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  Elia Cortes and several members of her Puerto Rican music/dance troupe, TAMBORICUA, who were in the San Francisco Bay Area last summer agreed to talk about Bomba, one of the folkloric dances that is the foundation for current day Salsa dancing (click here for my earlier article on Bomba).   Elia Cortes is a gifted Puerto Rican folkloric dancer and teacher who choreographed dance sequences in the recent video "Raices", a tribute to Bomba produced by Banco Popular.  Elia also operates Bomba schools in Santurce and San Juan, Puerto Rico which teach drumming and dancing. The other participants in the interview included Manuel Carmona, a featured dancer with Tamboricua, and drummers Hector Bares and Victor Emmanuelli Nater.


There are unique styles of Bomba that have evolved from three different regions in Puerto Rico-- northern, southern and Loiza style.  Each of these regions of Puerto Rico has developed distinctive representations of Bomba.  Dance and music historians are still debating about where in Puerto Rico Bomba originated.  Though Loiza is well know for its Bomba  festival in July, Loiza may have been one of the last places where Bomba developed.  Loiza is unique because it is one of the few places where Bomba is danced socially  and is not solely part of staged performances.   During the Bomba festival in July, Bomba is danced every day in Loiza.  For the rest of the year, one can find Bomba dances on Sundays in various parts of Loiza.

Bomba is the name of a large family of rhythms and dances including sica, holandes, yuba, guembe, cuembe, gracima and danue.  Sica, yuba and holandes are the best known and most often recorded Bomba rhythms.  In the 1950's Rafael Cortijo produced music that was an exciting blend of Puerto Rican rhythms, Afro-Cuban influences and jazz styling.  Cortijo's music helped introduce bomba rhythms to American and international audiences  Some people think that Cortijo used sica  rhythms because of the nature of the sounds that could be reproduced on the conga drums.  For example the high pitched sound of the "rim shot"  found in the cuembe rhythm could not be easily produced on the conga drums.  Cortijo used rhythms that could be easily transferred from the "barril" ( a generic name for bomba drums) to the congas.  Cortijo felt that conga drums were more versatile than the bomba drums since they could be used to play bomba, plena, calypso and guaracha.  He sensed that the conga was the best type of drum to express the whole panorama of Afro-Caribbean rhythms.

Barril is the generic term for drums used in bomba.  Buleador is the larger, deeper voiced  type of barril and keeps the steady beat of a specific bomba rhythm.  Subidor is the other type of barril that converses with the dancers and answers his piquetes.

An essential element of bomba music besides the barril (composed of 2 types of drum--buleadora and subidor) is the "cua" or "cuas.  The cuas were originally two wooden sticks played on the sides and back of the barril. Now there are several versions of the cua. Some groups such as Tamboricua actually play the rhythms using a smaller barril lying on its side and mounted on a elevated stand.  For other groups such as the Cepedas the rhythms are played on  a piece of bamboo mounted on a stand.


In all styles of  bomba there are several central principles to the dance.  The first principle is the dancer's conversation with the drum.  One of the fundamental  bomba traditions  is the interactive  conversation between the dancer and the drum.  Another central principle of bomba is that each elegant style has a specific cadence.  Though similar steps and piquetes can be used , the dance must change his body position, carriage and movements to fit the different bomba styles and rhythms.  Bomba is a visual representation of the formality and gentility of the Afro-Puerto Rican colonial society.  In a segment of the video "Raices" Manuel shares the dance space with another man, his teacher Jose Antonia and they dance using a red handkerchief.  The first dancer tries to present his best piquetes and then the second dancer enters the scene.  This situation becomes a friendly challenge between  the dancing.  Passing the handkerchief back and forth between the dancers allows them to trade places.  When the first dancer hands the other dancer the handkerchief, that means the second dancer can enter, take center stage and the first dancer may leave the dance floor.  This type of interchange is characteristic of the formality and protocol associated with Bomba dancing.

But bomba was also an expression of cultural and political resistance,  challenging the dominant paradigms of colonial society.  In the 19th century, colonial officials would at times ban the performance of bombas for fear they might incite slave rebellions.



The formality of Bomba begins as soon as the dancer comes on the floor.  In the past a person would only be escorted on to the dance floor if he or she were a very experienced dancer.  Initially the man escorts the woman to the dance floor and then she is allowed to dance.  The man never dances before the woman.  When the woman has finished, she dances over to her partner, makes eye contact with him, takes his hand and gives a polite gesture with her head.  He then knows that it is time for him to dance and he comes onto the dance floor.  If several couples are dancing, it is considered impolite to interrupt their dance.  One must let the first couple finish their dance before the next couple is allowed on the dance floor.


Manuel and Elia both agreed that the origins of Bomba names are not fully known. Many cultures probably contributed to the development of Bomba including French, African and Spanish cultures.  Manuel noted that from the 19th century to the end of slavery, slaves were not brought directly from Africa to Puerto Rico.  Slaves brought to Puerto Rico were already acculturated in other parts of the Caribbean and had been exposed to  influenced by French, English and Spanish cultures.


Bomba traditions continue to change and grow with the times. Not long ago a woman was not allowed to dance unless she was escorted and presented by her male partner.  But today in clubs, any woman can come on to the floor and dance.   In the past Bomba was mainly danced and preserved within a few Puerto Rican families.  The bomba tradition was passed on from generation to generation.  Elia said that no one on her family ( the Cortes family) had ever danced bomba before her.  She had to go to people outside of her family to learn bomba.  In the past it was very difficult finding a way to learn the dance.  A person had to just sit and watch other people dance.  After a period of time the newcomer was allowed to participate by the more experienced dancers.    But if the newcomer did not dance well, he would have to wait a long time before he would be allowed to dance again.  But since the resurgence of interest in Bomba in the early 90's, there are many more opportunities to learn Bomba.   Now there are bomba schools and groups playing and recording them music all over Puerto Rico. People are becoming increasingly aware of the differences between Bomba and Plena which are two completely different genres of music and dance. Though Bomba has opened up and touched more people, change was occurred due the efforts of many people. Some of conservative dancers and musicians have been ambivalent about the growing popularity of Bomba. They may afraid of losing power and control of such a precious aspect of Afro-Puerto Rican heritage.

One common misconception about Bomba is that many people believe that Bomba is African.  Bomba did not come directly from Africa.  Bomba is an Afro-Puerto Rican art form, African roots combined with Puerto Rican characteristics.  Any other misconception about Bomba is that people confuse it with folkloric Afro-Cuban music and dance styles.  There are similarities as well as differences between Afro-Puerto Rican and Afro-Cuban music and dance.  Many people( including Puerto Ricans) are unaware of the prominent African roots and traditions found in the music, dance, food and physical essence of the Puerto Rican people.

But Elia and her talented troupe of performers are helping preserve traditional Afro-Puerto Rican music and dance traditions.  They also creating new dance steps and body movements without losing the traditional feel of Bomba.  Elia and the members of Tamboricua want to expose more people to Bomba and are committed to encouraging more people to explore Afro-Puerto Rican heritage and traditions.

For more info, contact Elia Cortes at:

Elia Cortes@ Taller Tamboricua Dana Afro-Puertorriguena P.O. Box 1956 Carolina, P.R. 00983-1956--(787)531-4901

For San Francisco Bay Area  Bomba music/ dance classes lead by Maria Elena, try out

Saturdays 11:30-12:30 at Dance Mission 24th and Mission, San Francisco.

Sundays 12-2 at La Pena on Shattuck in Berkeley