Los Hijo 'e Plena is the performance ensemble for the Howard County-based nonprofit Cultura Plenera.
Los Hijo 'e Plena is the performance ensemble for the Howard County-based nonprofit Cultura Plenera. (handout / HANDOUT)

One of the best ways to learn about another culture is through its music. If you would like to know more about Puerto Rico, a group called Cultura Plenera gives a free concert as part of the Community Concerts series at the Chrysalis in Merriweather Park at 5 p.m. Sunday.

By way of musical education, two distinctive styles will be showcased by the performers of Cultura Plenera, a Howard County-based nonprofit organization. Bomba, which dates back 300 years, reflects African influences; Plena, which goes back 100 years, incorporates topical references that now include Hurricane Maria and the current controversy about the governorship of Puerto Rico.

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Besides stylistic differences that your ears will detect, your eyes will notice that Plena’s instrumentation includes small hand drums and Bomba uses “drums the size of rum barrels,” according to Cultura Plenera President Angel Rivera. “They’re visually very different.”

Although many audience members may not understand the Spanish-language lyrics to the songs, Rivera said his group makes onstage explanatory remarks in English.

Also, the music itself communicates in a visceral way. As Rivera noted: “We have found that the music, by the percussive nature of it, gets people moving even without knowing what it is about. To me, it still intrigues me how that works. Plena is very upbeat. The music just sounds happy and gives that feeling to everybody.”

Around half of the 19 members of Cultural Plenera comprise the performance ensemble. Performing together informally for years and incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 2012, the group gives concerts and workshops at schools, concert halls and outdoor venues throughout the region.

Consisting of working professionals in non-musical fields who devote themselves to their Puerto Rican heritage on nights and weekends, the group’s members engage in what Rivera describes as “community building. They are keeping our cultural expression alive.”

In recognition of such activities, this year Cultura Plenera was given a Maryland Traditions Heritage Award by the Maryland State Arts Council.

A native of Puerto Rico, Rivera, 56, is a retired Navy officer who now works in a security-related job at Fort Meade.

Rivera recently moved to Frederick, where his family is establishing a for-profit rum distillery that he expects to be open by the end of this year. It seems like a natural extension when you consider that a rum barrel-sized drum and an actual rum barrel have Puerto Rico in common.

Cultura Plenera performs at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 18, at the Chrysalis in Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, 10431 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. This is a free concert, and the presenting Inner Arbor Trust requests that people reserve tickets. For information, call 443-832-3223 or email info@innerarbortrust.org.

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