The African slaves were forbidden to worship their own gods, so they incorporated their own music into the worship of St. James. At festivals in honor of St. James, bomba music was played and the traditional vejigante mask was worn to scare away pirates and evil spirits.
While there are several different styles and rhythms to bomba, it is a music to accompany dancers. It developed as an expression of the colonial slave system and to strengthen spirituality. Bomba is more than just music. It is an event full of music, dancing, and singing.
Usually a female voice called “laina” will start the song with a phrase which evokes a primitive call. The chorus answers this call while the percussion instruments supports them. The vocals use melody only and do not use harmony. Meanwhile, the dancers are in pairs and perform their moves never touching each other.
Dancers are very important to bomba because they take turns challenging the drummer with their moves. This is done in a call and response form. The soloist and the chorus back up the drummer in the responses. The words are often traditional although there can be much improvisation, often about community life and the cultural history of Puerto Rico.
Percussion instruments used in bomba include the buleador providing rhythm support, a subidor that dialogs with the dancers and provides the rhythm, palitos (sticks stuck onto a resonating surface), and a maraca (only one) usually played by one of the female singers.
It is no wonder bomba is so interesting and can be so captivating with the dancers in beautiful and colorful flowing skirts challenging the drummer with their moves. In bomba it is the drummer who follows the dancer, not the other way around. Depending on the dancer it can be very sensual as the dancer teases and cajoles and challenges the drummer. This will continue as long as the stamina of the dancer lasts. The rhythmic exchanges between the lead singer, the chorus, and drummers and the “suggestive conversation” between the highest pitched drum and the dancer can build to an almost sexual tension that has everyone on their feet.
If you are planning on being in Puerto Rico, make sure you get a chance to see and hear this wonderful and fast paced cultural music. It can be experienced in many places between Loiza in the northeast to Ponce in the southwest along the coastal plains.