“Boom, bap, bap, bap! Boom bap, bap, bap!” The call of drums reverberates at Spaceworks @ Williamsburgh Library, signifying a celebration of old and new. BombaYo, a youth project dedicated to preserving the rich Afro-Puerto Rican tradition of Bomba, is anointing this newly renovated space with the centuries-old song, dance, and drum that is rich with deeper meaning. Lauren Soares sat down with Melinda González and Jose L. Ortiz, known to many as Dr. Drum, to discuss the significance of their cultural practice and its ties to the Williamsburg community.
BombaYo: Then and Now
Melinda: We look at ourselves as rooted in tradition, but Bomba is an evolution. There’s a free-flow, it’s dynamic. There is audience participation and involvement. With young people, it’s exciting and electric for them. There are traditional elements– our drums, the songs that we sing– that harken back, that appeal to an older crowd, but Bomba is for everyone. It can shapeshift into many different things. When we were integrated into this tradition, we learned that it’s not an entertainment form. Yes, it’s fun, but there’s a deeper healing to it. Every time we’re about to perform, there’s a moment when we realize how lucky we are that our ancestors, generations and generations ago, whose names were taken, whose families and children were taken, who had nothing to claim as their own, could, on a rare Saturday or Sunday, have their Bomba, that they could feel those drums. Those drums call.
Dr. Drum: The hard part about the Bomba is that even though it’s a Puerto Rican tradition, it’s not a cultural understanding among our people in New York. It’s still not common knowledge. I was born and raised in New York, and Bomba was not here. It wasn’t at any of the community centers. It wasn’t local.
Melinda: What Jose is pointing to is the African culture in Puerto Rico. Whether you’re in Puerto Rico, Brazil, the United States, anything that’s of black culture is marginalized, and that means its musical expression and artistic expression is marginalized. When we see “Black Lives Matter” we connect to that, we understand what that means. Our grandfathers, grandmother, aunts, uncles, we all come in different shades. Bomba is one of the most apparent music and dance forms that remind us of that, but too few people know about it because it’s been marginalized.
“Bomba is a living, breathing story. Sometimes tragic, sometimes joyous. We’re all telling it collectively, and everybody’s important in that space.”
Dr. Drum: If we don’t understand what Bomba is, we won’t know why it’s missing. Why do we need Bomba? This is not a choice of style of music, it has to do with a culture that has a lot to do with identity. When I grew up, I remember being in a gang. Why was I in a gang? I was looking for who I was, thinking “I’m lost, I’m trying to find my identity.” Bomba provides a foundation for learning who you are. When I play drums– and I can play any drum– there’s something about the Bomba drum that’s personal, that connects with me to my story. This experience not only helps me as a Puerto Rican, but helps others in the community connect with themselves and value culture. We need time to bring more awareness to the community. How can we do that if we don’t have the space?
Melinda: In many ways we see Bomba as not just a practice, but a gateway. It’s like a book. There’s no book that you necessarily have to read on Puerto Rican culture and history. In New York, you should learn about all the cultures that are present in the city. That’s what makes New York City New York City.
BombaYo in the Community
Melinda: We’ve been involved in different facets with El Puente. I used to work there with young people. We use their space, and we’ve been part of their annual Three Kings Celebration for many years. We’re known as cultural artists, cultural bearers.
Dr. Drum: El Puente has become an anchor for BombaYo to cultivate this movement, this awareness of culture. We’re in a place where everyone is coming from somewhere else to cultivate their art. The question is, where does Melinda go? She was raised in Williamsburg. Does she have to leave to cultivate her art because it’s not valued here? Why can’t artists be where they come from?
Melinda: El Puente created the Wepa festival so we could feature our homegrown artists and people could have a chance to experience that. Families, too, since so many other venues are adults-only. What’s going on in this community in particular…you feel this sense of invisibility. You feel like you’re not appreciated. In our studies of Columbus and his crew, there’s a history of appropriation. You wonder if this is going to happen to the minorities [in Williamsburg]. Will a dominant force come and replace them? El Puente provides a path of empowerment through which people can continue to resist that, and art inspires people to feel grateful and take action. That’s what I see during Wepa festival, during the Three Kings Week. The idea is not just “Let’s bring out the drums,” it’s “What do these drums signify in our culture?” The history, the resistance, you have to celebrate that any chance that you get.
Melinda: We started out working with young people. We knew that through Bomba, young people would grow closer to their identity as Puerto Ricans, to their island. Bomba is so engaging. A couple of years later we started working with seniors, and realized it was such an eclectic population of people. Those waves of Puerto Ricans who came in the 50s and 60s who were now much older and living in senior homes still needed a connection to culture. They had a lot of history to share with us too, history that’s not in books. The women would talk about times when they couldn’t dance Bomba because it was seen as scandalous. You moved your body too much, it wasn’t something a seniorita was allowed to do. Women certainly weren’t allowed to touch a drum; that was reserved for men. So in BombaYo, there’s a lot of breaking apart and demystifying [of beliefs] and re-envisioning what this tradition can be about. What is the message here? If Bomba is for everyone that means everyone can dance, sing, and drum. That means there’s a place for older people, there’s a place for young people, as well as disabled people– whatever your ability.
Dr. Drum: When we’re having a class, there’s a purpose for the participants who want to dance. They understand that there’s some hardship in this tradition, there’s some struggles, so we honor this culture and participant in dance. It gives it a whole other involvement.
Melinda: Bomba is a living, breathing story. It tells a story. Sometimes tragic, sometimes joyous. You get that sentiment out as you dance, as you sing, as you drum. We’re all doing that collectively, and everybody’s important in that space.