Last month, El Puente, the renowned Southside human rights organization, hosted an afternoon-long celebration of bomba, the “Afroboricua” music and dance genre known for its frenetic pace and improvisational energy.
So as the weather outside turned bitterly cold, the interior of El Puente’s South 4th Street headquarters was heated up by all of the dancing and drumming.
In bomba, which traces its roots to West and Central Africa, the drumming actually follows the dancer’s movements, as opposed to the other way around.
“The dancer takes on a persona, and the music kind of goes from there. The dancer, in effect, is a musician too — they have to know how to bring up the rhythm and slow it down,” said Melinda Gonzalez, the education coordinator at El Puente and the event’s lead organizer.
Given the critically important nature of the dancer, the first order of business on Saturday was a dance class, which focused on a style unique to Loiza, Puerto Rico, a coastal town whose large concentration of African slaves made it a hotbed for the genre.
After the dance class, the approximately 50 people in attendance saw the 2006 documentary film, Tengo un Coco con Pinones, about a small Puerto Rican town of Pinones that has come under development pressures because of its seaside location.
For the many Southside residents whose neighborhood has come under pressures of gentrification because of its waterfront location, the parallel was clear.
After the movie, La Familia Rojas, a bomba group comprised of three-generations of a Philadelphia family, performed. The group illustrated how a genre with roots across the ocean can remain by being passed down through generations.
Following the performance was an interlude from the music. Katia Reyes, a 17-year old member of the El Puente Leadership Center afterschool program, read from her original poetry.
Then it was back to bomba, with a performance by the BombaYo Youth project, from a South Bronx-based program consisting of young people ages 10-18. During this performance, the event became a bombazo, meaning that everybody jumped in and joined the dancing.
Gonzalez said bomba is a good philosophical match for El Puente because it allows for creativity and uniqueness.
“A lot of it has to do with movement and feeling each other out, as opposed to choreography,” she said.
“It taps into people’s creativity. It’s like a fingerprint — every one is unique. In Bomba, everybody adds their own accent and flavor to it. And El Puente being a creative place, it draws on that.”
Gonzalez also wanted to highlight the African roots of Puerto Rican people and culture.
“There’s a refusal to acknowledge that African heritage, and there’s been an effort to demonize and downgrade it. It’s all part of the process of slavery and colonization,” she said, adding:
“We wanted to get people interested in this and embrace this side of our heritage.”
To this end, she plans on hosting a mask-making ceremony in February, celebrating another Puerto Rican tradition with African roots.
Last Saturday’s event was presented by the Brooklyn Arts Council through a re-grant from the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Citizens Committee for New York City.