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Puerto Rico suffers from a history of corruption, a debt crisis, failing infrastructure, the lingering effects, and ongoing threats of hurricanes, earthquakes, and a pandemic. Also, its colonial status deprives the island of autonomy and self-determination. Recently, the island suffered another blow when the elections commission suspended and postponed the primary elections after more than 110 precincts failed to receive voting materials and closed.
Enter the female group, PLENA COMBATIVA, and the (single) anthem, EL TUMBE, whose lyrics sharply capture the people’s frustrations and the island’s plight.
The collective met at Plena workshops and demonstrations held by the feminist organization La Colectiva Feminista Construccion in 2017. In July of that year, singer, songwriter Adriano Santoni Rodriguez posted a video on YouTube singing the original song, Plena Indignacion, whose lyrics protest the fugitive dust and the negative impacts of coal ash generated by AES Puerto Rico, L.P., and police brutality in the municipality of Peñuelas. The post went viral and led to an invitation to perform at a rally against the Jones Act (of 1917). Santoni invited women from the workshop to join her and the group was well-received. The rest is history.
The inspiration for El Tumbe (which means to knock down, steal or make something fall) came to Margarita after reading a column by the journalist, Maria Mari Narvaez, who condemned the Puerto Rican government for corruption after Hurricane Maria. Margarita composed the lyrics, Adriano wrote the melody and the collective came up with the arrangement.
El Tumbe narrates robbery situation’s from the collective’s own experiences. In a case of art imitating life, during the recording sessions, one of the band members was a victim of auto-theft. On a broader scale, it denounces the island’s plight and states, “Poverty is the result of social inequality and imposed neoliberal policies and, there is not greater rogue than the government, who impoverishes the people with impunity.”
The tune starts out at a measured pace and gains in intensity. At the 3:34 mark, Margarita cries out:
We are fed up with the system!
With the criminalization of People of Color!
Out with the fake politicians!
Out with La Junta!
Out with the Patriarchy!
Out with Colonialism!
Out with La Promesa!
Out with the Patriarchy!
Free Puerto Rico!
“The Tumbe is a reaffirmation that not only are we fed up, but that we are set to fight, denounce and demand dignified lives for ourselves and our people,” says Angellie. “Playing it makes my skin crawl!” Laura adds, “Whenever we play El Tumbe, Margarita’s rant makes my hair stand up. Listening to it reminds me of why we got here.”
When El Tumbe was released (May 1, International Worker’s Day), the group created the hashtag, #VivoenelPaísdelTumbe, which went viral and became a rallying cry.
Shortly after that, the group paid tribute to Ramón López’s book, Los Bembeteos de la Plena (Ediciones Huracan, 2008), by launching the single BEMBETEA (a reference to wagging one’s lips, or Bembas.)
Bembetea, written and set to music by Adriana honors the life of Carola Clark, a black woman and the daughter of the Barbadian couple, John Clark and Catherine George, who arrived in the Joya del Castillo neighborhood in Ponce at the beginning of the century. “Carola accompanied her parents in their musical tasks through the streets of Ponce, and she became an excellent and famous tambourine (pandereta) player.”
The song also makes a powerful statement, “Plena was never the exclusive territory of men. Never exclusive to anyone. We own the tambourine that we inherited from Carola Clark. The plena and every space where we play, dance, honor, and sing belong to us,” said Margarita Morales Marrero, güirera from Plena Combativa. “This is our bembeteo, in every opportunity of political intervention, we bet on the visibility of our bodies and the possibilities of gestating a more dignified country,” says Lourdes A. Torres.
Bembetea celebrates ancestral legacy, the history of plena, joy, resistance, and camaraderie. The self-titled album is available on all platforms and contains fourteen tracks that include the abovementioned singles and address environmental activism, feminist activism against patriarchy, machismo, and racism. According to Carrion, “Every time we play El Tumbe and I see the public’s reaction, I reaffirm that anger is collective and the government must be overthrown.”
Plena is a genre rooted in African songs and dances. It originated in Ponce around 1920, though its complex rhythms and soneos (calls and responses) go back decades. It is music for the marginalized, but its gatekeepers have traditionally been men who, with rare exceptions, envision women as accompanists, singers, and dancers. “Drumming was not ‘womanly.’ It had to with the moral standards of the times, a woman, or a proper girl would not open her legs. It wasn’t considered something a moral person would do,” says Nellie Lebron Robles. “So, for many, many years, women did not play the drums.” Although women drummers and groups are more common, men still dominate. Nevertheless, women are gaining ground and creating pathways for the next generation of Pleneras and Bomberas. Plena Combativa is living proof.
PLENA COMBATIVA is available on all digital platforms.
PLENA COMBATIVA IS: Adriano Santoni Rodriguez; Angellie Gonzalez Jorge; Margarita Morales Marrero; Laura Rocio Freytes Rodriguez; Luz Cintron Carrion and Lourdes A. Torres Santos.
Featured Photo: Remezcla/Plena Combativa Website: http://plenacombativa.com
© 2020 Tomas Pena
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED