The resurgence of a traditional Afro-Puerto Rican musical genre owes something to formal experimentation. But some traditionalists fear that its roots are at risk.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Drummers beat the goatskin covers of rum barrels while a singer led a chorus in call and response. A dancer emerged from the crowd, tipping an imaginary hat to the lead drummer. It’s a gesture that says the bomba has begun.
This playful exchange between dancers, singers and drummers is the rhythmic backbone of Afro-Boricuas here. Developed in the 17th century, when the Spanish were still in control, it is one of the oldest musical traditions on the island. Some of its earliest practitioners were West Africans working on sugar plantations; their bomba dances offered a means of social connection and catharsis, and, according to the ethnomusicologist Salvador E. Ferreras, sometimes helped them to disguise revolts.
These days, bomba offers a different kind of diversion. The mayor of San Juan danced the bomba with Ricky Martin. And recently, the filmmaker Spike Lee was here filming bomba scenes for the second season of “She’s Gotta Have It.” It’s an art form on the verge of becoming mainstream.
For generations of Afro-Boricua workers and families, bomba has remained central to community, with the drum acting as an instrument of political power, entertainment and spiritual release. Some may even call bomba the soundtrack of Puerto Rican resistance. At this year’s May Day march in San Juan, its lyrics and drumbeats echoed through the crowds airing their opposition to austerity measures, including school closures and university tuition hikes, before police fired pepper spray and tear gas to end the protest.
Bomba’s resilient spirit has become more pronounced in the face of the island’s economic crisis and the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria.
At La Terraza de Bonanza, any given bomba night is bound to be packed with young people. Some dance with exaggerated technique, their faces pinched tight with discipline. Traditionalists flick a fan or a skirt to mark their control over the physical space. Others are more avant-garde and incorporate acrobatic moves, or an arrhythmic dance known as flossing.
These nights began with just a few friends getting together to play drums, said Otura Mun, the frontman of the Afro-Caribbean electronic band ÌFÉ, and grew through social media and word of mouth. Attendance really swelled after Hurricane Maria in September 2017; because Bonanza had a generator still on hand from Hurricane Irma, the no-frills, open-air bar was one of few places in the neighborhood with power. It opened for business just two days after the storm.
The resurgence of bomba owes something to formal experimentation. La Tribu de Abrante, a high-energy, 12-piece fusion orchestra, has blended the sounds of bomba with reggaeton, reggae and hip-hop. The openness to new sounds has helped expand bomba’s audience locally, through live performance and radio, and globally, by associating it with popular genres.
“When I traveled to other countries, people would say reggaeton is the traditional music of Puerto Rico,” recalled Hiram Abrante, the band’s frontman, who is from Loíza. “I’d say, ‘What? It’s bomba.’”
His goal has always been to make bomba more accessible to listeners around the world while maintaining respect for its traditions and history. At the recent Festival del Apio in Barranquitas, Mr. Abrante acknowledged bomba’s heritage by closing La Tribu’s set with a salute to two of San Juan’s oldest bomba families: the Cepedas and the Ayalas.
“With evolution, there is responsibility,” said Victor Emmanuelli, 41, a member of the musical group Bomba Evolución and a historian of the genre. “It’s important for young people to have the fundamentals in order for the genre to evolve.” He started playing bomba at age 8 in Carolina, a town between San Juan and Loíza.
Jerry Ferrao, who played with the Cepedas for 20 years, has noticed that some younger players seem overly concerned with playing fast, favoring the rhythm of the dance over the poetry of the songs.
Yet others regard the accelerating pace as only natural, even evolutionary. “Drivers from the 1960s can say 2018 drivers are going too fast, but cars are faster these days,” said Jose L. Elicier, 41, who plays with the group Majestad Negra.
But what do the first families of bomba make of all this change?
Jesús Cepeda was seated on a cot in the modest three-bedroom home where he was raised with 10 brothers and sisters and a few other relatives. The walls of the house, which once belonged to his father, the famous bombero Don Rafael Cepeda, are a monument to the family’s cultural legacy, filled end to end with commemorative plaques and sun-bleached certificates of recognition, including one signed by Ronald Reagan.
“Regarding the success of La Tribu, I want to be sincere,” said Mr. Cepeda, 68. “Mixing reggaeton and reggae with bomba — on the one hand, it’s good, it’s beautiful. Young people are representing the same idea that we are.”
“They’re helping bomba,” Mr. Cepeda said of La Tribu, “but I have 65 years of doing this, giving classes, direct from folklore. It’s not a mix. I can speak to the masters of generations before me, but they can’t. They’re not masters, they’re students.”
He remembers a time when Afro-Puerto Rican music wasn’t so popular, when bomba was dressed up differently to appeal to white audiences. “They put two white dancers on the cover of the album,” said Mr. Cepeda, laughing, describing Rafael Cortijo’s breakthrough album, “Rafael Cortijo y Su Combo Invites You to Dance.” His father played with the band.
“It was harder for us then, you know what I mean?” Mr. Cepeda said. “We were poor, we were black, we didn’t have a studio. All we had was bomba, nothing else.”
Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi contributed reporting.
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