Renaissance of Bomba and Plena Part 1: Intro


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A recent New York Times article highlighted the resurgence of the folk Puerto Rican rhythm of Bomba.

The NYT article “Bomba: The Enduring Anthem of Puerto Rico” is a well-intention piece on the renaissance of this once dormant folk genre. However, the limited research done by writer Lauren Du Graf does show in some parts of the article.

Puerto Rican artisan making barril de Bomba.
The demand for Barriles de Bomba and Panderos de Plena is at their highest point in many years.

I’m glad to see a respected mainstream newspaper like the New York Times highlight music from Latin America. I hope to see similar articles written about other Latin American genres.

When I read the article, I thought of how much more there is to say about the resurgence of Bomba and Plena. In this respect, the article just begins to scratch the surface.

In this blog series, I want to dig deeper into the topic of the resurgence of Bomba. I want to include its sister folk rhythm of Plena and explore their different origins. Finally, I’ll be highlighting those artists that kept it alive and are now building on that heritage.

Corrections on NYT Article

I won’t go into all the corrections that could be made to the article. However, before moving into deep musical historical ground, I want to start by correcting a couple of things that can be misleading about the rhythm of Bomba.

“Panderos” are not for Bomba – the very first (and main) photo in the NYT article is about “an informal Bomba jam session”. However, the photo shows people playing on “panderos”. These are hand drums used for playing Plena; not Bomba. You can see the “Barriles de Bomba”, the actual drums used in Bomba, in the 2nd photo of the article.

Protesters with Panderos de Plena, not Bomba.
Plena, due in part to its portability, is the preferred music for protests in Puerto Rico.

Plena is Used for Social / Political Protests – yes, Bomba may come along for the ride, but historically it has been Plena the genre used in demonstrations like the one held May 1st in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and referenced in

the article. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the rhythm is faster and open to simpler lyrics. Secondly, the main percussive instrument, the “pandero” is more portable than a “barril”. You can actually play it while walking.

That said, let’s move on to more meaningful topics.

Renaissance of Bomba and Plena Through the Decades

Yes, this renaissance has been brewing for a few years now. In that journey, it has been handed over from generation to generation.

The NYT article focuses on the contributions La Tribu de Abrante has done to help the resurgence of Bomba. Abrante has mixed Bomba with elements of hip hop, Reggaeton, and other rhythms.

But the Abrante brothers are not alone. There is a string of artists that have kept the genre alive through the decades. Some have kept it in its most natural form, like the Cepeda, Ayala, and Olivo families. However, others have fusion Bomba and Plena with more contemporary rhythms, like Abrante with Reggaeton and William Cepeda with Jazz. Yet others have played it using contemporary and Afro-Cuban instruments, like Plena Libre, Viento de Agua, and Atabal.

Let’s keep in mind that before all this happened, back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Bomba and Plena were mostly marginalized. It took artists like Cesar Concepcion and Rafael Cortijo to bring them out to mainstream audiences.

As you can see, there’s a rich musical history here, and I’ll try to expose some of it in Part 2 of this blog series.

Here’s a video of La Tribu de Abrante playing “Mi Maria Luisa

Bomba and Plena Renaissance in Puerto Rico, New York, and Elsewhere

As we discuss the renaissance of Bomba and Plena, we need to keep in mind that it occurred in Puerto Rico as well as in New York almost simultaneously. Like in other music Latin American genres, there are the traditionalist and the evolutionists.

The traditionalists argue that the genre will only survive if we keep it as it was originally conceived. Keep the root intact, they argue.

The evolutionists make the case that all genres need to evolve in order to stay relevant with the new generation of music fans. Evolve or die, they argue.

I’ll get into that and some of the contemporary artists keep the flame alive in Part 3 of this blog series.

All that said, I’m grateful that Ms. Du Graf and the New York Times highlighted this aspect of our Puerto Rican and Latin American culture.

Stay tuned!

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