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    Bomba represents the survival of African traditions in a nearly pure form. Bomba is particularly celebrated in the east and northeast region of Puerto Rico, primarily in Fajardo and Loiza since the early 1800s. The dance originated from African slaves brought from Ghana, probably descendents of the Akan people. The Bomba of Loiza may have survived years of colonial oppression because the people were less exposed to European influences or because they encountered less resistance from the authorities, who many times prohibited the dances of the blacks.

Art by Angel Vega, from the collection of Ivette Fuentes

Bomba was danced in the sugar plantations on Saturday and Sunday nights and holidays and dances lasted all night. Generally the dance was done on the open areas in the sugarcane fields or in the plazas of the town square. Bomba is seldom done indoors and the dancers and singers nearly always accompanied the musicians.   Traditionally the drummers sit together in a line playing  different sized instruments.  The songs are characterized by the African based call-response structure, in which the lead singer begins the song and is answered by a melody sung by the chorus. The singers use  African words and phrases  and improvise in response to the drumming. 

The instruments of a bomba group consists of two drums, a cua and one maraca. The two types of bomba drums,the buleador  and subidor, were traditionally made from rum, nail or lard barrels. Some music historians suggest that some of panels from the barrels to make the drum a little narrower. Goat skins are is attached to one end of the barrel and attached in holes along the sides of the drum. The hide is heated and stretched across the top of the drum. The sound of the drum is adjusted (tuned) through a series of ropes or screws that tighten the drum head. The bomba drums, shorter and wider than the more well known conga drums, have a deeper, fuller sound. The buleador, the larger drum, has a low bass tone and maintains the fundamental, constant rhythm throughout the dance. The subidor, the smaller drum, has a higher pitch and used for the improvisational rhythms that emerge in response to the dancers’ movements.

The single maraca was originally made from the hollowed shell or gourd of the "crescentia cujete, an evergreen tree found in Puerto Rico. A piece wood is inserted into the maraca and becomes the handle. Large numbers of small dried perona seeds were put inside the maraca which produce to give a the distinctive, sound.

The cua was originally two sticks that were played by hitting the base of the buleador. More recently  the cua consists of two large bamboo poles that are played with sticks.  Wooden sticks (palillos) are also used for the higher pitched sounds.

There are 3 basic bomba rhythms sica, yuba and holandes. The sica rhythm was originally developed in Santurce and Mayaguez. The sica rhythm is a slower tempo and evokes more sensuous feeling. The yuba rhythm is much faster and upbeat. The holandes, often used at the end of bomba performances, is  a faster, syncopated rhythm.

Female dancers  wear dresses with full skirts, made of white or brightly colored solid or checkered materials ("madras") and full white petticoats.  Their hair is encased in colorful headwraps. The male dancers dresses in white with large panama hats. The basic dance step is starting on the right foot: tap in place, step to the back, tap together in place. This sequence is repeated on the left and  alternates between right and left feet. The female dancers hold up the hems of their wide skirts, put their hands on their hips and gently sway back and forth.

The dancers perform in a circle in front of the drummers but eventually a single dancer will come forward and move towards the drummers.  The solo dancer (male or female) approaches the subidor drummer and makes staccato, rhythmic gestures called "piquetes" that the subidor drummer attempts to duplicate in his drumming pattern. The dancer teases and challenges the drummer to mimic his body movements with similar drum rhythms and thus the pair engages in a musical dialogue. The piquetes of the female dancer may consist of dramatic gestures made by shaking and gesturing with the hem of wide skirt. The male dancer piquetes may come from gestures made with the arms, torso or legs.  

The recent video produced by Banco Popular, "Con la Música por Dentro", presents  wonderful footage of the  Los Hermanos Cepeda dancing Bomba.  The Los Hermanos Cepeda, lead by Jesus  Cepeda,  tours internationally.  Jesus Cepeda also operates the renowned Fundacion Folklorica Cultural Raphael Cepeda, 1-787-776-3386 or 1-787-757-1672,  Another prolific member the Cepeda family is Modesto Cepeda who operates the world famous  Escuela de Bomba y Plena de Puerto Rico, Villa Palmieri, PR, Modesto Cepeda, 1-787-728-1096ó 787-728-6969, escuela de bomba y plena@prtc.net, or visit their website at   www.prfdance.org/escueladebombayplena. You can read more about the 25 year history of artistic work of Modesto Cepeda   in the next issue of a very informative newsletter, Guiro Y Maraca (see references below).

 In New York City, one of the foremost Puerto Rican folkloric performance groups is Los Pleneros De La 21. 

Over the years bomba has continued to change and evolve as it's influence and popularity  have spread  beyond Puerto Rico.   In the 1950's Rafael Cortijo and his lead singer Ismael Rivera brought bomba to the recording studios and produced legendary records such as "El bombon de Elena" (Elena's candy).  The Cortijo Combo with the emotional vocal stylings of Rivera helped fuel the increased popularity of bomba and plena by updating the style and integrating the music into a Cuban conjunto format.  More recently Eddie Palmieri's CD "El Rumbero del Piano" , released in 1998, has several captivating and infectious bombas.

 This poster advertises  the First Annual  Bomba and Plena Festival held in Humacao, Puerto Rico in 1981.  The poster was designed by the renowned graphics artist Angel Vega.  The first festival was dedicated to  Jacinto Pizarro known as  "Changa"  and Guillermo Diaz nicknamed  "Chita".  Changa (1919-1970) was  a poor civil servant who was a tireless rescue worker during Puerto Rico's numerous heavy rains and floods.  He constructed musical instruments such as the "marimbula"  and was often seen singing and selling "pastelillos"( small sweet pastries) on the city streets.  Legend states that he fell off a bridge and tragically drowned. 
Art by Angel Vega From the collection of  Ivette Fuentes

Chita was another poor musician, beloved by many.  He played guitar, contrabass and percussion with such traditional Puerto Rican bands such as Orquesta Victor Rosello and Orquesta Angel Pena.

Many contemporary Salsa musicians, such as Eddie Palmieri, Descarga Boriqua and Sonora Poncena continue to record updated, stylized version of  bomba.  Juan Cartagena in "Guiro Y Maraca" notes that bombas recorded by Tito Puente included,

"Bombata" on The Legend; Tico Records 1977

"Bomba de Salon" on 20th Anniversay;Tico Records 1994

"Yo Triago Bomba Tu Y Yo" with La Lupe;Tico Records 1965

For more information on bomba and other traditional Puerto Rican music and dance forms, log into: www.prfdance.com.  The site covers Puerto Rican music and dance history, performance groups, classes, references and  links to other websites.


Grupo Afro Boricua With William Cepeda, "Bombazo," Blue Jackel, 1998. (CD and liner notes)

Flores, Juan, "From Bomba to Hip Hop", Columbia University Press,  2000.

Steward, Sue, "Musica", Chronicle Books, 1999

Glasser, Ruth, "My Music is My Flag", University of California Press, 1995

Musica popular hasta tanales del siglo XIX

"Guiro Y Maraca", quarterly newsletter.  Contact Juan Cartagena, Segunda Quimbamba Folkloric Center Inc.  279 Second St. Jersey City, NJ 07302 . Phone (201)420-6332. Email:quimbambero@hotmail.com

Interviews with Ito Carillo, San Francisco Bay Area percussionist and Puerto Rican music historian

Special thanks to Ramon Rodriguez, director of "Raices--Musica Latina en Nueva York" at Boys Harbor, 1 East 104th St.  New York, NY 10029  212-427-2244

Special thanks to Ivette "La Coqui" Fuentes, Bay Area Salsa DJ

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