Since Hurricane Maria, people in Puerto Rico have been without easy access to electricity, clean drinking water, or food. Many are still staying in shelters; some are living in the ruins of their homes. The once-lush green trees were stripped bare and uprooted.
But all is not lost.
There are two quintessential Puerto Rican sounds that survived:
One is the plaintive song of the tiny coqui frog.
The other is the improvised Afro-Puerto Rican call-and-response musical tradition known as Plena.
Last Sunday, a group of musicians gathered in Calle Loiza, a San Juan neighborhood known for African-inspired folklore. The annual Calle Loiza festival had been canceled because of the hurricane, but they didn’t let that stop them from parading through the streets, playing hand drums and singing plenas.
“It’s very, very Puerto Rican,” says Emanuel Santana, a singer with the bands Plena Libre and Viento de Agua. “Every time a Puerto Rican hears the drums called panderos, you can have them come down in tears in a time like this. Of course, there’s no electricity to even hear music. You don’t have no MP3s right now. So we’re back to basics.”
The musicians traveled down the sidewalk, stopping at the few bars that have managed to open and are operating on generators. Along the way, they attracted followers who sang along.
Leading the group was Hector Matos — known as “Tito” Matos — a Grammy nominee born in Santurce, and one of Puerto Rico’s best known pleneros. He drums and sings plenas about the love he has for the island.
“Love Mother Earth, respect of nature, you know, environment,” he says, with his three-year-old son at his side. “Trying to use the moment to also teach the young generation these hurricanes are coming faster, bigger and stronger than ever, and that’s because of us.”
Matos is a member of the New York band Los Pleneros de la 21 and founder of Viento de Agua. He’s recorded and toured with well-known musicians Eddie Palmieri, David Sanchez and Ricky Martin. He also owns a restaurant in Calle Loiza called La Junta. The wooden building was demolished in the hurricane. After the storm, it was vandalized.
“I have to deal with the issues of the hurricane and also go back every day to try to salvage some stuff,” he says. “But look at my face: we are happy. I mean, we are alive. All my family members are fine and well. And we can rebuild.”
Even as Puerto Ricans continue to struggle to recover from the storm, Matos says he and his pleneros want to bring them a little joy with the music.
“We’re all on standby,” says Missy Adamus, a chef at La Junta. She says they are trying to rebuild the restaurant, their homes, their lives. But at least they still have their music.
“Music has brought back to life what was dead in Calle Loiza,” she says.
Plenas are sometimes known as “singing newspapers,” giving the latest updates on what people are feeling and the news of the day. The headline of this week’s plenas was about the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
Winding through the neighborhood streets, they sing about resilience: “Our plena, our song, our music, is stronger – our community is stronger than Maria.”