During the 1500s, enslaved West Africans were sent to Puerto Rico by the Spaniards. By 1530, half of the Spanish territory’s population was from Africa. Over time, the number of West Africans enslaved on the island grew, with many working in sugar plantations amid the region’s indigenous Taino people.
Along the way, Bomba was what these enslaved Africans created to express themselves. The traditional dance and music “provided a source of political and spiritual expression” for the enslaved. As Bomba evolved, it became an expression of culture and resistance.
“When we have something to say to protest, we go out there and play bomba,” Mar Cruz, an Afro-Puerto Rican dancer, told KQED. “It is our way of saying ‘we are here.’”
Today, Bomba is performed mostly in Loíza, described as Puerto Rico’s center of Black culture. Other areas like Santurce, Mayagüez and Ponce also dance to Bomba. What’s more, some Puerto Rican migrants have brought Bomba to some parts of the United States.
The traditional Puerto Rican dance and musical genre uses percussion instruments, with musicians following the rhythm of the dancer. As a report by KQED explains: “A bomba percussion ensemble generally comprises a few barriles, hand drums originally made from rum barrels, with differing pitches determining musical roles; a cuá, or barrel drum played with sticks; and a time-keeping maraca, often played by a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 many Bomba styles, the sicá, yubá and holandés are what most people know about. The fact that the dancer takes the lead or leads the drummer during a performance is what makes Bomba unique, most dancers say.
“You’re making the music with your body and on top of that it’s improvised,” said Mar. “Everything you freestyle becomes a communication between the dancer and the drummer.”
Barbara Liz-Cepeda is the great-granddaughter of prolific musician Rafael Cepeda, who is recognized as the “Patriarch of the Bomba.” She runs two bomba schools with her family. One of the schools is in Kissimmee, Florida, and the other in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
She considers Bomba very important because it is the legacy of her great-grandfather and his family. Indeed, the Cepeda family has passed down the sound and rhythm of Bomba for eight generations, according to ABC News. One can confidently say that but for the Cepeda family, Bomba might have been long gone.
In the 20th century when other styles were beginning to become popular among Puerto Ricans, Bomba was marginalized largely because it was Black music. It was Rafael Cepeda, one of the foremost performers of Bomba, who initiated a revival of the dance and musical genre by forming the performing ensemble “La Familia Cepeda”, creating original compositions and touring extensively in the United States and Europe to promote the unique musical traditions of his homeland.
Currently, as some Puerto Ricans continue to leave the island to pursue jobs elsewhere, they take with them the island’s culture and traditions such as Bomba.
During the Black Lives Matter protests recently following the death of George Floyd, many Puerto Ricans — those on the island and the U.S. mainland — used Bomba to protest and condemn racism. And last February amid Black History Month, Afro-Puerto Ricans used Bomba to pay tribute to their ancestors who were enslaved.