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The Lessons and Dances that Defy Historic Ostracism

Audience members partake in the Afro-Puerto Rican traditional Bomba Dance. PHOTO/ M.A. Rahman

By M.A. Rahman

Published: May 15th, 2019

The Brooklyn College Puerto Rican and Latino Studies (PRLS) Department concluded its semester-wide multi-event cultural series “Puerto Rican Migration Then and Now Through the Lens of Contemporary Art” with an audience-driven exhibition in dedication to Bomba Dance.

According to PRLS Professor Reynaldo Ortiz-Minaya, Bomba, one of Puerto Rico’s many genres of traditional dance and music, originated from the descendants of African slaves brought to the Caribbean Island with the inspiration for such unique tunes originating from spiritual songs.

“[Bomba] originated from religious sources and a lot of religious sources historically speaking were always the rituals enacted prior to slave rebellions and uprisings, the most famous one being the Haitian Revolution,” Ortiz-Minaya said, elaborating on the origins of the stigmatism that came to be attributed to this style of music.

Ortiz-Minaya, who begun and hosted the multi-event series focused on Puerto Rican culture, credits his interest in showcasing the achievements and predicaments of the distant US territory in an on-campus event in Fall 2017 in which he was able to invite current Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz to speak to students about the plight of residents on the Island.

Prior to the Bomba performance at the Performing Arts Theatre, students and faculty including PRLS Professors Antonio Nadal and Alan Aja offered their commendation and gratitude to Ortiz-Minaya for his work to bring greater exposure to various topics of concern and celebration regarding Puerto Rico to campus.

“Brooklyn College has always been the hotbed for student activism,” Emeritus Antonio Nadal said before an audience of roughly two dozen mostly students and faculty, describing how decades-old struggles that precede today’s political climate are not circumstances the PRLS department has been unfamiliar with.

José “Dr. Drum” Ortíz, a charismatic, middle age gentleman the Bronx, self-taught percussionist of Afro-Caribbean rhythms thereafter presented himself with his various supporting instrument players to the audience, sternly notifying those present “you all seated better get your rest because that’s all the rest your gonna have for a while,” gaining chuckles across the room.

An advocate for Puerto Rican cultural arts, an organizer and educator of Afro-Puerto Rican Bomba, one of many traditional pieces of music and art forms from Puerto Rico, Ortiz began by establishing the origin of his experience and interest in Bomba.

“The first time I heard Bomba, I was 42 years old,” Ortiz said to the surprise of some members of the audience, describing how a sudden spark of interest in this type of music subsequently formed despite not having any extensive experience playing music.

Narrating his experiences, Ortiz notes that in short time he felt empowered to play the music that came from his community and lineage before shortly asking why such music has been historically shunned and forgotten of.

“The African Diaspora-I don’t recall listening to that [phrase] in the 60’s, 70’s and in the past decade there has been an increase in consciousness but somehow it discovered through our music” Ortiz said with frustration at the seemingly deliberate choice for society to overlook Bomba, depriving it of proper acknowledgment.

As Ortiz concluded his monologue, sounds of drums crashing quickly took over the room and with it, Ortiz directed and encouraged the audience to indulge in the occasion by participating regardless of their dancing prowess or lack thereof.  

Stepping forward to form a circle of participants as instructed by Ortiz, most members of the audience, both young and old joined in the excitement, before shortly being taken over with different emotions emanating from their faces: earnestness, gleefulness, restrained self embarrassment and so on.

Among Ortiz’s Bombayo musical posse was Melinda Gonzalez, the Puerto Rican Heritage Cultural Ambassador Program Coordinator from Hunter College, who along with Ortiz would direct the audience now turned chorus to gradually build their singing confidence by way of translating the lyrics as they went.

“Think of the music as a blade of grass on the sidewalk, it’s not going anywhere,” Ortiz said to comfort members of the circle, promptly fully launching the music without interrupting, once again mostly consuming the room with visible jovialness.

“I thought it was great and a great introduction [to Bomba],” said Dr. Sally Robles from the BC personal counseling and psychology department, having partaken in the evening’s dance and chorus.

Herself Puerto Rican, Robles reflected on the grim history of the progenitors of the music, saying “to kind of resurrect this marginalized folk dance but taking it out of that marginalization and integrate it [into popularity], I think it’s great.”

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