Bomba and Plena are two distinct types of musical styles are prevalent in Puerto Rico today. These music forms, complemented by syncopated, rhythmic dance, are influenced by African culture. Of the two, however, Bomba is untainted in form, for it was brought to La Isla African slaves during the seventeenth century and has retained much of its African traditional flair.
African captives, forced to work on sugar plantations, were a creative lot. Despite having been stripped of their culture, they ingeniously used resources in the surroundings to create musical instruments similar to those found in their African homelands. Crude barrels, for example, were used as the base portion of the drum. The uncovered upper portion of the barrel was secured with tightly stretched animal skins. Masterful drummers rhythmically pounded their instruments, producing syncopated sounds reflective of home. Creativity continued: these enslaved captives created other drums, one larger, one smaller. The smaller ones were accompanied by the beating of thin sticks and gourd-type rattles. Sekeres (pronounced "shake-eh-rays")--used throughout Ghana and neighboring West African countries (also referred to as gourd rattles)--added to the enticing rhythms.
As holds true in music in the African tradition, in Puerto Rico past and present, Bomba rhythms serve as a form of communication between the drummer and the dancer. During the 17th century, Bomba lyrics conveyed a sense of ire and melancholy concerning the condition of African people as slaves. The songs often signified the desire and cue to rebel. Bomba was also used as a healing tool, a source of celebration and identity. The celebratory, spiritually empowering nature of the music lives on today, for bomba is prevalent in Puerto Rico's coastal regions, particularly in the township of Loiza.
Plena, another musical form embraced in Puerto Rico, is a stirring blend of Taíno, Spanish, and African rhythms. It is prevalent in the Ponce region. Although it seems to be most reflective of the Spanish tradition, African rhythms serve as an undergirding factor throughout. Plena is played with a wide variety of musical instruments. The guiro (pronounced whee-row) is attributed to raspy wooden musical instruments played by the Taínos. The panderos, similar in form to the Nigerian omele and sakara, are used for the rhythmic percussion section. It is said that today, as in the past, Plena music is used to herald the news and town events of the day and/or to satirize political issues and/or politicians themselves. Plena is commonly referred to as "el periódico cantado" (the sung newspaper).
Bomba and Plena remain the most popular forms of folk music on the island, and many cultural events highlight this music for entertainment.
Rumba and Son are two forms of Cuban music always accompanied by rhythmic dance. Rumba--with its sensually moving sound accompanied by drum rhythms--made its way to Cuban shores during the African slave trade. Son, whose origins are rooted in the eastern portion of Cuba, is a blend of African and European rhythms; its movement and rhythm is said to be the original foundation for what we today refer to as "Salsa." (For a sampling of the "original salsa," obtain a copy of
Estrellas de Arietos: Los Heroes
; you and your students will be energized by the rhythms.)
The conga drum is a major instrument used in these forms of music. They too are accompanied by bongos, maracas, guitar, clave, and alternately a trumpet section.
In many African and Caribbean countries, the use of drums is an integral part of the traditional worship experience. Santeria, a religious practice embraced widely throughout parts of South America and the Caribbean, is also embraced in portions of Cuba and in parts Puerto Rico. It is a blend of West African Yoruba religions and Catholicism: slaves in Cuba were forced to embrace the doctrine of the Catholic Church. Recognizing a distinct parallel between religious practices in Catholicism and Yoruba religions, these ingenious captives created a secret religion. They used Catholic saints and personages as fronts for their own gods (referred to as orishas). Conga drum rhythms accompanied by song are used to pay homage to Shango and other orishas.
Because of the ritualistic nature of this religious practice (and for many parents and educators, a controversial one)--mention of Santeria and traditional religious can be briefly highlighted.