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Puerto Rico: a baptism in Bomba

In the north east of Puerto Rico, the coastal city of Loíza is championing its African heritage through a centuries-old dance that’s stood the test of time.

By Farida Zeynalova
Published 22 Dec 2019, 06:00 GMT
Bomba y plena posters, Loíza
Bomba y plena posters, Loíza
Photograph by Alamy

Puerto Rico has always marched to the beat of its own drum — and if you ask any Puerto Rican, they’ll tell you that the drum in question is the barril de bomba, a rum barrel topped with goat skin that’s beaten during the uniquely Afro-Boricua dance, the bomba.  

“When the Africans came here as slaves, this kind of music became a release for them, to show what they have inside, their identity,” says Juan Fuentes, a 60-something wood artisan who’s been making bomba drums for over 40 years. “Only a few people in Puerto Rico know how to build one of these,” he says. I watch him chisel away in his roadside workshop in Loíza, a coastal city in the island’s north east. “Actually, I’m the only one alive. The other three passed away.” 

Bomba music first emerged in Loíza in the 17th century, when Central and West African slaves arrived on the Spanish-ruled island aboard a British ship. Over time, African and Spanish cultures entwined, birthing a syncopated dance, comprising a maraca-shaking singer, dancers in colourful turbans and long skirts and, most importantly — in the eyes of Juan, at least — drummers, the backbone of any bomba performance.

In day-to-day life and on colourful posters around Loíza, you’ll see bomba referred to as bomba y plena — plena being the cathartic, lyrical structure of the dance that developed a few centuries later in Ponce on the southern coast. These sung sentiments, sometimes called periódico cantado, or ‘sung newspaper’, range thematically from mourning a loss to political uprisings, but at their heart are always expressions of community.  

Like most Puerto Ricans, Juan is a fiercely proud Boricua, a word that derives from the island’s indigenous Taíno Indian name, Borikén. His straw trilby is embellished with a pin of the island’s omnipresent flag, and he’s wearing the brightest cobalt-blue tropical shirt and black, thick-rimmed glasses. There are two types of bomba drum, Juan tells me: the low-pitched buleador, which leads a consistent beat, and the high-pitched subidor, or primo, which echoes the movements of the dancer. His workshop is a mishmash of nuts and bolts, tins of paint and glue, and skeletons of rum barrels and bongo drums. Next to him is a large barril de bomba, painted in Loíza colours of red, gold and green — a trio featured not only on the community’s flag, but on bus stops and lamp posts, too.

Juan Fuentes is a fiercely proud Boricua, and has been making bomba drums for over 40 years.
Photograph by Farida Zeynalova

After I bid adiós to Juan, I head to Cueva María de la Cruz, a cave recently converted into a tourist centre, to meet Sheila Osorio, a bomba dance teacher whose workshops attract Puerto Ricans from across the island. 

“The legacy of the Afro-Puerto Ricans is very important; it brings a deep influence to the food, to the dance and to the way we speak here, which is very different to other places in Puerto Rico,” explains Sheila. “We borrow vocabulary from Africa and entwine it with English and Spanish.” 

Then, with just a gentle nod, she signals to the drummer and starts swaying her lime-green skirt from side to side. She’s wearing a turban — a traditional part of the female bomba costume — in the colours of Loíza, of course. As the rhythm quickens, the swaying escalates into sharp flicks and her feet pick up pace, and it’s not long before Sheila and the percussionists are conversing through the beat of the drum and the rattling of the maracas. She raises her arms in the air and spins around, her hips rocking from side to side. The key, Sheila tells me, is to improvise. “Just feel, let your body talk.” 

I’m struck by bomba’s endurance. Even after 400 years, it’s a powerful manifestation of the island’s mixed heritage, with Puerto Ricans from all walks of life proudly preserving its roots. Every summer, thousands of Loiceños take to the streets during the St James the Apostle Festival and dance to bomba wearing vejigante masks. Carnivals in the cities of San Juan and Ponce also attract masses of proud Boricuas to the soundtrack of bomba y plena. And in New York City, where 10% of the population is Puerto Rican, bands like the Grammy-nominated Los Pleneros de la 21 keep the bomba beat alive. And then there are Boricua superstars Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez, both of whom returned to the island in 2018 and publicly danced the bomba as a show of solidarity in the wake of Hurricane Maria. 

From an outsider’s perspective, the music most closely associated with Puerto Rico is reggaeton. But ask any Puerto Rican — and anyone who’s been here for even a short stay — and they’ll tell you that it’s actually the bomba that remains the island’s unwavering rhythm.

San Juan: three places to dance the bomba

La Terraza De Bonanza
Ask a local where to go for a night of bomba, and chances are they’ll send you here. This laid-back joint hosts live bomba y plena nights on Mondays, serving up beer and cheap street food. It’s about as Puerto Rican as it gets. 

La Vergüenza 
This spot in Old San Juan offers sensational sea views and hard-to-beat mojitos. Head here on Sundays when locals take to the streets to dance the bomba y plena and rumba. 

Café Borikén 
Located in San Juan’s Rio Piedras neighbourhood, this hole-in-the-wall style cafe is chiefly known for its reggaeton nights, but expect plenty of bomba y plena every Wednesday at 10pm.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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