what is bomba and plena?

Bomba and Plena music represents the drum music of Puerto Rico and as such they reflect the African presence in Puerto Rico’s culture.  Plena is the more modern of the two rhythms and has over 100 years of use because it developed in the working class towns near the coasts of Puerto Rico in the 19th Century.

Bomba enjoys over 300 years of history in Puerto  Rico and is a clearer symbol of the Island’s African heritage. Both genres are enjoying a renaissance in the last 20 years but both are marginalized as are all things African from the mainstream culture within Puerto Rico and within the Puerto Rican diaspora.  As such Bomba especially, is always on the edge of oblivion while Plena has had sporadic commercial success within Latino communities since the 1920s.

In New Jersey it is still not surprising to find knowledgeable Puerto Ricans who still cannot differentiate the two genres or who know little to nothing about their richness, history or complexity. Puerto Rican Bomba the way we know it today was born in the sugar cane plantations of Puerto Rico.  It is the antecedent to the dances and danzas of our communities. The towns that dominated the Bomba were Ponce, Guayama, Salinas,and Santurce.  What we now call Santurce was called Cangrejo and was the Mecca of Puerto Rican Bomba. Here you can still find men, women and children singing and dancing Bomba in the streets of their communities.

The fear that exists over the extinction of this genre has evolved from the sugar cane plantation workers. This was their way of finding solace and telling stories of their heritage. This music is taught informally and is handed down through the generations. It has always been discriminated against and marginalized because of its African roots. It is no longer played on the radio and there are not many commercial recordings of this genre. Even the drums that are used are not commercially made and need to be made by artisans or percussionists themselves. “The best way to destroy a people is to destroy their cultural identity”. This is why Bomba is endangered and this is why we need to preserve it. This is what Cimarrones is attempting to do. By teaching the youth and the youth teaching other youth, we can preserve this art form for many generations to come.  This is important to our communities because the most complex way to destroy a community is to destroy its cultural identity. Through Bomba we are able to practice and preserve our cultural identity throughout the years.

Bomba and Plena dance, drumming and singing in traditional call and response format is both an affirming and spiritual act.  It affirms the multi-racial nature of Puerto Ricans everywhere and it has a pull and attraction that borders on spirituality because it invokes words and phrases of languages other than Spanish in its lexicon. As such it strikes a chord among all Puerto Ricans as well as Caribbeans and others that reminds them of their ancestors.  In that sense it restores and confirms our identity.

Insights by Miguel Sierra & Juan Cartagena two of my teachers.

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