As all our readers may know, this is a space devoted entirely to the promotion of salsa and other derivative styles, but that does not mean we should leave out other Latin genres that also deserve to be promoted and recognized worldwide. Such is the case of bomba and plena, which we are going to talk about in the next lines.
Bomba and plena are two Puerto Rican musical genres that initially became popular at the local level, but little by little, they have received international notoriety thanks to certain groups of Puerto Ricans who have devoted considerable effort to take their culture to as many places as possible in the world. This is how we get to the theme of the Cepeda family and all that its members have done for bomba and plena.
The Cepeda Family
The Cepeda family is a cultural institution that has been given the task of promoting bomba and plena for eight generations, so that they can be heard and danced all over the world. Don Rafael Cepeda Atiles, a professional musician and composer with an extensive career who has left a great legacy thanks to his hard work during his lifetime, which keeps current thanks to his descendants.
When he married Caridad Brenes Caballero, he involved her in all his artistic activities and became a fundamental support for the musician in his work. The lady became a professional bomba and plena dancer, costume designer, and choreographer, which made her shine with her own light in every project directed by her talented husband.
During his career, Don Rafael created several musical groups and, over the years, he and his wife involved their children and other family members to collaborate in what would become a renowned family business.
One of the artist’s greatest achievements was the development of a cultural movement around the rescue and preservation of local traditions related to bomba and plena, which were thought to be lost. He was also decorated with the Smithsonian Institute’s National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for his contributions to music.
All this legacy remained in the hands of Don Rafael’s family and one of the first to do something about it was his son Modesto, who founded the Escuela de Bomba y Plena Don Rafael Cepeda in Santurce, Puerto Rico. This institution was created in order to teach bomba and plena in the areas of dance and percussion.
Those who would follow these steps would be Margarita ”Tata” Cepeda, granddaughter of Don Rafael and Caridad, and Barbara Liz Ortiz Sanchez, great-granddaughter of Don Rafael and Caridad. Margarita currently runs the Escuela de Bomba y Plena Doña Caridad Brenes de Cepeda and her daughter, Barbara Liz, runs the Escuela de Bomba y Plena Tata Cepeda in the state of Florida. It was precisely the latter with whom we had the pleasure to talk about this project and the plans she has for the future.
Barbara Liz from the Escuela de Bomba y Plena Tata Cepeda
Barbara Liz belongs to the seventh generation of the Cepeda family and her children, who also dance bomba and plena, would belong to the eighth generation. She says that each family member has tried to endorse Don Rafael’s legacy in their own way. In her particular case, she has spent five years running the Escuela de Bomba y Plena Tata Cepeda in Florida, which she decided to baptize with his mother’s nickname, which is Tata, to pay tribute to her in life.
Although the operation of her school and his mother’s are different, they usually work together in cases that require it. For example, if for some reason a student cannot pursue his education here because he is going to Puerto Rico, he can continue studying at the school located on the Island of Enchantment without any problem.
”We didn’t have a curriculum or educational program to follow to teach bomba and plena, but my mom was responsible for creating one so that we could teach dance and percussion with a clearer methodology,” said Bárbara Liz.
As a result of Hurricane Maria, many Puerto Rican families went to live in Florida due to the loss of their properties and material things, so the students of the school in Puerto Rico became able to enroll in the Florida school instead. It can be said that they are sister schools working together towards the same goal.
Percussion and dance in bomba and plena
Something Bárbara Liz wanted to highlight about this point is that many girls are enrolling in her school to learn to play percussion, something that did not happen very often.
At other times, it was believed that percussion in bomba and plena was exclusively for men and dance for women. In more conservative versions of these genres, women only sang and men were responsible for dancing and playing instruments.
That has been changing over time. Nowadays, there are many guys who are setting their sights on dancing and many girls are having an interest in the percussion part. Every day, the female part is becoming more and more relevant in the different areas of bomba and plena.
In addition to all this, the institution’s teachers also teach quite a bit about the emergence and history of these two genres, so that their students are not just dedicated to playing and dancing, but also know the origin of everything they learn now.
Differences and similarities between bomba and plena
When we wanted to know a little about the differences and similarities between bomba and plena, Bárbara Liz explained to us that both genres were very different from each other. The rhythms, the instruments used and the ways of dancing have many differences in both.
In the case of bomba, this is the oldest musical genre and dance in Puerto Rico and is born from a barrel-shaped instrument, which is one of its most representative elements. It is also known as the ”first sung newspaper”.
Similarly, it is the dancer who sets the pace for the percussionist, not the other way around. The musician should be guided by the footsteps of the dancer, which often gives rise to completely new rhythms.
Plena was born a few years later with certain variants of bomba and is called the ”second sung newspaper”. It was plena that inspired several of the Cepeda family members to create their own groups such as the Grupo Gracimá (a variant of bomba), which originated in the school owned by Margarita in Puerto Rico.
In contrast, Bárbara Liz named her professional group Kalindá in honor of one of the most popular variants of bomba.
Something that makes Bárbara Liz very proud is that both she and her mother had the opportunity to go to the Smithsonian National Museum in March to pay tribute to their ancestors and the genres that her great-grandfather promoted so much in life.
At the time, Don Rafael donated some items related to bomba and plena such as barrels, a güiro and barrels However, some bomba costumes were missing to complete the collection, which were given by Bárbara Liz and Margarita to be exhibited in the institution, so anyone interested in learning more about Puerto Rican genres and musical culture can visit the place and cherish these valuables.
Read also: Yani Borrell ‘‘El Elegante de La Salsa”
- The Rumba Madre and its roots in Basque culture - November 28, 2023
- Producer and saxophonist Martin Franco talks about his passion for music - November 16, 2023
- We bring trombonist Félix O. Rodriguez from Santurce to ISM - November 12, 2023