Puerto Rican–born percussionist, composer, and arranger Juan Gutiérrez was instrumental in helping to bring bomba and plena music to New York City and the rest of the US. In 1983, he met master plena practitioner Marcial Reyes in New York; together they created Los Pleneros de la 21. Juan has remained at the helm of Los Pleneros de la 21 ever since, masterminding its ongoing success, including a 2005 Grammy nomination. For his vision and contributions, Juan was named an NEA National Heritage Fellow. Julia Gutiérrez-Rivera is Juan’s youngest daughter. As Los Pleneros de la 21 formed when she was 10 months old, Julia was weaned on bomba and plena, and is now a guiding member of the group and respected bomba and plena dancer and educator.
Bomba and plena stand at the core of Afro–Puerto Rican music. They are often grouped together, but each has its own trajectory and musical identity. Bomba is said to be one of the oldest musical expressions of the Americas, dating back 500 years with direct connection to the African ancestry of slaves. Plena is a product of the early 20th century, growing amid a developing sense of Puerto Rican national identity. Both have been used to voice freedom, individuality, cultural affirmation, and even labor reform. As such, bomba and plena are considered to be the main vehicles that express Puerto Rican resistance, resilience, and pride.
Juan is the founder of Los Pleneros de la 21. Since 1983, the group has been fusing the traditional rhythms and dance of bomba and plena with contemporary and urban styles, like son, salsa, jazz, and hip-hop. The group inspired the creation of dozens of bomba and plena bands in the US. Julia is Juan’s youngest daughter. She has dedicated herself to continuing this tradition and has become a well-respected bomba and plena dancer and educator.