• Michaëlle Martial

What Puerto Rican Bomba Means To Me

Updated: Sep 22, 2019

Recently, I have had the pleasure of interviewing Bomba Marilé, a Music & Dance Group established in November 2017. Their purpose is to “share Afro Puerto Rican traditions of Bomba music and dance with the greater Utah community.”

I have attended a few of their events and practice sessions in the past. I typically enjoy their performances as well as the artistic energy that emanates from this very passionate Puerto Rican Bomba group. My interview session with them was no different.

Through a series of questions revolved around Bomba, I rediscovered how as a whole, the Caribbean share a common history of music as a form of refuge and resistance. Growing up in Haiti, I was taught about the important role that music, specifically folkloric dance had played in our revolution. As I’ve come to learn, Puerto Rico’s slaves have used similar outlets to express their emotions, keep their dignity, and preserve their traditional gatherings as well as their oral history.

During colonial times, African slaves in Puerto Rico used old barrels discarded in sugar cane plantations by the Spanish to make drums used for Bomba. Bomba includes a variety of rhythms depending on the emotions being expressed. For example, Yuba is used for songs about sadness and anger, Holandé for happy tunes, while Cuembe is for songs that are sexy or flirtatious. Many Bomba songs also talk about the Cimarrones (slaves who fled to the mountains, referred in Haiti as Nèg Mawon).

During my interview session with Bomba Marilé, I focused on the following question: What does Bomba mean to you? As we went in the circle with every group member taking turns answering that question, it was remarkable to witness a sense of pride and a glimpse of joy in each individual’s eyes.

For Puerto Rican native Liliana Rodriguez, Bomba is a means to connect to her roots, express her diverse emotions and to feel free. According to Omar Gonzalez, Liliana’s husband, Bomba is not only a form of expression, but it is a fusion of music and dance, which are two of the things he loves most.

Meilynne Piatt recounted how she was raised listening to Bomba. Her great uncle who was blind would often play Bomba from ear, which was a special bonding time for them. “When I dance Bomba," she said, "I feel like a bird. I feel like I’m flying. I forget my problems and worries because nothing else matters.”

Miriam Padilla Vargas pointed out how Bomba has always been a form of Resistance to Colonialism. “People," she said, "are afraid of African spirituality. But when it was forbidden to play Bomba in Puerto Rico, some would find ways to practice it at home. Bomba is a way to celebrate and to express frustration. It was also a way to inform the illiterate about the news. In a way, Bomba is like the Brazilian Capoeira because the slaves used it to teach each other how to fight or to communicate with each other without their owners knowing what was going on.”

Isaias Alavéz Martínez, Miriam’s husband and the group director, is one of the few members of Bomba Marilé who is not of Puerto Rican descent. He is of Mexican origin. To him, Bomba is “the voice of the people who had none.'' Isaias wishes to help create this safe space for others to feel happy as they pass on their ancestors’ traditions to their own children and grandchildren. All of the Bomba Marilé group members concurred that without Isaias, Bomba Marilé would not be the same.

Each member of the group conveyed how connected they felt with the complexity of Puerto Rico’s Taíno, African, and Spanish roots when they dance or play Bomba. The African slaves in Puerto Rico wore whatever they had or their Sunday best during their Bomba sessions regulated by their colonizers, which sessions were usually limited to Sunday afternoons and only at the Hacienda (Plantation) where they worked. Today, Bomba Marilé members use costumes similar to the ones influenced by the French colonizers who fled Haiti with their slaves during the Haitian Revolution. “We are not professionals,” Bomba Marilé’s members said. “We come together to raise awareness about Bomba, to honor the spirit of our ancestors and to experience what it is like to be free.”

When I left Bomba Marilé’s practice that early Sunday afternoon, my spirit was fed. I too felt connected and extremely grateful for the rich history of my Caribbean homeland of Ayiti (Haiti). As the Caribbean Nightingale Poet, I find strength and peace through music and poetry that make me “fly like a bird; the nightingale bird.”

For more information on Bomba Marilé and a list of their upcoming events, please visit their official website at www.BombaMarile.org.

You are invited to attend my upcoming Poetry Salon, Relaxation Through Verse, on Saturday, 28 September at 7pm that will take place at Art Access Gallery. To attend, please purchase your $10 ticket in advance here. RTV Poetry Salon is organized in partnership with fellow Poets, Spoken Word Artists, and Musicians who are Women and Minorities in Utah. Be our guest! Soyez les bienvenus ! Bienvenido !

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