Visiting Puerto Rico, and Finding the Up Beat

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If this is a Monday night, it’s hard to imagine what Friday looks like. About 300 people are spilling out of a club onto Avenida Eduardo Conde in the Santurce district of San Juan. The space I’m in has limited seating, but the stools are empty anyway because everyone is standing. One window sells fluffy, fist-sized empanadillas and stacks of lightly salted tostones while another one hands over cans of Medalla beer at a furious pace. Everyone is here for bomba and plena, two distinct but closely linked Puerto Rican musical traditions that can trace their roots to the African slaves brought to the island starting in the 17th century.

The first set is all plena: A dozen men fill the stage, their fingers ricocheting off circular pandereta drums, providing a bedrock for the call-and-response vocal lines. The lyrics are largely improvised and often lewd and full of thinly veiled social and political commentary. There are repeated mentions of the venue we’re in, La Terraza de Bonanza, and calls to dance “la plena” and love “la isla.” Judging by the expressions on the faces of the people around me, the lyrics hold several inside jokes that fly right over my head.

After about an hour, there’s a 10-minute break and the set changes to bomba, an even older musical tradition (and a kind of cultural parent to plena) anchored by barrel-like drums. Women take center stage. A trio of vocalists face the drummers and a revolving cast of dancers leap, twirl, grin, shout and have me so transfixed that it’s a full 15 minutes before I realize I forgot to hit the record button on my camera.

I came to Puerto Rico, my first stop as this year’s 52 Places Traveler, hoping to see an island well on its way to recovery, a year and a half after Hurricane Maria. I knew I would see progress, especially when compared to the fresh devastation that my predecessor Jada Yuan saw just five months after the hurricane when she visited the island. What I didn’t expect to see were the omnipresent smiles, the sense of optimism shared by so many people I met, from pig roasters to young entrepreneurs, and from the meticulously manicured cobblestoned streets of Old San Juan to the roller-coaster hills in the center of the island.

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