This is the way I'm gonna do it. It goes along with the musical influences that are happening all around. So in terms of the style of Plena Libre, it has to be plena libre : it's a free style. I don't care what it takes. If it works, it works. The important thing is that we keep the root present during the whole show. So I can do the first half of a tune as a guaguancó, because I'm going to sing a romantic lyric, and I want this type of rhythm to support it. But when the chorus comes, it is plena because this is the way I feel it should be. So as long as we keep the rhythm clear, whatever we put on top of that is my instinct and from the heart."


Juntos y Revueltos (1994 on A&F; reissued on RykoLatino in 1999), !Cógelo Que Ahí Te Vá! (1995 on SJ Music), Plena Pa' Ti (1997 on SJ Music), De Parranda (1997 on Peer), Plena Libre Mix (1998), Plena Libre (1998 on RykoLatino).

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