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The New York Times


A Ritual Dance, Rooted in Slavery, That's Not Just a Dance


September 10, 2000
Copyright © 2000 The New York Times. All Rights Reserved.

PASSION shook the ground of the South Bronx on Labor Day weekend as descendants of slaves in Puerto Rico pounded the rhythms of bomba, a centuries-old African freedom call.

The rite is more than symbolic. According to its celebrants at La Bombazo, a festival on Brook Avenue and 158th Street in Morrisania, it is a seminal instrument for political protest and cultural affirmation within the Puerto Rican community.

''This is resistance,'' said Awilda Sterling, who was among the first at the gathering to throw off her shoes and explode into rhythmic, undulating movements.

''It is a way of saying: 'This is what we are. We live in the system, but we still know the teachings of our ancestors,' '' added Ms. Sterling, who teaches anthropology at Long Island University in Brooklyn and Puerto Rican and Latino studies at Brooklyn College. ''It is so difficult to reconcile an existence that is continually bombarded by the American way and the American dream with one's true culture. Bomba is how we do it and how we teach younger generations to cope with that divided life.''

As she danced, those who watched were swept, almost involuntarily, into her musical dialogue with the drummers. For an instant they seemed sustained by a single, collective heartbeat.

''Here we feel at home,'' said Carlos Torres, a professional bomba drummer and event organizer. ''Here we understand each other. Here we love each other. It taps into the very essence of who I am.''

The annual festival is sponsored by the Rincon Criollo casita organization, one of many small neighborhood groups that develop and use community gardens as part of the city's Operation Green Thumb. While most casitas -- a small party house gathering according to Puerto Rican custom -- use their gardens primarily for social events, Rincon Criollo, has become a bomba mecca. It is known here and in Puerto Rico simply as ''La Casita'' because of its status as a music and cultural center.

The origins of bomba date back to 16th-century Africa, according to Halbert Barton, assistant professor of anthropology at Long Island University in Brooklyn. Variations of three primary rhythms were played on goat-skinned barrel drums and sung and danced as anthems and calls to meeting within and among tribes.

With the advent of the slave trade, bomba became an important means of communication among tribes. Later, with the importing of Africans as slaves to Puerto Rico, it resumed its function as a meeting call but was used to organize slave revolts and escapes. During that time, it also absorbed Spanish dance idioms and was performed throughout Puerto Rican society.

Bomba adapted to changing political and social conditions yet again with the emancipation of slaves in Puerto Rico in 1873, when it was used by former slaves and others as part of their search for cultural identity. It continued in that role when the United States acquired Puerto Rico in 1898, when those native to the island sought to assert themselves against the new, dominant American culture.

As an art form, bomba is unusual in that while the singer determines the basic rhythm, the dancer determines the specific progress of each piece and the drummers follow the dancer. It is usually improvised, although certain common patterns tend to reappear.

Bomba has traditionally held high cultural status because of its emphasis on ethical standards and ideals, said Mr. Barton, who danced at the festival.

''It's beyond just being a party dance,'' he said. ''It sets the mood for emotions and dignity, is not exclusive, and demands an attitude of mutual respect.''

At Rincon Criollo, bomba is the eloquent voice of that demand.

''It is my heart; it is my life,'' said Norma Cruz, president of Rincon Criollo. ''Where we have been, what we have gone through, that is what you see here. What is next for us, what we will go through, that you will see here too.''

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