Maestros De Bomba en La Bahía Encuentro 2007
By Lily Kharrazi, Living Cultures Grants Program Manager
“Keeping their family legacy is important to them and as a result they work together to keep it going which, in turn, keeps their family strong. This statement is also significant because through their work, they are aware that bomba is a tradition that brings families together because it is an activity that everyone can take part in. They encourage the participation of children in their workshops and for those who have been born in the tradition; we have many examples of elder bomberos who have children that continue the tradition.”
—Cynthia Renta, a workshop participant and dancer from the Bay Area Puerto Rican community
Editor’s Note: The Bay Area Boricuas, Inc.’s Living Cultures Grants Program project took place in the San Francisco Bay Area during July 2007 – with a series of workshops, performances, and informal jam sessions (bombazos) – to focus on the rich African legacy of the bomba, a Puerto Rican dance and music style steeply rooted in the culture of the African slaves who were brought to the island in the late 1600’s. The resurgence of this form has been credited to a few key persons, but one family is legendary: La Familia Cepeda. Their singular focus for five generations has been to keep the African-based arts alive.
Although not the primary focus of these workshops per se, people will often refer to Puerto Rican music styles as bomba y plena, as if they are one form. Given the popularity of Latin dance music, it may be helpful to understand this simple distinction between the two:
Plena is a musical style that is a narrative song. The style originated in the coastal areas of the island and can revolve around anything at all in subject matter. It has a call-and-response format. In the early 1900’s horns were added to the plena sound and its evolution today is heard mixed in with other popular genres from Brazil, Cuba and Jamaica. Plena can occur without the dance.
Bomba is the percussion-driven music style that occurs with the dance component. A single dancer or a couple will interact with the drummer. Traditional bomba ensembles featured two or three differently pitched drums, typically made from rum barrels known as barriles, a single maraca, and a pair of sticks (palitos) called cuá or fuá that tap out a fixed organizing rhythmic timeline on the side of the drum. A solo singer is answered by a chorus call-and-response style, singing over the great variety of rhythmic patterns that comprise the bomba. The lyrics are generally of topical nature, revolving around the life of the community and island history, and include improvised parts referring to the dance and music performed.
“Keeping the tradition makes the family strong.” This sentiment was the departing thought of Gladys Camara, dancer and choreographer whose month-long residency, sponsored by Bay Area Boricuas, Inc., ended in a spirited performance on stage at the La Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley. She and her sister, Brenda Cepeda, another performer, are the daughters of Dr. Modesto Cepeda. The family completed their second visit to the Bay Area, taking a break from the academy founded by Dr. Cepeda in 1977, which is dedicated to the teaching and perpetuating of the African based-arts in Puerto Rico.
Gladys made this statement several times before this final performance to the Bay Area workshop participants, and to see her share the stage with her father and her 2 ½ year old son, Exan, might have been ample demonstration of what she meant. But to more fully understand the impact of her words, the resurgence of this music and dance form signaled a distinct break from the stronghold of Puerto Rico’s elite which dominated the cultural milieu of the island.
For decades the ruling elite were effective in distancing themselves from the dance and music that were directly related to the descendents of the slave trade. These West Africans were brought to the island by the Spaniards in the late 1600’s to work the sugar plantations. It is speculated that the bomba grew from the social gatherings of these slaves and while the dance and music were initially of a social nature, the form also came to embody some religious aspects that the slaves were prohibited from practicing. This 400 year history has added to the complexity of the island’s identity.
Just as the island’s population is an amalgamation of cultures, the hybrid bomba mirrors these influences rather ingeniously. The language of song is Spanish, the percussion and choral style African and indigenous Indian, and the dress is European influenced. Each layer infers the long journey from colonization, to integration, and rebirth into a unique form of expression.
“A people who know their roots is a people with a healthy identity thatvcomprise healthyvcommunities.” For a tradition that is born out of slavery andvhas remained in tact for centuries, it gives you a perspective on howvsignificant this has been for community healing and building over the years.”
A number of Boricuas, or Puerto Rican, participants in the workshops said they had never heard of bomba growing up. It was something remote and hidden from them. The resurgence of the dance form has been a way in which to reclaim and assert the African contribution to the Puerto Rican national and cultural consciousness. The Bay Area Puerto Rican community has its roots in activism, going back to the 1960’s with the free speech movement at UC Berkeley. Outside of New York and Miami, enclaves of Puerto Rican culture are lesser known but growing. Some of the Boricuas settled in the West came here via Hawai’i, having worked the sugar plantations of that island before settling in California.
The thirst to connect around music and dance for the bay area community was lead by Hector Lugo and Shefali Shah who hold weekly classes in music and dance. As interest grew, Hector and Shefali, along with a number of other Boricuas who make the Bay Area their home, had the foresight to bring master culture bearers to the West Coast for a shot of adrenaline. This year marked the second year that the Cepedas were in-residence, as well as Oxil Febles, Angel Luis Reyes and his son Otoqui Reyes Pizarro. All of these artists are masters in the Santurce-style (Northern) and also the Loiza-style (Eastern). Loiza has been significant to represent because it has been the most marginalized style since it emerges from the “blackest” town in the island. This coastal town was the area where freed slaves escaped to, and so, what has emerged there has been movement that is clearly more African in aesthetic.
“Community celebrations, like bombazos and other more private times for learning of songs, improving drumming techniques, learning of history and learning of movements are points of connection among family and other communtiy members”
The bombazo gathering held on July 22, 2007, was an informal affair which encouraged all the participants in the café space to revolve through various roles: singer, dancer, and percussionist. The same participants who said they had only discovered the bomba later in life, assumed all roles.
The bomba is totally improvisatory and cajoles the drummer and dancer into a dialogue of movement. It requires a sense of playfulness and musicality which requires skill. The movements can range from subtle body vibrations to large movements of a lady’s skirt. Unlike most dance forms where the dancer must listen for the directions from the drum in order to move, the bomba reverses this. The lead drummer must follow the directions of the dancer. And so the dialogue begins.
In the presence of confident artists, the intensity of this interaction between dancer and percussionist is the dramatic point of bomba. The dancer will signal the drummer with certain moves but how this is interpreted and what kind of chemistry or connection occurs has endless variables. It is a highly participatory event for all to see and to encourage with singing, clapping, and shouts of encouragement. At the end of a song, sung in call-and-response style, the lead singer will shout out, “Bomba!” The cycle is complete.