When you think of Puerto Rican music, what images do you see? Tito Puente playing timbales? Rita Moreno in West Side Story? JLo dancing on the block? What do you hear? Salsa? Merengue? Reggaeton? All would be good answers. But there is one form of music and dance that is native to Puerto Rico and that reflects the island’s cultural roots among the enslaved Africans brought there: Bomba!
On a recent trip to Puerto Rico, the Amazing Ms. D and I had the opportunity to attend a Bombazo, a community celebration of music and dance. C.O.P.I., a cultural institution in Piñones, runs Bomba drumming and dancing classes on the weekend. They also sponsor a dance troop, La Majesta Negra, which performs Bomba around the island and on the mainland. We heard that they would be holding a celebration of International Women’s Day, and we put it in out calendars in pen.
Bomba is a call and response dance form, but not in the way you might expect. The music of Bomba is all percussion and vocals. Most of the players in the group maintain an on-going rhythm using large barriles drums along with maracas and guilos. The band is accompanied by a group of singers, providing the melody of the song.
The heart of bomba is the relationship, the back and forth, between the dancer and the main drummer, el primero. As I said, bomba is a call and response, however it is the dancer who calls and the drummer that responds. El primero watches the dancer and respond to his or her steps. Together the dancer and drummer create a tension of music and movement the is a joy to watch.
A bombazo is a community celebration, and this one was called to celebrate International Women’s Day. It honored three women dancers long associated with bomba – Lili California (Carmen Lydia Sánchez Cepeda), Narcisa Córdova Rodríguez and Mayra Pizarro Osorio. Commemorations were given the son and Lili California and to Narcisa and Mayra, and then the dancing started.
Mayra and Narcisa were the first dancers, showing off their skill. Then the floor opened up, and the “stars” of the evening began recruiting more dancers. Some of C.O.P.I.’s youth dancers joined in. Finally, members of the crowd were “volunteered” to dance with the drummers, and that is the beauty of a bombazo. It is joyful.
People coming together to play, dance and watch. A chance to show that Puerto Rico, and the Piñones area in particular have survived the worst that hurricanes, and a government that ignores this part of the island could throw at them. A chance to say “We are still here! And we are not going anywhere!”