Bomba is a living Puerto Rican drum, song and dance tradition of the West African diaspora that has become an expression of Puerto Rican identity.
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Bombazos (bomba gatherings) pop up nightly in town squares across Puerto Rico. The dance’s signature is a flirtatious game where the dancer challenges the lead drummer to match their dance moves with drum beats. The dancer plays or “rings” the drummer with their dance moves.
The traditional women’s white peasant dresses and head ties are very regal. The traditional woman’s dance is a skirt dance, but today people dance in whatever they are wearing. Sometimes women will pass around a skirt, but it’s not necessary. Only connection is necessary. Men dance too. They basically strut.
Bomba is Puerto Rican Identity
All human culture begins as rituals of family and faith. Bomba traditions originate in West African rituals where the same sacred rhythms and movements have been used to connect with our ancestors since the beginning of human time. Some still practice their faith in private, but contemporary bomba is only about family and community.
Dancing bomba is about being Puerto Rican.
The Drum Heals
There are drum traditions everywhere in the world and the culture that surrounds them is surprisingly similar everywhere in the world. Bomba drums or “barrilles” are made from wooden barrels which often carried rum, but were the standard shipping containers of colonial times.
The larger bomba drum is a buleador. It uses a male goat skin to keep the basic rhythm. The smaller drum is a subidor. It is the lead drum used to follow the dancer’s movements. The subidor uses female goat skin because it creates a higher pitch.
Dancing is an expression of both belonging to a group and one’s individuality within the group, but the African drum is also a healing instrument. We may drum, sing and dance to pay our respects to family and ancestors, to find love, just for fun, or to wash away the pains of life.
Drumming, singing and dancing are a powerful traditional form of folk therapy. Colonizers never understood this. They were constantly surprised that after being brutalized all day, we were out singing and dancing that night. They never understood that we had to sing and dance to wash away the pain in order to survive another day living under the colonial system.
It doesn’t seem to be mentioned in the literature, but one of the seeds of bomba must be the French Creole diaspora created by the turmoil of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804). There are French Creole footprints all over the Caribbean and many signs in Puerto Rico.
The Cepeda family, one of the leading families of bomba, says their tradition comes from their family history working on a French plantation in Mayagüez. In the Caribbean, “French” often means the Haitian diaspora.
At the time of European contact, Puerto Rico was populated by Indigenous Taíno. The colonizer myth is that Indigenous people were “wiped out.” That’s a lie told to justify stealing Indigenous land and valuables. The reality is we intermarried. Indigenous cultural traditions and place names remain very much a part of Puerto Rican life.
Cuás are wooden sticks used to mark time. Latin musicians call them claves because they are used to mark the essential clave rhythm of the Americas. In bomba, cuás are often used with a small barrel drum.
Maracas were originally a Taíno instrument made from the fruit of the higuera tree.
There are similar, but distinct African diaspora drum traditions across the Caribbean and South America including: Cuban rumba, Colombian cumbia, Venezuelan tambor, Brazilian samba, Uruguayan candombe and many others. Argentine tango originates in similar traditions, but the African root is hidden underneath European traditions. You can still hear the habanera though: pum, ta-da, pum pum, ta-da, pum pum.
The shared roots are obvious, but each tradition is actually a unique blend of people, geography and history.
Bomba and Plena
Bomba and plena are distinct Puerto Rican drum traditions, but they are often performed by the same groups. Plena is the Puerto Rican singing news tradition sung with small hand drums. It is rooted in the West African griot tradition of traveling storytellers and the similar European troubadour tradition.
Bomba is rooted in the past, but it also influences the present. Salsa is a New York musical form, but you don’t get salsa without bomba and plena. Salsa blends Cuban rumba and son, Puerto Rican bomba and plena, and New York jazz (which itself is rooted in Caribbean New Orleans and the Haitian diaspora there).
Drumming, singing and dancing defines us as American Latins, a mix of Indigenous, European and African traditions. Even hip-hop and reggaeton are further steps in the same line. Watch a bomba party, a hip-hop party and a reggaeton party. The music is a little different, but the communal traditions are very similar.
The way a break dancer or reggaeton dancer enters the communal dance floor, salutes the crowd and then struts their stuff is just like bomba. The dance line in the 1970s dance show Soul Train was basically the same thing.
Bomba Lives in the Hearts of All Puerto Ricans
In the 1950s, Rafael Cortijo put bomba into popular salsa music. This influenced his childhood friend, the famed singer Ismael Rivera (El Nazareno, La Cara Linda), legendary bandleader Tommy Olivencia (Trucutu, Plante Bandera) and others.
By the 1970s, bomba was almost dead. It survived in the family traditions of the Cepeda Family in Villa Palmera, Santurce, San Juan, the Ayala Family of Loíza, Loíza (who also created the Loíza style of coconut vejigante mask) and the Alduén Family of Mayagüez.
The Cepeda family are a family of teachers. Modesto Cepeda, the son of patriarch Don Rafael Cepeda, began wondering who would lead bombazos after his father passed, so he started teaching it.
The family took an abandoned building in Villa Palmeras and turned it into a beautiful bomba and plena cultural center, Escuela de Bomba y Plena Rafael Cepeda Atiles (Facebook).
In 2017, right before Hurricane Maria hit, Modesto Cepeda was recognized with an NEA National Endowment for the Arts, National Heritage Fellowship Award. The entire family are national treasures.
Today young Puerto Ricans are projecting bomba out into the world in a variety of interesting fusions. The El Laberinto del Coco project of bomba drummer Hector Barez (Calle 13, SXSW) is a great example.
Bomba lives. African spirit will live forever because it is the ancestral spirit of all humanity.
More Bomba Stories
Wed, December 18, 2019
JULIA DE BURGOS CENTER
El Barrio, East Harlem, NYC
Celebrate Christmas Puerto Rican style with a bomba and plena Parranda cycle ¡WEPA!
The Bomba and Plena virtuosos are 4-time Grammy nominees.
World Music Institute
Hudson Square, Manhattan (West SoHo)
Sunday, September 16, 2018
You can really see in these videos how these are family traditions. Dancing bomba makes you part of the Puerto Rican family.
Yet none of these photos or videos really captures the feeling of being with the drum. If you can, go to a bombazo, and don’t sit in the back. Get as close to the drums as you can. Then you will know what is ¡Bomba!