Bomba music, popular in Puerto Rico, is one of the purest examples of African traditions on the island.
Flowy costumes and quick tempos get anyone on the dance floor. The base rhythm is played by two or more low-pitched drums known as buleadores (made from barrels of rum). Other instruments include the high-pitched drum known as a subidor, cuás a pair of wooden sticks, and a large maraca that keeps time.
Dance is an essential part of the music. Every move the dancer makes is replicated by the subidor. The dancer and subidor drummer challeng each other in a competing dialog. The dancer performs a set of gestures, which the drummer has to follow by producing a synchronized beat. The challenge continues until the dancer or drummer stop.
Bomba music is usually performed with one main singer leading three back-up singers. The lyrics are centered around everyday life and activity. The theme of the song “Palo e Bandero”, for example, is a love triangle between the female dancer, female singer and male subidor player, the singer’s husband. Upon learning that her husband has been unfaithful to her with the dancer, the wife teaches the adulteress a lesson on the dance floor.
Bomba music infuses elements from each of Puerto Rico’s three cultures; the Spanish, African and indigenous Taino. Its origins can be traced back to the African slaves who worked in the sugar fields in Puerto Rico. The slaves were from different parts of Africa and spoke different languages, but found common ground through music. Unlike the Blues music in North America, Bomba did not portray the sadness and struggles that the slaves endured, but rather was a means of escaping from these troubles.
The slaves migrated to all areas of Puerto Rico, and in each area Bomba was performed with its own twist. For instance, the slaves in the city of Ponce would use larger drums that were placed horizontally.
A few years after Bomba began, the songwriter Rafael Cortijo brought the music style into the concert halls, where it was performed with brass instruments and less complex rhythms. Nowadays, Bomba is played in fusion with a variety of different genres, including Salsa and Jazz.
There are three basic styles of Bomba, known as sica, yuba and holandés. The sica style evolved in Santurce and Mayaguez. It has a slow tempo and a sensuous mood. The yuba style is fast and upbeat. The holandés is also fastbeat, and has a syncopated rhythm.
The best known performers of traditional Bomba are the Cepada family and the Ayala family, who have continued the Bomba tradition in Puerto Rico for several generations.
The Bomba song “Si Dios fuera negro” (If God was black) – written and performed by Roberto Anglero – was a major hit in Puerto Rico and parts of Latin America in the early 1980s. Salsa musician Willie Colón sometimes infuses the music style into sections of his songs, for example, in his biggest solo hit, “El Gran Varón”. Ricky Martin’s song “La Bomba” includes Bomba rhythms mixed with other Latino influences.
Bomba music has influenced many other musical forms in Puerto Rico. The style remains a powerful inspiration for thousands of fans throughout the island, and the rest of the Caribbean and Americas.