Mar Cruz, an Afro-Puerto Rican dancer, was 22 years old when a West African ancestor visited her in a dream, put his hand on her chest and prayed in a Yoruba dialect. “When he finished his prayer I suddenly began hearing a drum beating inside of me, inside of my body, and it was so strong that it shook me,” she says. Days later she heard the exact same rhythms while walking in town, beckoning her to the free community program where she would begin to study bomba.
The movement and sound of bomba originates in the practices of West Africans brought to the Caribbean island by European colonizers as slaves in the 17th century, and over time absorbed influences from the Spanish as well as the region’s indigenous Taíno people. Slavery fueled sugar production and many other industries, and continued until 1873, when a law creating a gradual ban went into effect. Like other Afro-Caribbean cultural forms, bomba provided a source of political and spiritual expression for people who’d been forcibly uprooted from their homes, at times catalyzing rebellions.
“When we have something to say to protest, we go out there and play bomba,” says Mar. “It is our way of saying ‘we are here.’”
In Puerto Rico’s center of black culture, Loíza, bomba is at the heart of protests. Since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, groups like Colectivo Ilé have shared their grief through the dance. “That death didn’t only affect the African American community but also the Afro-Puerto Rican community,” says Mar. “People have always been racist towards us. They are finally willing to say, ‘That was a tragedy!’ But they are racist too. There used to be lynchings here too.”
A new movement to assert black pride and to acknowledge the island’s complex history of racism is part of the resurgence of bomba, providing Mar and her sister María, along with many more Afro-Puerto Rican performers in both Puerto Rico and diaspora communities, a creative outlet to celebrate their oft-suppressed cultural heritage. “I’m representing my ancestors,” says María. “Those black slaves who danced in the past, that was their only method of self-expression.”
This episode of If Cities Could Dance highlights the artists and communities committed to bomba in its many forms, inviting new meanings and political significance in the 21st century. It brings viewers performances from San Juan, Santurce and Loíza, important sites of Afro-Puerto Rican culture. Wearing traditional long, ruffled skirts, the Cruz sisters dance in the streets of San Juan, the island’s historic port city; in front of a cave near Loíza that is believed to have sheltered black people who’d escaped their captors, and at one of Puerto Rico’s traditional chinchorros—a casual place to eat and drink—to the rhythms of the popular local act Tendencias. “Anyone can join the dance,” María says of the venue’s nightly bomba events. “No one is going to judge you.”
A bomba percussion ensemble generally comprises a few barriles, hand drums originally made from rum barrels, with differing pitches determining musical roles; a cuá, or barrel drum played with sticks; and a time-keeping maraca, often played by a singer. Although there are archetypical rhythmic patterns, prominently holandés, yuba and sica, the life of bomba is in the improvisational interplay between dancer and the primo barril—with the dancer taking the lead.
Leading the drummer is one of the elements that attracts Mar to bomba. It’s different from learning the steps in what she considers more “academic” dances such as salsa, merengue or bachata in that the bomba dancer creates the rhythm spontaneously, challenging the drummers to follow. “You’re making the music with your body and on top of that it’s improvised,” she says. “Everything you freestyle becomes a communication between the dancer and the drummer.”
Yet if not for the efforts of families such as the Cepedas of Santurce (captured in the remarkable documentary Bomba: Dancing the Drum by Searchlight Films), bomba might’ve been lost to time. In the early- and mid-20th century, as other styles grew popular among Puerto Ricans and the newly-installed colonial regime of the United States, Rafael Cepeda Atiles drew international profile as a bomba ambassador, kickstarting a resurgence that continues today.
“[Bomba] had been marginalized and forgotten, simply because it was black music,” says Jesús Cepeda, son of Rafael Cepeda, who continues stewarding the culture through the Fundación Rafael Cepeda & Grupo Folklórico Hermanos Cepeda. “That’s something that not only he, but all of us endured collectively. Our music was stereotyped as a … byproduct of black slum culture, as music of the uneducated.”
Now, though, Jesús is pleased to find a new generation embracing the cause of his family. And he thinks bomba culture can continue to play a role in the United States territory’s struggle for dignity and independence. “Papi always said that when Puerto Rico finally reaches a point where it recognizes the value of its folklore, it will fight to defend its honor,” Jesús says. —Text by Sam Lefebvre
Visit the vibrant old town of San Juan and some of Puerto Rico’s oldest black neighborhoods to see the Afro-Latino diasporic dance tradition of Bomba with our interactive story map.
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