CULTURE

Showcasing the Vibrant Folk Tradition of Puerto Rican Bomba

Meet trailblazing cultural warrior, Yuma Inarú Pouerie

Credit: the Artist & her barril ~ Parque de los Salseros, Playita, San Juan, Borikén

Un pueblo sin cultura es un pueblo sin identidad (Without culture, there is no identity). ~ Author Unknown

Unique to the archipelago of Borikén (our Indigenous name), Puerto Rican Bomba is a musical genre dating back over 400 years to a time when enslaved persons were brought from Africa. Comprised of three elements: song, dance, and percussion (el barril/tambor~drum, los cuás~wooden sticks y una maraca), the spiritual force behind this vibrant folk tradition conveys a multitude of emotions. It is here, en el Batey (loosely translated: gathering space), to the intoxicating sounds of el tambor, where they expressed joy, suffering, and sometimes celebrated unions. An integral element of Bomba was its use as a vehicle through which rebellions were planned.

Today, the genre remains strong, becoming popular with younger generations eager to learn and experiment with the genre. But there are two things that remain intact: the fervor with which puertorriqueñxs celebrate their Bomba tradition and its use as a forceful mechanism of resistencia (resistance).

Eager to take a closer look into our rich African roots, I sat down with one of Borikén’s rising female pioneers, Educator, Singer, Songwriter, Dancer, and Bombera, Yuma Inarú Pouerie. With a trajectory spanning nearly two decades, including five years of classical opera training, Ms. Pouerie brings her inexhaustible energy and love for la Bomba Puertorriqueña.

Her mission is clear: to help elevate the genre to an international level through education, community, and personal projects.

Guide us through your journey within the world of Puerto Rican Bomba.

It was during la Semana de la Puertorriqueñidad (Puerto Rican Heritage Week). I remember the famed La Familia Cepeda performed at my middle school, Dr. Julio J. Henna. Mesmerized, I observed them from the bleachers, thinking “I want to know more about this. I want to dance this.” The dynamic between the dancers, and the drummer — without understanding the depth of what was happening….I needed to dive deeper.

Then later, in 2004 at Rafael Cordero Molina High School (just shy of turning 15), I auditioned for a recital. I sang a Bolero, and Xaira Reyes Laguer a bailadora who was at the same school took a video. Unaware of who recorded me at the time, the video landed in the hands of Elia Cortés, Founder of Taller Tamboricua, a non-profit aimed at educating in regards to Puerto Rican folk music and culture.. I don’t know how it all went down, but all of a sudden, the following day, I’m in Elia’s Taller, singing a song by the Puerto Rican icon, Singer, and Composer, Ednita Nazario. The tune had zero connection to Bomba, but Elia wanted to hear me sing. It turns out that was an audition!

After that, I became a part of Taller Tamboricua as a choral signer. We had activities in the municipality, in the famed Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (Museum of Art in Santurce.) Hotels, colleges, local cultural events — they all wanted us to perform.

In 2011, I left Taller Tamboricua to study closely with Manuel Perez Kenderish better known as Manny. With him, I focused more on my presence as a dancer — how to express myself in the Batey.

That was such a long time ago, and today my journey has brought me full circle. Today, I teach group and private Bomba dance classes. Having reconnected with the Founder of Taller Tamboricua, we’ve been collaborating on continuing my education on Puerto Rican Bomba. It’s all such a gratifying experience that I’m grateful for.

From an ancestral and spiritual perspective, how would you describe what happens en el Batey?

First and foremost, it’s crucial to recognize Bomba’s inextricable ties to healing. Whether from ancestral trauma or another type of deeply seeded wound, we must remember the why of our presence in the Batey. Thinking of how our ancestors used song, dance, and el tambor, we begin to understand the richly multi-faceted nature of the genre.

Since it’s oral storytelling, the Batey becomes a sacred space. Therein we transport ourselves centuries ago, imagining what those who came before us wanted to share: extreme pain from punishments and being separated from family, strong emotions surrounding planned uprisings, and the gamut of feelings around being un-free. We also begin to grasp that the space was also used to celebrate happier events — perhaps a marriage or the birth of a child.

The point being, it is so much more than a simple get-together of a group of people. To see what transpires in el Batey, you’ll need to understand that Bomba works on call and response. The cantador/cantadora (singer) offers the first verse (including the chorus), then other members present follow with the chorus. As an example:

Cantador/a begins: “Cachón dice Elena, Cachón dice Elena Cachón dice Elena, que vamos pa la Contra pa resguardarse”

Chorus sing:” Cachón dice Elena, Cachón dice Elena Cachón dice Elena, que vamos pa la Contra pa resguardarse”

The song tells of a woman telling others to protect themselves by saying “resguardarse”. For me, as a singer, I began to internalize how to deliver the story of the song — how to give voice (both literally and figuratively) to what might have been going on in Cachón dice Elena’s world.

Another key aspect of what happens in el Batey is the concept of entrar y saludar. Typically, only one dancer improvises at a time, you can enter the Batey in couples, when it comes to your piquetes it should be one at a time. When entering the center of the Batey, it’s very important to greet the drummer(s) — often with a nod of one’s head, some people bow.

There’s also this key concept of identifying the subidor/subidora [the one drummer] who plays according to what the dancer projects (piquetes). This is important because el bailador or la bailadora sets the tone.

Generally beginning with basic steps and continuing to piquetes, the fundamentals in dancing Bomba come together. When ready, you enter the Batey with the basic step on the rhythm that is being played. Taking a circular stroll on the inside of the Batey (called el Paseo), feeling the vibe, and when you’re ready to improvise you salute the lead drummer subidor/subidora.

That’s your moment to express yourself — it becomes a conversation between drummer and dancer. What must not be overlooked is the dancer’s intimate internal dialogue with self, as well as with their ancestors, and the land they are paying homage to. It really is a very personal spiritual experience where both individual and collective connections are felt. Once you feel you’ve left your soul in the Batey you once again salute the lead drummer, thanking them and to also let someone else know that you’re done. The space is now open for the next dancer to come and express themselves.

As a woman tocadora (Bomba drummer), what challenges did you face, and have you seen the folk tradition moving towards a more accepting/nurturing environment?

When I started out in 2003, I noticed there were no women playing the drum (at least, there were too many of us). Of course, there were women dancing and singing. But, insofar as the female representation as tocadoras, that was almost non-existent.

It took many years to change and wasn’t until Amaryllis Ríos started to break those barriers, tearing down those walls. When she was given the opportunity to sit and play el barril, it opened the door for other women to dare to do the same.

That’s not to suggest it was all smooth sailing — there were still obstacles for us. I witnessed machismo many, many times….at times I found it embodied within Bomba circles. By this I mean when a woman subidora was playing, people would no enter el Batey to dance. I saw that countless times in different bombazos (Bomba events) and different spaces.

To clarify, it’s true the crowd would let her play and improvise — bringing her unique flavor and style. But folks would not go in the Batey to dance. Why? Because it was a woman main drummer! The prevailing mindset was one of sexist discrimination — only men could be subidores!! For a woman to be a subidora meant “breaking the tradition.” They’d say “eso se ve feo,” (that looks ugly, inappropriate).

And that mentality created a mental barrier for me — one where I told myself not to dare play el tambor because of what I saw. It was really sad because there wasn’t much inclusion. The environment was very machista. I remember one time Amaryllis Ríos was playing, she was la subidora. No one danced. That day I remember not caring it was a female drummer, I just wanted to dance, to express myself. So, I got up and entered el Batey.

A few of the comments I heard: “she’s gotta be lesbian” and “she’s flirting.” And I recall thinking, what difference does it make — a man [drummer] can do the same.

Things have changed in 2022. Now we have entire groups of women tocadoras, we have Les Barrileras del 8M — a feminist movement [of all women bomberas] honoring revolutionary Puerto Rican women and their struggles. Let’s also note our elders who’ve been creating an inclusive space for LGBTQ+ people: Marie “Calabo” Ramos opened her project Calabo,welcoming members of the LGBTQ+ community. There’s Aidita Encarnación who grabbed a barril and started playing at a time where the discrimination was palpable.

Another thing being challenged is the stereotypical gender roles here in Puerto Rico. It used to be frowned upon for a man to wear a skirt in Bomba — again, we’re talking the deeply rooted machista mindset. Now it is becoming more accepted. We are creating safe spaces where the feminine is celebrated for her strength and contributions to the culture, to the Bomba tradition.

Since you’ve been in the genre nearing two decades, you must have seen many changes. Is la Bomba Puertorriqueña growing in popularity, and do you see that as a danger of it going mainstream?

In recent years there has been a surge in Bomba. Though, the genre is not at the level of Reggeaton, for example. It’s not seen as something lucrative. Apart from local cultural events, smaller community gatherings, there are no huge scale Bomba shows in San Juan’s Centro de Bellas Artes, the famed Performing Arts Institution. Nor are there events promoted at the renowned Coliseo de Puerto Rico, the archipelago’s largest indoor entertainment arena. It is still somewhat clandestine.

While it is true there have been cultural gatherings, for instance, to celebrate a school’s end of the semester, it remains a fact that those are smaller events meant mostly for students’ parents and friends. You’ll hear Bomba played at corner joints or town plazas, that’s usually the extent of it. In order to broaden the scope of Bomba’s reach, there are several things needed: funds, union, education, and respect for the genre.

One crucial component for the prosperity of la Bomba Puertorriqueña is the notion of sharing. It is this idea that la Bomba is for everyone — it does not belong to one group or to any one individual. It’s not mine or yours. Understanding this is how we can propagate it. The more people around to preserve it and keep it alive, the better it is for our culture and for the genre. Everyone benefits.

The evolution I’ve seen has everything to do with people looking for elders and educating themselves responsibly, learning, respecting, understanding that Bomba didn’t start why we first learned how to dance, sing, play that it’s been here way before that. I’ve seen Bomba being documented and recorded as a project you can go back to and learn from because you never stop learning about Bomba. I see people teaching responsibly, respecting our elders and with a hunger to honor the genre.

It has been said that Bomba es Resistencia (Bomba is Resistance). In light of the archipelago’s corrupt government and colonial status, is Bomba still a vehicle for the struggle?

When we talk about Bomba we’re talking about healing. It’s a fundamental as that. Looking at the genre through a more reflective lens, we appreciate its capacity for liberation. What I mean by that is — let me explain. In Spanish we say “bomba es la cura” and this is exactly what happens en the Batey. We are being cured, being healed.

So we begin to understand that through Bomba we are healing — collectively, individually, spiritually, emotionally. All of this is taking place. And it really is not a cliché. Whether one is dancing, singing, playing el tambor — it is all about healing and connecting with your purpose, colleagues, the land, ancestors, your higher self. You’re freeing yourself of sadness, wounds, past trauma — you’re celebrating everything about yourself. That’s why when you dance, and someone tells you “te curaste” it literally means you’ve healed yourself.

In considering resistance, we find that la Bomba Puertorriqueña is a powerful form of expression against anything that oppresses you and the collective — be it corporate interests building in our communities or governmental abuses against our people. Or any other struggle. And this is not something new. Our ancestors used Bomba as solace (coping with being separated from their families, and their homes), as rebellion (planning escapes when they were captive), as celebration (during unions, births of children).

For this reason, Bomba remains prevalent during protests throughout the island. When folks gather to manifest against the privatization of our public schools, or illegal constructions in the name of corporate interests, or abuses at the hands of a corrupt government, they [and we] are often doing so to the invigorating sounds of el tambor.

Insofar as the future generations growing up with Bomba both here in Puerto Rico and with Boricua communities outside of Borikén, what advice would you give to youth curious about exploring the genre?

For kids learning about Bomba, I’d tell them to jump at the chance for that adventure. They must know the importance of starting with a strong foundation: educating themselves. In this regard, their elders are pivotal. When I talked about oral storytelling, this is what I was thinking about. Children must not be afraid to ask questions, to be curious.

They should sit with family and respected community members to learn about the genre’s history, how Bomba was born in Puerto Rico. In studying, they’ll understand more about themselves. It’s absolutely crucial for them to have deep respect and much love for what Bomba means for the culture.

The youth needs to understand that whatever engagement they have (singing, dancing, drumming) is for the genre. In this manner, they too will grow a deeper appreciation for Bomba. The ego must be set aside for the genre to be given the priority it deserves. Once that is acknowledged, Bomba will begin to reach places it hasn’t yet penetrated.

The goal must be to promote the genre, not oneself. When one is dancing or singing or playing el tambor, not only is Bomba being elevated — the memory of your ancestors are also being honored. When you look at it from that perspective it’s easier to maintain the focus of what matters. Bomba is not about who comes in first, second, or third place. It’s a race of resistance and those who survive are those who Resist!

Resources

  1. Historia y Culturahttps://www.impactomedia.com/region/cultura/la-bomba-puertorriquena/ (en español)
  2. Understanding Bombahttps://www.rewire.org/bomba-puerto-rican-music-resistance/
  3. 6to Encuentro de Tambores (Delegación de Loíza) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWPUKy305Gs

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Lola Rosario

Lola Rosario

Afro-Boricua Poet ~ Cultural Storyteller ~ Yoga Instructor. Sharing adventures at https://latrekista.com.