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A brief history of the origins of bomba, a Puerto Rican genre of song, drum and dance often described as the "genre of resistance" that emerged from slavery. More recently, it has been folded into protests for justice in the Black community, on the island and in Kansas City. Video by Anna Gonzalez/Kansas City PBS

Rooted in resistance, Puerto Rico's bomba honors Black lives

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Bomba is more than a genre of folk music. It's a dialogue of rhythm, song and movement built on the resistance and survival of enslaved people in Puerto Rico.

In June, improvisational dance and drumming — as well as chants, protest signs and raised fists — have been harnessed to push for change. These traditional art forms have appeared at Black Lives Matter protests organized in response to the deaths of Black Americans — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade — at the hands of law enforcement, or due to their alleged maltreatment and neglect.

"Seeing how our brothers and sisters are being treated, not being well taken care of … we feel the need to stand up," said Yaira Velez, founder of a Kansas City-based Puerto Rican dance group called Cuerpo de Baile Areito Kansas City.

As a sign of solidarity with the local Black community, Areito members posted a video in which they perform bomba "to continue the much needed conversation and awareness of the BLACK LIVES," the group wrote on Facebook.

The New York Times once described bomba as the "enduring rhythm of Puerto Rico." More than 500-plus years old, this style of drum, dance and song permeates Puerto Rican culture, which is a mixture of African, native Taino and Spanish influences. The act is almost spiritual, akin to hymns and gospel songs sung by enslaved communities in the United States.

Though it's a long-standing tradition that likely began in the mid-to-late 1800s, the Cepeda family popularized it in the 1930s, according to a documentary called "Bomba: Dancing the Drum." The family were known for establishing the first school, Grupo Folkorico La Familia Cepeda, where they passed on the traditions their ancestors had taught them with the community. Doña Caridad Brenes Caballero and Don Rafael Cepeda led the movement on the island, passing the torch to their children in their older age, in educational performances around the world.

In 1983, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded a grant to Don Rafael Cepeda and wife Doña Caridad Brenes Caballero for their cultural contributions. Their son Modesto Cepeda won the same award in 2017. Today, their legacy continues through their descendants, Margarita "Tata" Cepeda and Barbara Liz. Both lead their own nonprofit dance studios. Tata leads Escuela de Bomba y Plena Doña Caridad Brenes de Cepeda in Puerto Rico, and Barbara Liz is director of Escuela de Bomba y Plena Tata Cepeda in Florida.

Modesto Cepeda was honored at the 2017 NEA National Heritage Fellowships concert in Washington, D.C. Video by National Endowment for the Arts

"Es una responsabilidad muy grande," Tata said. It's a big responsibility. She is Rafael Cepeda's great-granddaughter and has carried on the torch through performance and education.

She added: "Esto involucra mucho dolor, muchas muertes. Porque dentro de lo que le damos, estamos hablando de esa parte de la historia donde nuestros ancestros fueron esclavizados."

Translated, she said: "The genre involves a lot of pain and many deaths, because in everything that we express, we're talking about that part of history where our ancestors were enslaved."

The Cepeda family has practiced bomba for eight generations, teaching it and its historical significance to their children. Understanding its roots as a genre of resistance is important.

"Esto no es una moda. Esto es algo de nuestra historia y que debemos respetar," Tata added. It's not a trend. Bomba is to be respected for its place in history.

Dancers don ruffled skirts and hair turbans, which hearken back to their African heritage. When the dancer moves – whether it be a swoosh of the skirt or shoulder shimmy – the drummer follows and slaps the drumhead to her every movement.

The genre is rooted in other similar African forms of song and dance that began on sugar plantations when Spaniards took control of the island. Some historical accounts claim the first African to arrive on the island was free and arrived with Spanish conquistadores. But the Spanish used the slave trade to build an agricultural system for sugar and coffee.

So after a hard day's work, the drums came out and enslaved people began to move, shaking off the pain and frustration through improvisational dance. Styles of dance and movements vary depending on the region.

"We use the bomba genre to project our anger, our sadness … We do understand what Black Lives Matter stands for and we support it because enough is enough," said Barbara Liz, who is Tata's daughter and Rafael Cepeda's great-granddaughter.

Bomba has been described as anti-systemic, anti-racist and anti-oppression. So for another Puerto Rican in the Midwest, Maria Isa, seeing these public displays folded in with the protests is "powerful."

"I'm happy to see that in Kansas City, a small Puerto Rican community [is performing] bomba for Floyd," said Maria Isa, a performance artist and host of a Latinx Theory podcast.

Isa knew Floyd. He worked at a club between 2016 to 2018 where she performed and, being a Latina in a Midwest city, she says he saw and protected her.

"George Floyd made us feel safe," she said. She said he was so tall she would have to give him a hug around the waist, but now she won't ever be able to do that again. "George really believed he was going to change the world. He really is changing the world," she added.

Bomba For George Floyd

For Yaira Velez, the reconnection with her Puerto Rican roots began in the early 2000s when she moved to Kansas City, Missouri. Today, she calls it her second home.

But something was missing. It was the sense of community and tradition.

Around four years ago, she founded Cuerpo de Baile with her sister and a friend. They were a small but determined group, focused on elevating and displaying the Boricua culture in the Midwest. Since then, it has evolved into a cultural hub of support. What began as a two-person team has grown into a 12-person group.

Every year, the group participates in the Ethnic Enrichment Festival and puts on shows displaying bomba and plena – another genre known as the "sung newspaper" – for Hispanic Heritage Month. Like bomba, plena is rooted in African rhythms with its heavy tambourine and guiro. However, plena was a way to communicate relevant, current events throughout the community who were usually lower income. During the holidays, Cuerpo de Baile host parrandas, a Puerto Rican-style of Christmas caroling that involves going house to house for food, drink, music and dance.

No matter what, every season, celebration or day of observation, dance is involved. Just like it is in current-day protests. And in June, Cuerpo de Baile's efforts were refocused to support the days-long demonstrations first sparked by Floyd's death. The group has continued their support by sharing educational posts on their Facebook page about the significance of the African diaspora in Puerto Rican culture, famous Afro-borinquen figures and centered national celebrations of African identity.

More recently, the group also joined marches and different events in the Kansas City metro area in support of BLM and more recently the "Wall of Moms" demonstrations seen in Portland, Oregon, Velez said in an email.

"Those dances are really part of the Puerto Rican fabric … they're old, part of our history," Velez said. "Bomba became a vehicle of resistance; it was a way to affirm their African culture."

At their root, demonstrations on the streets in 2020 mirror demonstrations on plantations in the 17th century, Tata Cepeda said. That's because the practice of bomba sheds light on the persistent maltreatment that has plagued Black communities in the Carribean and in the United States for hundreds of years.

"Es importante lo que está pasando y que la gente se está revelando a mover el piso … y seguir buscando otra alternativa para el fin común, que es vivir todos en un planeta que es el espacio de todos," Tata said.

She encourages folks who are protesting to embrace bomba as part of their battle cry, because she says what's happening now is a civil war. In the late 1800s, bomba not only helped comfort the oppressed and serve as a release for glimpses of joy, it also served as a tool for rebellion against slavery.

Back in Kansas City, this is what groups like Cuerpo de Baile Areito in Kansas City are keeping the beat.

"We're unafraid, we sing our hearts out," Velez said.

This report originally appeared on Kansas City PBS's "Flatland."

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