The Bomba Wiki is a repository for shared knowledge and community histories of bomba, the oldest existing music and dance genre from the island of Puerto Rico, a tool for Afro-Puerto Rican survival and resistance, and one of the longest-practiced performative genres in the Caribbean. In the last 20 years, we have seen a renaissance of bomba, both in the island from which it comes, and in the Diasporican and Latinx communities of the US mainland. Hundreds of young people have joined with experienced elders and knowledge-bearers with family histories of bomba practice to transform bomba from something that was regarded as either frozen in time or set for musical extinction, into a living, breathing art form and tool for community-making in the 21st century.
In previous eras, lettered people with influence and power in Puerto Rico saw bomba, not as a complex and changing cultural register, but rather, as a practice lacking value that ought to be forgotten. Anti-black racism along with colonial ideologies in Puerto Rico contributed to generations of people of all class and race backgrounds disparaging bomba and seeking to disidentify with it. While these dynamics on the island persist, this genre has begun to be respected as a living art and as an effective tool for linking communities within Puerto Rico and between neighboring islands, and also between groups of boricuas and their allies and friends in the US mainland.
Throughout this time, knowledge of bomba has been difficult to diffuse in printed form or in regular website formats. As an oral tradition, it is constantly changing through creative interpretation or through the internal contestation of practitioners that have learned and taught competing versions of songs, rhythms, dances, stories, etc. Because of this, a centralized forum for freely exchanging bomba knowledge has never existed until now. Thanks to the wiki format, we are able to document knowledge of bomba in a way that reflects both the fundamentals of its history and practice but also its everchanging and evercommunal essence. We invite anybody who is a bomba practitioner and a bearer of bomba knowledge to breathe life into this forum by modifying text, by linking articles, by generating new content, and by uploading media such as photos and videos. We also invite students or aficionados of bomba to use this site to peak their interest and mastery of this subject. Please share widely!
What is Bomba?
Bomba is a music and dance genre from the island of Puerto Rico in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Its four century-long history began in Afro-Puerto Rican communities that descended from slaves that began to be brought by force to work in Puerto Rico in the 16th century. Bomba began to be played on coastal plantations, and later, in laboring class communities. By the 20th century, it was danced and played in yards behind peoples’ homes, or in bars, festivals, rental halls, and community centers. Bomba was performed in birthday celebrations, in weddings, in funerals and even inside churches. It also began to be performed on stages by folkloric groups, often in coreographed form, and with dress chosen specifically for shows.
BOMBA ≠ PLENA
Frequently, bomba is confused with plena, a completely separate genre of music, also of Afro-Puerto Rican roots, that started much later during the beginning of the 20th century, and that is played with hand drums called “panderetas” or “panderos.” This confusion is due to the fact that many of those who dance and play bomba also perform plena, oftentimes during the same events. In contrast to plena, bomba is played with much heavier drums that produce deeper and louder tones. These are called “bombas” or “barriles.” Other instruments used to play bomba include the “cua” (wood sticks played on a wood or bamboo surface), the maraca, and signing voices. The dance was traditionally executed in couples, but in recent times, it has transformed more into a solo improvised dance. The most characteristic element of bomba is that the person before the musicians initiates movements that the lead drum (called a ‘primo’ or ‘subidor’) sonically interprets in a simultaneous manner. In other words, there is a conversation between the person dancing and the drum, or more accurately, a translation of senses in which the dancer’s body speaks and the drummer listens and simultaneously responds with an audible version of those visible movements. While this “game” plays out, the other drums (“buleadores”) play one of many repetitive rhythms recognized within the tradition (called “seises de bomba”) of which there are dozens. Each one has a specific name (e.g,, “sicá,” “yubá,” “cuembé”). While this happens, the lead voice sings improvised verses that serve as a kind of “call” while the chorus “responds” with a repeated melodic stanza that gives each song its particular message and character. Bomba draws its complexity and unique character from the interaction of these elements.