Bomba y Plena, LAM
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Puerto Rico breathes music- from the ritzy hotels lining the Isla Verde shoreline to the colorful food kiosks in Luquillo, to the picturesque wooden shacks nestled high up in the mountain towns that sell fritters, ice-cold beer and roasted lechon.
This musical mecca boasts an array of genres steeped in Caribbean, Spanish and African traditions. You name it, we have it. Ranging from the classical annual Casals Festival to the internationally renowned Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Fest, to the Island’s very own salsa, “bomba” and “plena” music fetes, Puerto Rico’s rich musical heritage dates back to the days when the Island was inhabited by Taino Indians. Along with the words for many foods and places (Bieke, Boriken and casabe) cultural footprints can be found in some of todayís percussive instruments, especially those used in the countryside.
One such instrument is the güicharo or güiro (gu-eíro), a hollowed-out gourd played with a wire fork rhythmically dragged over ridges carved on one side, producing a unique percussive sound, something like “sheek.e..sheek..sheek.e..sheek.”
Spanish rule spurred by Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Island in 1493 brought about new music. Along with Juan Ponce de Leon, the Islandís first governor, Spanish musical instruments made the transatlantic voyage to our shores. Most notable of these is the guitar, together with the Spanish passion for flamenco and Middle-Eastern sounds. The Spanish guitar underwent changes on the Island, producing the “cuatro” (smaller than a guitar and with five double strings; the original cuatro had four double strings, thus the name), considered today the Island’s national instrument.
The roots of contemporary Puerto Rican music, however, are not entirely of indigenous and Spanish origins. A century before the Island became known internationally as a “salsa” hotbed, drumbeats of “barriles” and “panderetas” filled the warm air with bomba and plena, molding the Island’s native sounds into the distinctive African-rooted music and dance forms of today’s Puerto Rico. The infectious beats were first heard in the coastal towns of Mayagüez, Ponce and Loiza, where in the 19th century thousands of West Africans were brought by the Spaniards to work as slaves in the sugarcane plantations. Bomba is the older genre. Most musicologists agree it developed in the mid-19th century and that plena derived from it decades later.
In bomba, musical instruments and their players take on added responsibilities. The instrumentation of “bomba” includes a low-pitched sawed-off “barril” drum called “buleador,” whose role is to carry the main rhythm, while the high-pitched “subidor” or “primo” drum is responsible for responding to the dancersí rhythmical challenges. Sticks beaten on the sides of the drums keep the pace while a big “maraca,” a gourd filled with pebbles or beans, gets to shake through it all.
Once the musicians set the rhythm, one couple takes up the challenge. The man parades the woman around in front of the drum players; they bow to each other; and the woman proceeds to challenge the “primo” drum to follow her rapid steps and sharp movements, all the while shaking her long white skirt in front of her, trying to catch the “primo” off guard. When sheer exhaustion threatens, the woman gracefully bows to her companion, who adds some incredible movements of his own. In white or black pants and a white long-sleeved shirt, he jerks his arms, takes quick, short steps backwards and forwards and stops suddenly on his toes, all the while trying to trip the “primo.” Seldom do they succeed. As the session continues, tension, excitement and passion mount until the fierce competition leaves both dancers and musicians drenched in sweat.
According to Modesto Cepeda, the Island’s leading figure in bomba and plena for more than five decades, bomba has its roots in the west coast town of Mayagüez. Among the genre’s several distinct rhythms are “sica,” “yuba” and “holandes,” which are the most frequently used by today’s groups. Bomba’s founding fathers_Andres Lager, Anastasio Genal and Sergio Nater_came from Mayagüez to San Juan in the 19th century. And my father, Rafael Cepeda (popularly known as “El Patriarca de la Bomba”), learned from them while they played in the piers after there was no more work to do in the sugarcane fields,” explains Cepeda.
In the new millennium, experimental artists such as William Cepeda and his Afro-Rican Jazz Band have taken bomba a step further by mixing it with Latin jazz, funk, classical, hip-hop, Middle-Eastern sounds and salsa to create a unique universal language. “Bomba is a diverse blend of different world rhythms,” says Cepeda, who has played with the likes of Dizzie Gillespie, James Brown and Miriam Makeba. “What we have done in Puerto Rico is adapt all these rhythms into our own style and give it our own twist.”
If bomba is all about drums and dance, plena, the younger of the two genres, is all about lyrics. Plena is a narrative song whose lyrics mostly recount community dealings and current events, some tragic, some lighthearted, some humo-rous. Its instrumentation is driven by “panderos” or “panderetas” (tambourines without cymbals), four or more handheld drums of different sizes and pitches which together make up the rhythm of plena. Plena’s origin can be traced back to the southern town of Ponce at the beginning of the 20th century when societal changes brought about by the new U.S. rule and the abolition of slavery forced displaced sugarcane workers to seek economic refuge in the coastal cities.”There are a lot of different versions as to the birthplace of plena, but I believe it was born about 100 years ago in the barrio La Joya del Castillo, in Ponce, a very poor neighborhood where musicians from St. Kitts and other Caribbean Islands met at the sectorís main plaza to play every night,” explains Isabel Albizu, the musical director of Ponce’s “Ballet Folklorico Bambalue” for the past 26 years.
In the past 15 years, plena has been given new life with modern, commercial groups. A good example of this trend is the music of Plena Libre, nominated for a Grammy in 2003 for its innovative fusion of salsa, jazz, rock and plena.