Why Puerto Rican Bomba Music Is Resistance
Bomba is an ancient genre of resistance from Puerto Rico created by enslaved people on the island over 400 years ago. Recently, bomba music has been a staple of Black Lives Matter protests calling back to its roots as a music of resilience. Linda Diaz & LA Buckner break down bomba's musical and cultural elements. Ivelisse Diaz teaches Linda about bomba singing, and LA learns bomba drum rhythms.
- When is dancing a protests?
- When it's Bomba.
- Bomba is a traditional genre of music and dance
from Puerto Rico
and has made an appearance
at many recent Black Lives Matter protests.
- In Bomba, dancing and protests are inextricably linked.
Once you understand the music, it makes perfect sense.
- So now that we know Bomba's influence today,
let's talk about where it came from.
And to do that,
we have to go back about 400 years.
Last year our friends from, If Cities Could Dance,
traveled to Puerto Rico
and filmed this footage for their episode on Bomba dancing.
Make sure you check out that episode on their channel.
- Bomba was developed in the 16th century
by enslaved Africans in Puerto Rico
enslaved communities would gather
to make music using rhythms and dance to express themselves.
They told stories, shared news, communicated revolts
and connected with each other.
This process of gathering through Bomba
was known as Bambula, a practice of re- remembrance.
Re-remembering where you came from
and your own sense of humanity.
In other words,
they created culture and affirmed their humanity
and that is a powerful form of resistance.
How would you describe Bomba
to people who haven't heard it before?
or who haven't heard of it even?
- Well Bomba is the oldest genre of Puerto Rico
tracing back to our African roots,
it tells the story of our ancestors.
It is meant for healing.
It is a time-traveling genre
and it's Black music.
Bomb's roots largely come from Africa
but like so much of Latinx culture,
it's a blending of elements from many regions.
While most Bomba songs are in Spanish.
Some have words and phrases in other languages
including Haitian Creole and Kikongo.
The use of long ruffled skirts as Bomba costumes
also shows incorporation of Spanish influences
in Bomba today.
The Taino where the indigenous people of Boriken,
their name for the Island that is now Puerto Rico.
That's also the reason many Puerto Rican's
prefer the term Boricua.
Taino influence in Bomba
shows up in terms like, Batey,
which refers to the dance space.
- The use of a single gourd based maraca
also shows Taino influence.
The maraca is used to keep time
and it's often played by the singer.
Cuas are sticks, often played against the side of a Barril
or the drum used for Bomba.
Can you talk about the significance
of the Barril or the drum in Bomba
and like why this specific drum is used?
- The Barril, I would say in Spanish
but in English, its barrel.
- [LA Buckner] Barrel.
- It's made out of a barrel.
But its made out of,
a rum barrel, tea barrel, whiskey barrels.
Like whatever type of barrel you can think of,
it's made from that.
That's what we had when
those ensalved Africans came.. - Ancestors.
- Came from the motherland into the Caribbean.
- And then they needed their resource
and because they had all these rhythms
so they used the resources that they had
and what we use on, when it comes to the skin,
it's goat skin.
- [LA Buckner] Yes.
- So now we're talking about a type of drum
that relates to the Djembe family.
- [Mateo Gonzalez] Well, all those African based..
- Absolutely - [Mateo Gonzalez] Drums.
- So what makes the rhythms of Bomba, Bomba?
First, there are two types of Bomba drums.
The lead drummer is known as the Subidor or Primo
and plays a higher pitched Barril.
The other drummers play a Buleador
and keep a steady rhythm called a buleo.
While that steady rhythm is going,
a dancer enters the Batey, by doing a Paseo,
walking around in a circle to mark their space,
ending with a salute to the Primo.
One of the most surprising things about Bomba
is that the lead drummers job, is actually to follow.
As the dancer begins to dance,
the Primo follows their movements with the drum,
striking to the rhythm of the dancers steps.
It's a conversation.
Dancers use common dance moves and improvisations
to express their thoughts and emotions.
The drummer watches closely,
anticipating, following and giving voice
to their movements with the drum.
For the enslaved people who created the music form,
Bomba was one of the only vehicles they had
to express themselves freely and to feel powerful.
Reclaiming their sense of humanity and self determination
was an act of resistance.
(singing in foreign language)
Bomba has a collection of rhythmic patterns
each used for different purposes or emotions.
Sica, means the act of rising up.
Cuembe is to restore balance.
Seis Corrido is a faster rhythm,
traditionally played in Loiza.
Yuba is good for releasing negative emotions
like sadness and anger.
It refers to an ancestral ritual
of cleansing space and self.
You can feel that in the heaviness
of the last beat in the pattern.
I know Sica, Cuembe, Seis Corrido and Yuba.
What was the other one you said?
Just hearing it, holande. - Holande.
- Is influenced by the Dutch. - Okay.
- The way we dance Holande
is mimicking the slave owners,
how they dance.
- So how we dance Holande is influenced by them.
- Bomba lyrics are simple and reflect daily life.
Singers also take influence
from the drumming and the dancing
that they see in front of them.
Generally, the lead singer
will start singing a short chorus.
The chorus is repeated by others
as lead singer adds improvised versus in between.
(singing in foreign language)
The chorus the people, the community responds.
(singing in foreign language)
And then I start storytelling.
(singing in foreign language)
And so I start talking.
So there are some songs that are written, right?
But there's also this beautiful aspect of singing Bomba
where you are just in the zone.
You're there. - Mhm.
- We got so many beautiful Bomba songs everywhere
that are traditional, that are written.
We also have space to improvise.
- That call response format
is another example of African influence in Bomba music.
It's also one reason
that there's always a place for everyone at a Bombazo
and audience members are often participants.
Throughout the Puerto Rican diaspora,
there are families, schools, and performance groups
keeping Bomba alive
and passing the art form to new generations today.
Today, people who practice Bomba continue to use it
as a platform for awareness, resistance and pride.
Bomba is much more than a dance or music.
It's a way of life.
- Talk about the significance of Bomba to you.
- Bomba is life. - Mhm.
- Because especially I was raised in this tradition.
You know, I was raised to just one person.
Definitely influenced by my grandfather.
But everybody knows him as, Benny.
Unfortunately, I just lost him a week and a half ago.
- Oh, I'm sorry to hear that bro.
- Yeah, thank you.
- And the Cepeda Family of of San Juan,
one of Puerto Rico's most famous Bomba families.
The music has been passed down for eight generations
and the Cepeda's are known
for having created the first Bomba school.
(drums playing) (singing in foreign language)
In recent years,
Bomba has been a bond for those suffering
from the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
After the storm, people gathered to dance Bomba
as a way to express their feelings of pain and loss
and come together as a community.
And now Bomba is an integral part
of Black Lives Matter movements
throughout the Puerto Rican diaspora.
- Loiza is a center of Afro-Boricua culture on the Island.
After the murder of George Floyd,
Loiza was one of the first Latin American communities
to organize demonstrations.
Bomba and Plena were central to their vigils and protests.
- Why do you think Bomba
has been so present in Black Lives Matter movements lately?
Is it that authenticity?
I feel like there's so much.
- The reason why we're out here
protesting of Black Lives Matter
is because we are reclaiming our spaces.
You know, when we step back,
when we say black
there's our Afro Latinos, Afro Latinas.
There's so much to what Black means.
This is the music that existed when we were oppressed
and we're still oppressed.
So this is a way that we need to stop that oppression
and to bring new ways of thinking.
- We're authentically us, beautiful in our skin
no matter the color of our skin.
But when we bring Bomba,
we're talking about Black roots.
- Whether traditional or fused with other styles,
Bomba is a reclaiming of Puerto Rican's African heritage
and a way of countering racism
and other injustices in their communities and in the world.
What aspect of Bomba do you find the most interesting
or what aspect of Bomba music do you respect the most?
- I feel like I came very much into my black identity
later than most of my peers,
especially being Puerto Rican
and you know, Bomba's Puerto Rican,
but there's a lot of anti-blackness everywhere.
Especially though in Latino cultures
and I feel like people don't think about it.
But you know, when you think Puerto Rican,
you think J.Lo,
you think Marc Anthony,
you think like, you know.. - Yeah, yeah, yeah.
- First of all, I'm black,
look at me in black,
but also (laughing loudly)
like this is my culture and I found it through music.
And so it's like an archive, you know?
- Yeah, yeah.
Absolutely. - And I think it's so cool.
It felt kinda like when you do one of those ancestry tests
and you're like, wow, you know,
it felt kinda like that for me.
It's just so illuminating
that there are so many people that share these stories
and share these histories.
And like, you know,
that is part of what has made me the person that I am.
And that's like my,
really my history.
(drums playing) (signing in foreign language)
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