New Generation Bomba

After Caridad Brenes died, her granddaughter Margarita Cepeda felt her grandmother's spirit dancing inside her. Mami Cari had raised Margarita from the time she was a baby and, most important, had taught her as a little girl how to dance bomba. Holding her wide skirt high and swishing it in front of her shoulders, Cepeda's chest and hips shift in opposite directions as she points her toe and flicks her heel, just as her grandmother used to do. “Sometimes it feels heavier,” Cepeda told folklorist and filmmaker Roberta Singer, “but every time I dance, I feel Mami Cari's presence.”

The Puerto Rican music and dance tradition called bomba brings islanders in close contact with their African ancestors, many of whom were forced to come to the Caribbean as slaves from the central African nation of the Congo. During the brief Sunday rest from labor in the sugar-cane fields, the enslaved Africans would gather to play drums fashioned from rum barrels and perform a dance that mixed old steps from the motherland with new ones glimpsed at the parties of Spanish settlers. Bomba: Dancing the Drum, a film produced by Singer and directed by documentarian Ashley James, shows how bomba continues to pass on the enchanted isle's cultural heritage by focusing on the many generations of dancers and drummers in the Cepeda family.

Released this year, the film opens with venerable patriarch Rafael Cepeda announcing his desire to sow the seeds of Afro-Puerto Rican traditions throughout the whole world. The filmmakers then trace the elder Cepeda's legacy through the lives of his twelve children and numerous grandkids. “Some people have said it's not like watching a documentary,” reports Singer from the office of City Lore, an organization dedicated to documenting and promoting folkloric traditions in the Northeastern United States. “It's more like hanging out with folks in their living room.” Indeed the movie depicts such an intimate portrait of Puerto Rican life -- from a toddler's first tapping on the drums to a bomba-filled funeral procession -- that newcomers will be fascinated and islanders will feel right at home.

The warmth of the Cepeda family renders the film's considerable information anything but didactic. The successful stretching and scraping of a goat skin to build a new drum is a cause for celebration. The hierarchy of percussion instruments from the cuá sticks to the maracas to the buleador and primo drums is a source of frustration for young men and, increasingly, young women, who must wait for a senior percussionist to move up and out. Dancers and drummers match wits, as the women try to trick the men who must strike the goat skin in perfect synch with every flick of the skirt.

While the long apprenticeship into the rhythm and movement of the bomba connects participants to their ancestors, the improvised verse allows the singer to comment on events of the day. Don Rafael Cepeda shares the notebook where he has written down all of the verse he has invented at dances, known as bombazos, over his lifetime of nearly 90 years. The songs are full of complaints of love and calls to patriotism. A group of musicians sum up the significance of the tradition in a parking lot after a gig: “Bomba is our thing.”

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Celeste Fraser Delgado