By Kevin Shorner-Johnson
Clap-Clap-Clap, Clap-Clap. With 25 minutes to go before the concert started the audience was already clapping clave rhythms and chanting songs with palpable excitement. For some, this concert marked the first time they had attended a Puerto Rican Bomba y Plena concert since leaving Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. As I entered the stage with staff and students who identify as Latinas/os, cheers erupted as we introduced performers in Spanish and English. This concert may have been a part of our “classical” concert series, but it was clear that this was no ordinary audience.
I remember falling in love with Puerto Rican Bomba y Plena when I first found a CD of Los Pleneros de la 21 on the Smithsonian Folkways website. I was transfixed by the energy of their sound, the quality of their musicianship, and the unique sound of Bomba and Plena genres. Los Pleneros de la 21 defines Bomba as “a rhythmic dialogue” between dancer and drummer (personal communication, March 7, 2019). The dancer “literally makes music through his or her movements . . . [as the lead drummer translates] these movements into sound via the skin of the drum.” Plena is known as the “newspaper” of Puerto Rico for its “lyrical narration of daily life and satirical commentary on current events.” Bomba y Plena genres embody beauty through interwoven rhythms, improvised stories and critiques, and the magic of synchrony between dancers and musicians.
The opportunity to have Los Pleneros de la 21 was a dream come true. Most importantly for me, it was an opportunity to take my abstract theories of peacebuilding and community organizing and put them into action. Could we use a concert to build community? Could a concert affirm and welcome those displaced by climate change and Hurricane Maria? Taking what I had learned from peacebuilding and LGBTQIA+ literature, could a concert construct a community of diverse identities and expressions?
I am grateful to LGBTQIA+ movement voices for helping me understand the difference between welcome and affirmation. Moving beyond gestures of welcome, I embrace the work of affirming each and every person for the beauty and complexity of their identities and expressions. As I sought to affirm Puerto Rican identity and heritage as a Boricua ally, I knew I had to do more than simply host a concert. My calling was to come into a deeper sense of relationship with my Pennsylvania neighbors, allow myself to be changed, and cultivate an expansive space of hospitality where we may be more fully known.
As Los Pleneros de la 21 took the stage, the audience cheered and shouted in a back-and-forth exchange that is a core call-and-response practice within African diaspora traditions. The band was fired up, and bandleader Juan Gutierrez would later write to me that the band felt a unique vibe with a passionate audience. As the concert came to a close, the audience whistled “coqui,” the sonic fingerprint of a Puerto Rican frog and Boricua pride.
Back-and-forth Bomba exchanges between dancer/drummer, audience/performer, musician/musician became a metaphor of my concert organizing work. My work with my Puerto Rican neighbors taught me that sharing a cup of coffee, a meal, or a phone call changes my perspectives, and opens enriched and inclusive visions forward. From the passion and gratitude expressed at the concert, I sensed music is powerful because it is time spent together that opens up enriched, inclusive, and collective imaginations in sound.
Lessons from this Puerto Rican concert can bring vision to a mission of humane hospitality that is needed in the coming years of climate change. Due to rising housing prices in New York City and other quality-of-life factors, Pennsylvania is becoming the second largest site of Puerto Rican migration (behind Florida) (Hinshaw, 2016; Pew Research Center, 2015). Hinojosa, Román, and Meléndez (2018) reported that eleven Pennsylvania counties each welcomed between 81 and 396 students from Puerto Rico in the period immediately following the devastation of Hurricane Maria. Our displaced students often need unique supports and services, and most importantly, benefit from being welcomed and affirmed for who they are as they build new senses of identity within Pennsylvania communities.
The World Bank (2018) notes post-Maria migration is only the beginning of climate change-induced human migration patterns; an estimated 140 million people will migrate within countries to seek refuge and security in the next 50 years. In January, the non-partisan United States Government Accountability Office (2019) emphasized that as the effects of climate change worsen, every branch of public service will need to respond to forthcoming migration trends. As a branch of public service, one of music education’s many roles during this period may be in affirming the identities of displaced students and inviting new outsiders to become classroom friends.
This Puerto Rican concert was a profound journey that has had a lasting impact on how I think about peacebuilding, community development, and the affirmation of heritage and identity. When we make music with each other, we reclaim individual voice, affirm the dignity and value in each other, and deepen our communities and relationships. In the tradition of Puerto Rican Bomba, may we all find ways of dancing with each other’s presence to build pathways for affirmation, connection, and belonging.
Hinojosa, J., Román, N. & Meléndez, E. (March, 2018). Puerto Rican relocation by states. Center for Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York. Retrieved from https://centropr.hunter.cuny.edu/sites/default/files/PDF/Schoolenroll-v4-27-2018.pdf
Government and Accountability Office (January, 2019). Climate Change: Activities of selected agencies to address potential impact on global migration (GAO-19-166). Retrieved from https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/696460.pdf
Hinshaw, J. (2016). Dutchirican: The growing Puerto Rican presence in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 140(3), 365-392.
Pew Research Center (September 1, 2015). Puerto Rican newcomers seek work, family on the mainland. Retrieved from https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2015/09/01/puerto-rican-newcomers-seek-work-family-on-the-mainland
World Bank (March 19, 2018). Climate change could force over 140 million to migrate within countries by 2050. Retrieved from https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2018/03/19/climate-change-could-force-over-140-million-to-migrate-within-countries-by-2050-world-bank-report