Los Pleneros de la 21
When Juan “Juango” Gutiérrez formed Los Pleneros de la 21 in 1983, he wanted to showcase the elders of bomba y plena—the two genres that form the core of Puerto Rican traditional music—alongside younger musicians. The troupe shared a stage anywhere, from street corners, backyards, and parks, to community centers, colleges, and museums, catching the eye of the community. After decades of performances from Carnegie Hall to Sesame Street, Los Pleneros de la 21 are an East Harlem institution, and Gutiérrez proudly says, “Now, I’m one of the elders.”
Bomba is a heavily percussive music and dance form that emerged during the late 17th century among enslaved West Africans on Puerto Rico’s sugar plantations. Primary bomba instruments are the barriles, large drums originally made from pickle, codfish, or rum barrels; a maraca crafted from a gourd, and a pair of sticks called cuá. Plena developed in the 20th century, mixing bomba with indigenous Taíno music and jíbaro, the Spanish- and Arab-influenced music of the rural highlands. Among many subjects that plena songs embraced, it also heralded both the history and day-to-day news of the people and community, and so became known as el periódico cantado (“the newspaper in song”).
Growing up in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Juango first saw pleneros when they performed between innings at a baseball game. He moved to New York to study at a conservatory, but felt “the need to know my foundations.” In East Harlem he found bomba y plena mentors like Los Pleneros de 21 co-founder and master plenero, Marcial Reyes Avelo. The group, named after a Santurce bus stop famous for its pleneros and bomberos, has earned a Grammy nomination, while Juango was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1996, our nation’s highest honor for traditional artists.
The band has expanded the bomba y plena traditions through lyrics that address contemporary issues, and by including elements of jazz, salsa, and hip-hop in a lineup that also includes piano, trap drums, and a horn section. Central to its mission is sharing bomba y plena at community events and through workshops. Today, a new generation of members, including Juango’s daughter, dancer Julia Gutiérrez-Rivera, are leading the path forward through embracing, teaching, and celebrating the tradition.
The following members of LP21, as they are often known, came together for this special performance: Julia Gutiérrez-Rivera (bailadora, vocals, pandero seguidor), Carlos Espada (lead vocals, gúcharo, maraca), Nelson Matthew González (pandero requinto, barril primo), Jorge Vázquez (pandero punteador, cuá, vocals), Ivan Renta (tenor saxophone, vocals), and Juango Gutiérrez Rodríguez (barriles, vocals).