For a shorter and more fun introduction to bomba and its history, check out this comic book from the Instituto de Cultura de Puerto Rico (written by veteran bombera Awilda Sterling) titled “A bailar mi bomba.” (available here for free).
Puerto Rican bomba has a rich and complex history that is being gathered, exchanged, and circulated as we speak. It is not the kind of history that was written down in books, since as an old proverb repeated throughout Africa says, “until the tale of the lion tells its own history, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” The history of Borikuas in the archipelago and in the diaspora has typically been written down and disseminated by people who either ignored, misunderstood, or maligned bomba practitioners. Memories of bomba have been preserved and passed down, not through universities in Puerto Rico, nor through the Music Conservatory which until recently was focused on “conserving” Western Classical while largely ignoring the near disappearance of bomba in the mid to late 20th century.
Now that bomba has become a form of popular music outside of the pueblos or barrios that preserved and nurtured it since the nearly four-century long enslavement of the Afroborikua creators of bomba and their kin, there are people of diverse colors and backgrounds learning to execute bomba. In part, this is welcome since it signals that broader publics have finally begun to understand and appreciate the tradition’s artistic richness. However, as bomba elders continue to pass away, and as online tools like youtube and social media have become partial substitutes to true bomba teachers, we run the risk of forgetting or ignoring the memories of survival, resistance, struggle and thrivance contained within bomba. In many ways, bomba today functions as the areytos (see below): as instruments of communal intergenerational remembrance through which thoughts, as well as emotions and sensations, are kept and passed on. 1.
It is important for any student of bomba to take bomba history as seriously as the study playing, singing, and dancing. This wiki’s role is not to replace the teacher-student exchange, for which we believe there is no equivalent. Rather our goal is to facilitate those person-to-person transmissions of bomba.
The Importance of Bomba History, for Bomberxs, for Puerto Rico, and for the World
As a continuously colonized and dislocated group of peoples, our social and cultural history as Puerto Ricans has been distorted by the external and internalized relationships of power that have shaped our senses of self.
For this reason, bomba history is not just important for current or future bomba practitioners. It is also a mirror for Borikuas to look at themselves in. It reflects back to us historically silenced memories of things such as slavery, racism, patriarchy, exploitation, dislocation, family separation, migration, violence. These are events and forces that Borikuas have repressed in their collective memory but that still inflect our present. Therefore, that mirror that the bomba Batey can enact can reveal to us those hauntings, but it can also reveal to us a rich trajectory of resilience, community-building, individual and collective strength, pride, humor, different forms of beauty, and different forms of love and affection among other things. And that “us” that can glean valuable perspectives from this mirror does not just include those that are evidently descended from enslaved Africans. It also educates non-evidently Black boricuas who share intimacy with those directly descended from bomba ancestors. Bomba also has much to provide for non-Borikuas whose lives resonate with the experiences and wisdom exchanged corporeally, musically, and verbally through this tradition (other Black-diasporic peoples, indigenous peoples, people compelled to migrate to survive, queer people, deemed to be “disreputable” for their gender expressions and sexuality, and allies and accomplices of these populations who share intimacy with them).
As a cultural product of the Black diaspora, bomba has also been exoticized, fetishized, and commodified. It has been a source of extraction for a broad range of purposes that oftentimes rub against the wellbeing of the communities that bomba comes from. This is another reason why studying bomba history is critical. A deeper knowledge of its trajectory can help us steer clear of these tendencies.
Bomba Precursors, Taíno Ancestrors: Areytos
Although bomba as an Afro-diasporic and Afro-borikua genre of music and dance is not directly mentioned in the Spanish archives until the late 1600s, there is an interesting precursor to it that appears in Gonzalo de Ovideo’s Historia general y natural de las Indias (1535). 2. There, Oviedo describes Taíno dances known as areytos. 3
There, he documents their use of percussion instruments such as maracas and also another set of “tambores” (drums) played on hollowed trunks, albeit not with skins. In this regard, this instrument was more similar to the cuas than the barriles played in bomba (for a recreation of what areyto music sounded like, click HERE). Neverheless, Oviedo commented that this kind of Taíno areyto drum “suena como los atambores sordos que hacen los negros” ( they “sound like the dull-sounding drums made by the blacks”) and that this Taíno equivalent to deep-toned African drums “por do rebomba de mala gracia” (all over, they make their hideous rumble). 4 Here, we encounter an early conquistador comparing Taíno percussive music–along with its accompanying call and response singing and dancing–to African music and casting both as traditions that made sounds that offended the sensibilities of Europeans. In other words, to Oviedo, these traditions were cacophonic (=something that makes harsh and discordant sounds). Thus, to him and probably to his readers, the Taíno Areyto represented a kind of “primitive savagery” that Europeans had “surpassed.” In other words, in Oviedo, we find the first instance of the kind of musical racism that later cast bomba as a tradition that needed to be eliminated through colonialism and western-centric “progress.” For more details on this, click HERE.
Puerto Rican bomba is, without a doubt, the oldest genre of music and dance from the island. As something referred to as “bomba,” it may have already been around by the mid-1600s and possibly earlier. We can divide the history of bomba into the following periods (based on categories devised by the recognized bombero and researcher Jorge Emmanuelli Náter):
- Bomba during slavery (c.a. 1500s-1600s to 1873)
- Community bomba among working-class populations/barrios (1873 to 1950s)
- Bomba during the height of folkloric groups (1950s to 1990s)
- Renaissance of community bomba during the growth of “bombazos” and bomba schools (1990 to present)
Due to the notable influence that people from the French-speaking parts of the Caribbean had on bomba—mainly enslaved Africans and their descendants from those parts—, we should also distinguish between:
- Bomba before French Caribbean migrations and influence (pre-1790s)
- Bomba during the era of French Caribbean influence (after initial migrations from Saint Domingue/Haiti (1790s-1804) and subsequent migrations of planters and their slaves due to the abolition of slavery in Martinique and Guadaloupe (1848)
The Origin of the Word “Bomba”
There are several theories about the etymology of the word bomba. Some claim it is derived from an old Ashanti word bommae or bommaa, a drum used in official state ceremonies. 5 One basis for this theory is that enslaved Ashantis were among the main ethnic groups forced into ships and put to work in Puerto Rico in the 17th century, along with other groups from the Gold Coast. Another is that playing large wood drums laid down on the floor—as in the south of Puerto Rico—exists among certain Gold Coast populations. 6
Another theory is that it comes from the root word ngwoma which means drum in various derivatives of an ancestral bantu language spoken in modern-day countries such as Cameroon, Gabón, Congo, Angola, and Mozambique. In the Kikongo language, the word ngoma denotes a dance drum made of wood. 7 One basis for this theory is that the style of the drum following the movements of the dancer—as opposed to the more popular tradition of the dancer following the drum—exists among some Congolese populations.
Earliest Mentions of Bomba
Miguel Enríquez’s account (1680s)
The oldest document mentioning bomba that we know of is a letter written by the Puerto Rican privateer, Miguel Enríquez (born c.a. 1674, died 1743). A mulato man of humble origins from San Juan, Enríquez became one of the wealthiest and most influential figures of his time. In the letter, which is addressed to his nephew, he recounts events from his youth in San Juan (he was born in 1674). He tells how bishop of San Juan between 1684-1693, Juan Francisco de Padilla, banned a dance that a group of free mulatos would do in a church to “glorify the blessed sacrament.” The original text states that:
At the point where Bishop Francisco de Padilla banned the aforementioned dance that a group of free Mulattos used to perform to glorify the Blessed Sacrament, had enough reasons for it. The dance they offered, rather than bringing people together in piety, led the faithful attendants to smiling, and in many cases, to loud and shrill laughter. His judgment was founded. The dancers who did not lack the disposition to braid rhythmic movements to the beat of drums, which they called bomba, were a disaster when they did it with shawms, vihuelas, harps and bassoons. 8
As can be seen here, the reason why the bishop supposedly banned this dance to liturgical music played with string and wind instruments was that it would cause laughter among the public, presumably because of their poor, odd, or unenthusiastic execution. Enríquez contrasted the way those dancers moved inside the church to how they showed great skill and enthusiasm when they “braided rhythmic music to the beat of drums” which according to Enríquez “they called bomba.”
André Pierre Ledru’s account (1790s)
The second oldest known primary source mentioning bomba may be a travel narrative penned almost a century later by the French priest and botanist, André Pierre Ledru, who visited the island of Puerto Rico in 1797 as part of a journey through the Caribbean. Ledru later published a book on his travels titled Voyage aux iles de Tenerife, la Trinité, Saint-Thomas, Sainte- Croix et Porto- Ricco (Voyage to the Islands of Tenerife, Trinidad, Saint Thomas, Saint Croix, and Puerto Rico) in which he recounts having visited a hacienda in Puerto Rico in which he witnessed something resembling bomba.
There have been some misinterpretations of this source due to a slightly flawed translation from the original French to Spanish that claims that Ledru mentioned having seen a dance played to bomba drums. The original French text does not use that word. Instead, Ledru used the term “bamboula,” a word that denotes drums and rhythms played with them similar to bomba found in other parts of the Caribbean. In other words, it neither confirms nor disproves that Ledru witnessed a bomba dance. There’s a good chance that indeed it was (and that he did not know enough about local customs to refer to it as “bomba”). However, there is a less likely but still tenable possibility that Ledru witnessed another kind of music that was regarded as separate from what Miguel Enríquez saw in San Juan and called “bomba” a century before.
Some secondary sources have also wrongly claimed that this drum and string-music dance that Ledru witnessed was in Aibonito, which would be significant since there is not much documentation of any bámbula music or bomba-like dance being played in haciendas so far inland (i.e., in areas that relied much less on slave labor, although slavery certainly existed in mountain towns growing coffee and tobacco). 9. In the French original, Ledru did in fact mention that he was coming from Fajardo on his way to Aibonito. A storm led he and his guide to find refuge in Don Benito’s hacienda containing both sugarcane and coffee plantations, which according to Ledru was “by the shores of the Loíza river.” It is almost certain that the hacienda Ledru belonged to Don Benito Correa, a grandson of Antonio de los Reyes Correa of Arecibo (i.e., the famous “Capitán Correa” who repelled England’s attempted invasion of Puerto Rico in 1702). 10 We do not know the full list of properties that Don Benito owned but we do know that the had an estate that lay to the north of the Las Lomas area of what is now Canóvanas, and to the South of the Loíza River. In other words, a possible location for this bomba dance that Ledru witnessed was not in the mountainous central belt of Borikén but rather in the plains and foothills between the San Isidro and Santa Bárbara barrios in Canóvanas, not far from el Yunque.
For a longer discussion of Ledru’s portrait of bomba, click HERE.
For more information on descriptions by travelers in the late 1700s who described these French Antillean traditions that were related to bomba–including with strings being played alongside drums–see our article about bomba’s trans-Caribbean connections.
Manuel Alonso’s mention (1849)
Other historical primary sources that mention bomba drums, music, or dance include Manuel Alonso’s El Gíbaro (1849). In a section of this book, Alonso describes the different dances practiced in Puerto Rico around the middle of the 19th century. He contrasts those of high society from dances practiced by the laboring classes, which he characterizes as “bailes de garabato,” the latter word meaning literally “scribble,” in other words, dances described as basic, irregular, twisted. Among those “bailes de garabato” were “bailes de bomba”:
“In Puerto Rico there are two types of dances: those of society, that are none other than the echoes repeated there of European dances, and others called scribble dances, that are autochtonous to the land, although they derive according to my understanding from Spanish national dances mixed with those of the primitive inhabitants [of the island]. There are also some known [dances] from Africa, introduced by blacks of this region, but that have never generalized themselves, known as bomba dances, after the instrument that produces the music for them.”[translation into English by the contributor of this wiki article]. 11
At the end of this description, Alonso adds a second reference to bomba along with a disclaimer about his decision to not include under “bailes de garabato” music and dances practiced black Africans and by immigrants from the Dutch Antilles, claiming that they were practiced in Puerto Rico but not broadly:
“Such are the scribble dances: those of black Africans and creoles from Curaçao do not merit inclusion under this category. Although they are seen in Puerto Rico, they have never become generalized. [translation into English by the contributor of this wiki article]. 12
Returning to the topic discussed above of the way that bomba received influences from dance and music practices found in Caribbean islands colonized by the Dutch, Danish, and French, it is interesting that Alonso validates the presence of dances from Curaçao in Puerto Rico. Even more interesting is the fact that he puts them in the same category of practices that were never “generalized” among the Puerto Rican population, along with the “bomba dances” he mentions that Alonso himself admits came from Africa since they had been ”introduced by blacks of this region.” In other words, this is not only one of the earliest known mentions of bomba in the island but also one–if not the earliest–attempt at denying the imprint that bomba and its sister practices had on Puerto Rico’s national culture. 13
Luis Bonafoux’s Account (1882)
Another 19th-century source that mentions bomba in Puerto Rico appears in a text by Luis Bonafoux y Quintero, the French-Venezuelan journalist raised in Puerto Rico, known for his liberal tendencies, his affinity for a polemic style of writing, and his friendship with Ramón Emeterio Betances. At the end of one essay titled “Carnaval de las Antillas”, Bonafoux recounted his visit to the town of Loíza during the Fiestas de Santiago Apóstol. In one passage, he describes the following bomba dance:
Meanwhile, in some untilled and filthy wilderness, blacks of both sexes abandon themselves to pleasure in a delicious dance. With the men almost naked and women covered with plantain leaves and all shouting imprecations to the heavens, they dance around three or four blacks, famous musicians on their ‘bombas,’ with which they produce a gentle sound: about as gentle as cannon shots! Soon, the dust fills the air and a very pure perfume of billy goat fills the atmosphere; the imprecations are steadily more spirited and the jungle cries more shrill as the ‘bomba’ continues to sound.[translation into English by the contributor of this wiki article]. 14
Sections to be added soon (remember, this site is always under construction so check back frequently):
Bomba in the Early- to Mid-20th Century
Bomba Folklorization in the Mid-Twentieth Century
Bombazo Explosion: Bomba Repopularization in the Late-Twentieth Century
Bomba Roots and Branches in the 21st Century
- It is important to remember here that our Antillean Taíno and Kalinago ancestors had cultural practices that had much common with the escaped Africans they encountered in marroonage, including the use of call and response polyrhythmic music and dance as a social technology of cohesiveness and collective memory ↩
- de Oviedo y Valdés, Gonzalo Fernández (1935). Historia general y natural de las Indias. http://www.ems.kcl.ac.uk/content/etext/e026.html#d0e50 ↩
- Note: Oviedo describes an areyto in Hispaniola but it is implied that these practices were common among Taínos living in different islands, including in Puerto Rico ↩
- A note about the word “rebombar“: Oviedo’s use of the term here does not connect the Taíno music that he was documenting with with later Afro-Borikua bomba. The latter term does not appear in his crónica. Rather, “rebombar” was a word already in use at the time that was derived from the onomatopoeic Latin word “bombus” which meant “noise.” In Castilian, it came to denote something that sounded like a bomb, i.e., an explosion. ↩
- Vega Druet, Hector (1979). Historical and Ethnological Survey on Probable African Origin of the Puertorrican Bomba: Including a Description of Santiago Apostol Festivities at Loíza Aldea. Ph.D. dissertation, Wesleyan University. ↩
- Peña Aguayo, José Javier (2015). La Bomba Puertorriqueña en la Cultura Musical Contemporánea. Tésis de doctorado. Universidad de Valencia, p. 57. ↩
- Álvarez Nazario, Manuel (1960). “Historia de las denominaciones de los bailes de la bomba.” Revista De Ciencias Sociales, (1), 59-73. ↩
- López Cantos, Ángel (1997). Mi Tío, Miguel Enríquez. San Juan: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, pp. 38-39. ↩
- See for example González García, Lydia Milagros. 2004. Elogio de la bomba: homenaje a la tradición de Loíza. Loíza, PR: La Mano Poderosa ↩
- Benito’s father, Francisco, was also a Captain in the Spanish army and moved with his family from Arecibo to the Loíza region which back then also comprised parts of what is now known as Carolina, Canóvanas and Río Grande. ↩
- Alonso, Manuel (1849). El gíbaro: cuadro de costumbres de la isla de Puerto Rico. Barcelona, p. 58. Available online at: https://issuu.com/adelantereunificacionistas/docs/el_gibaro ↩
- Ibid. p. 67. ↩
- It bears mentioning that in Puerto Rican literary studies, Alonso’s El Gíbaro stands out as one of the texts that first cemented the idea that there was such a thing as a “Puerto Rican nation” with distinct “customs” by documenting cultural practices that set it apart from other locations that began to imagine themselves as nations around the 18th and 19th centuries. In other words, from the earliest literary iterations of Puerto Rican nationhood, lettered white elite intellectuals like Alonso set their sights on centering customs that they considered to be Spanish-derived but that had a local flavor due to the influences of mixed-race people in the island, while simultaneously marginalizing practices that exhibited a stronger African influence. ↩
- Bonafoux, Luis (1882). Ultramarinos. Madrid, pp. 7-8. Available online through Google Books. ↩