When it comes to sharing Puerto Rican culture, “the music does the translating for us,” says Hanover resident Angel Rivera.
Rivera’s Howard County-based nonprofit Cultura Plenera promotes two of the island’s musical traditions – bomba, an African-influenced percussion music style that dates back more than half a century, and plena, a 150-year-old folk genre passed down to Rivera by his father 40 years ago.
This month, after decades of sharing their music locally, the group will be recognized by the Maryland State Arts Council with a Maryland Traditions Heritage Award for its stewardship of the living tradition.
Cultura Plenera’s roots in Howard County began to sprout almost 20 years ago when Rivera and friends began performing in Howard County Schools (where his wife, Alba, taught Spanish) during National Hispanic Heritage Month.
The Riveras and their daughter, Xiomara, started the nonprofit a decade later and established a residency at Running Brook Elementary School. Since then, the emotional energy created by percussion instruments and Hispanic song and dance has filled venues such as Rockburn Branch Park, North Laurel Community Center and the Other Barn in Columbia.
“The rhythm, drive, energy and beating of the drum is something that moves the soul,” Rivera says.
In recent months, they’ve seen that interest blossom in workshops at Montgomery County’s Sandy Spring Museum, where they teach visitors about Puerto Rican pitorro (holiday moonshine) and dance via their ensemble, Los Hijo 'e Plena.
The first of the dance workshops “was a blast. We had no idea it was going to sell out,” says Museum executive director Alison Weiss.
Meanwhile, two Howard County middle schools have applied for Howard County Arts Council grants to establish Cultura Plenera residencies in the fall.
But the nonprofit’s impact extends beyond music.
In 2017, a Cultura Plenera event at Rockburn raised $16,000 to benefit victims of Hurricane Maria, the Category 5 storm that devastated the Puerto Rico.
Island native Lyssette Cruz was among the 3,000 people who attended. Alba helped her find a teaching job at Ellicott Mills Middle School, and Riveras even invited Cruz to stay in their home until she moved into an apartment in Elkridge.
Cruz nominated the nonprofit for Heritage Award, writing that the Rivera family “breathes and lives the Puerto Rican tradition of community” by offering unconditional love and moral support.
If you go
Cultura Plenera’s summer performances include:
June 22, noon
Los Hijo ‘e Plena will perform at the Bomba Y Plena En El Museo festival at Sandy Spring Museum, 17901 Bentley Road, Sandy Spring.
Aug. 2, noon to 8 p.m.
Los Hijo‘e Plena will perform at Bomba y Plena at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Cultura Plenera is planning an early evening concert at the Chrysalis Amphitheater in Symphony Woods, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia.
For more performance details, visit culturaplenera.org.