Bomba is an umbrella term that refers to a variety of musical styles and associated dances originating in Puerto Rico.[1] It was developed by enslaved Africans and their descendants in sugar plantations along coastal towns, most notably Loiza, Mayagüez, Ponce, and San Juan, during the 17th century. It is the island's oldest musical tradition.[2][3][4][5]

Bomba reflects a syncretism of Puerto Rico’s many cultural groups. It incorporates Taíno instruments such as the maraca; characteristics from traditional European dances like rigadoons, quadrilles and mazurkas; and drum ensembles and drummer/dancer interaction that bear close resemblance to a number of West African musical styles.[6][2][7] The music also evolved through contact between enslaved populations from different Caribbean colonies and regions, including the Dutch colonies, Cuba, Santo Domingo, and Haiti.[8][9]


Bomba Dance in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico

Bomba was developed in Puerto Rico during the early European colonial period. The first documentation of bomba dates back to 1797: botanist André Pierre Ledru described his impressions of local inhabitants dancing and singing popular bombas in Voyage aux îles de Ténériffe, la Trinité, Saint-Thomas, Sainte-Croix et Porto Ricco.[2][10]

Bomba was used by enslaved communities to celebrate life events like baptisms and marriages.[4] During the 1800s there were several documented accounts of the use of bomba as a rebellion tool against the slave owners, and organizational methods for initiating slave rebellions.[11] This particular style of music originated in Puerto Rico amongst the slaves who worked the sugar cane fields.[5] These slaves came from different regions of Africa so they could not easily communicate with each other but they found common ground in music. With the migration of these slaves to different regions of the island bomba was practiced in different regions of the island each giving their personal twist to bomba music, for example in the region of Ponce they play with larger drums than other regions that are played by placing the drum completely horizontal. After a few years songwriter Rafael Cortijo introduced bomba to the Concert Halls by arranging it with brass instruments and more simple rhythm patterns, today bomba can be found anywhere on the island and in fusion with different styles like jazz or salsa music.

Up until the 1940s and 1950s, bomba was heavily racialized and associated as premodern and Black. bomba had been a marginalized music genre until musical artists like Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera from the group Cortijo y su Combo, popularized bomba by taking it to various parts of the Americas and the world.[12] On an international level bomba was fused with various national and regional musical genres creating a hybridization of bomba. On the Island of Puerto Rico however, bomba did not unfold in the same manner, it remained true to its folk tradition and geographically confined to parts of the island where there was a majority of Black Puerto Ricans in towns such as, Loiza, Ponce, Mayagüez, and Guayama.[12]

Characteristics of bomba

Drummers and dancer

Bomba is described to be a challenge/connection between the drummer and the dancer. The dancer produces a series of gestures to which the primo o subidor drummer provides a synchronized beat. Thus, it is the drummer who attempts to follow the dancer, and not the more traditional form of the dancer following the drummer. The dancer must be in great physical shape, and the challenge usually continues until either the dancer or the drummer discontinues.

Bomba also is composed by three or more singers and a solo singer, the singing has a dynamic similar to those of "Son" where the lead singer sings a chorus and the other responds, and in between choruses the lead singer will improvise a verse. The theme of most bomba songs is everyday life and activity. In the case of a certain song called "Palo e Bandera", the lyrics discuss a love triangle between a female dancer, a female singer and the singer's husband, the primo player. The wife realizes her husband is cheating on her with the dancer and decides to teach her a lesson on the dance floor.


In the Batey (sugar workers' town) or a Sobera'o (circle or dance area), the Subidor will score sounds for the steps that the dancer makes, and the Buleador or Follower, follows the rhythm that is constantly played until the “Cantador/a” (singer) says so. The dancer enters the Batey to stroll around, showing off, marking their territory and space. The dancer greets the Primo Barrel and begins its “Piquetes” (improvised bomba steps). The dancer, with their “Piquetes” would be creating their own music and history, inspired by the song. Also, the dancer challenges the Primo Barrel Player (“Tocador/a”) by doing a rhythmic dialogue and making it difficult to follow them. Finally, when the dancer finishes providing the “Piquetes”, bows again to the Primo Barrel and the next dancer does exactly the same protocol. The “Piquetes” must have "elegance, firmness and shape." The "figures" are the “Piquetes” that must be executed with "elegance" and "firmness." During the dance, sometimes the audience shouts "Speak!" This is because the dancer is having a musical conversation or communication with the bomba drum (Primo) through their “Piquetes”. Traditionally, “Bailadores” (male dancers) perform their “Piquetes” with their body and the “Bailadoras” (female dancers) perform with the body and / or skirt with the petticoat. The bomba traditional dress for men is white hat, white shirt and black or white pants. The women used to wear turbans, white shirt and skirt with petticoat. Petticoats were handmade to show them off in a flirtatious way for men and to create envy among other female dancers. How to hold and use skirt in the bomba dancing is unique. This is because the dancer is having a musical conversation or communication with Dresser through their pickets.[13][14][15][16]


Barril de Cuña
Barril de Cuña

The main instruments of bomba are barriles de bombas, maracas, and cuás (wooden sticks originally played on the sides of a smaller barril drum).[17][2] The güiro was, at one time, used in Loiza in place of maracas, but that is no longer common.[2]

The traditional drums used in bomba are called barriles de bombas (bomba barrels); they are built from rum barrels and goatskin. Bomba ensembles must have at least two barriles of slightly different diameters. The smaller, higher, drum will typically be a solo drum, playing the subidor/primo part. The larger, lower, drum(s) will typically support the basic rhythm by playing the accompanying buleador/segundo part.[2]

Dance is an integral part of the music: The drum called "Primo" replicates every single move of the dancer, this is called "Repique."[17]

Rhythmic Styles

There are 16 rhythms of bomba,[8] but 6 primary, and these derive others are Sicá ("walking"), Yubá (slow pace of feeling, sadness and courage and played mostly for the elderly, regional of Cataño and Santurce), Cuembé (flirtatious and sensual rhythm, mostly danced in pairs, regionally of Santurce and Cataño), Seis Corrido (formerly called Rulé, the rapid pace and only regional of Loíza), Corvé (only regional of Loíza) and “Holandés” (fast rhythm and regional of Mayaguez and Cataño). Sicá derivatives are Bambulaé, Danué, Calindá, Paule, Gracimá, Balancé, Cocobalé, Cunyá and Belén (this last rhythm was mostly played when the bomba dance was performing his last song of the night). Yubá derivatives are Leró (rhythm mostly played in southern Puerto Rico) and Mariandá. The derivative of Cuembé is the Güembé (rhythm mostly played in southern Puerto Rico). So, there are others like the “Hoyo ‘e Mula,” “Alimá,” among others.

There are several styles of bomba, and the popularity of these styles varies by region. There are three basic rhythms and many others that are mainly variations of these three, they are: "sica", "yuba", and "holandés".

2/4 & 4/4:

6/8 & 12/8:


Today there are many groups playing bomba both as a traditional style and as a fusion with some other style. The most well-known traditional players are the Cepeda Family who have been playing bomba for generations and the Ayala family, who are a family with a tradition of arts and crafts as well as bomba music.[18] Rafael Cortijo took bomba to the mainstream with his Combo in the 1950s and 1960s. Puerto Rican composer Roberto Angleró wrote and sang "Si Dios fuera negro" ("If God Was Black"), a huge hit in Puerto Rico, Peru and Colombia during the early 1980s.[citation needed] Rubén Blades made a cover version of it once; the song was even translated to French and became a minor hit in Martinique. Some of the local musicians who also play this style are Yuba Iré, Paracumbé, Bomba Siglo XXI, among others. Los Pleneros de la 21 are bomba / plena musicians who travelled to Hawaii to perform for the Puerto Rican diaspora in Hawaii.[1] Willie Colón adds occasional bomba breaks to his songs, most particularly in sections of his biggest solo hit, "El gran varón". Ricky Martin also mixes a bit of authentic bomba rhythm with other Latino influences in his aptly named song La Bomba.

In California it has been popularized by Maestros de Bomba en la Bahía at La Peña Cultural Center.[17]

In 1998, Son del Batey was founded in San Juan, Puerto Rico, by a group of college students at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez. 1998 marked the 100-year anniversary of the United States invasion of Puerto Rico, and a time when popular discourse focused around national identity and colonialism throughout the island.[19]

Important families of bomba in Puerto Rico are the Cepeda of Santurce, Ayala of Loíza, the Alduén of Mayagüez, among others. Brothers Emmanuelli Náter (José, Jorge and Victor, students and friends of the Cepeda) with their Center for Cultural Research of Eternal Roots (Centro de Investigación Cultural Raíces Eternas) (CICRE in Spanish) created in Puerto Rico during the 90 so-called "Bombazos". They were devoted to “get down” the bomba from the high stage, so that the Puerto Ricans and everybody else had more participation and learning in this folklore music. Thanks to this, today there are “Bombazos” in many parts of Puerto Rico and the United States. These are the modern and evolved version of the ancient dances of bomba. Today it is emerging “Bombazo Generation” thanks to this.

See also


  1. ^ a b "Los Pleneros de la 21: Afro-Puerto Rican traditions". Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. 1 December 2008. Retrieved 5 September 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Ferreras, S. E. (2005). Solo drumming in the Puerto Rican bomba: An analysis of musical processes and improvisational strategies (thesis). Online
  3. ^ "Bomba Landscapes: The Flow of People, Technology, and the Music Industry". Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Retrieved 2024-01-11.
  4. ^ a b "Bomba: The Sound of Puerto Rico's African Heritage - NAfME". Retrieved 2024-01-11.
  5. ^ a b Du Graf, Lauren (2018-07-10). "La bomba, el entrañable himno de Puerto Rico". The New York Times (in Spanish). Retrieved 2021-03-13.
  6. ^ "Wooden one-piece maraca, Taíno culture (11th - 15th centuries)". International Council of Museums. Retrieved 2024-01-11.
  7. ^ Vega Drouet, Hector (1979). Historical and Ethnological Survey on the Probable African Origins of the Puerto Rican Bomba (thesis).
  8. ^ a b "Distinct Rhythms". Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. 1 December 2008. Retrieved 5 September 2020.
  9. ^ Rivera, Raquel Z. (2010), Diouf, Mamadou; Nwankwo, Ifeoma Kiddoe (eds.), "New York Bomba: Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and a Bridge Called Haiti", Rhythms of the Afro-Atlantic World, Rituals and Remembrances, University of Michigan Press, pp. 178–199, ISBN 978-0-472-07096-1, retrieved 2024-01-17
  10. ^ Ledru, André Pierre; Ledru, André Pierre; Sonnini, C. S. (1810). Voyage aux îles de Ténériffe, la Trinité, Saint-Thomas, Sainte-Croix et Porto Ricco, exécuté par ordre du gouvernement français, depuis le 30 septembre 1796 jusqu'au 7 juin 1798, sous la direction du capitaine Baudin, pour faire des recherches et des collections relatives à l'histoire naturelle; contenant des observations sur le climat, le sol, la population, L'agriculture, les productions de ses îles, le caractère, les moeurs et le commerce de leurs habitants. Paris: A. Bertrand.
  11. ^ Alamo-Pastrana, Carlos (September 22, 2009). "Con el eco de los barriles:Race, Gender and the Bomba Imaginary in Puerto Rico". Identities: Global Studies in Cultural and Power. 5 (16): 573–600.
  12. ^ a b Alamos-Pastrana
  13. ^ "Buleador". University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections. Retrieved 5 September 2020.
  14. ^ "Cua". University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections. Retrieved 5 September 2020.
  15. ^ "Subidor". University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections. Retrieved 5 September 2020.
  16. ^ "Maraca". University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections. Retrieved 5 September 2020.
  17. ^ a b c Berkeley: Bay Area Puerto Ricans bring bomba to La Peña, Andrew Gilbert, San Francisco Chronicle, 29-6-2005, access date 05-01-2012
  18. ^ Hopkins, Tatyana (18 April 2018). "Loíza: The Heart of Puerto Rico's Black Culture". Hudson Valley Press. Retrieved 5 September 2020.
  19. ^ "Con el eco de los barrilles: Race, Gender and the Bomba Imaginary in Puerto Rico," 2009.Alamos-Pastrana, Carlos

Further reading