Sound Field

S2 E2 | FULL EPISODE

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.

AIRED: January 07, 2021 | 0:10:57
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TRANSCRIPT

- When is dancing a protests?

- When it's Bomba.

(drums playing)

- 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.

Surprised?

Once you understand the music, it makes perfect sense.

(upbeat music)

- 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.

(drums playing)

- 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.

- Yes.

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.

(drums playing)

The use of long ruffled skirts as Bomba costumes

also shows incorporation of Spanish influences

in Bomba today.

(drums playing)

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.

(drums playing)

- 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.

- Yeah.

- 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.

- Yes.

- [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.

(drums playing)

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.

(drums playing)

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.

For example,

Sica, means the act of rising up.

(drums playing)

Cuembe is to restore balance.

(drums playing)

Seis Corrido is a faster rhythm,

traditionally played in Loiza.

(drums playing)

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.

(drums playing)

I know Sica, Cuembe, Seis Corrido and Yuba.

What was the other one you said?

- Holande.

Just hearing it, holande. - Holande.

- Is influenced by the Dutch. - Okay.

- The way we dance Holande

is mimicking the slave owners,

how they dance.

- Wow!

- So how we dance Holande is influenced by them.

(drums playing)

- 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.

(drums playing)

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.

(drums playing)

And now Bomba is an integral part

of Black Lives Matter movements

throughout the Puerto Rican diaspora.

(drums playing)

- 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.

(drums playing)

- Why do you think Bomba

has been so present in Black Lives Matter movements lately?

Is it that authenticity?

That community?

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.

- Mhm.

- 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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