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Bomba Music Transcends Barriers

Bomba en Tampa

A Tampa musical group is premiering a short film Saturday about the music they make and the culture it represents. They play bomba, Puerto Rican folk music with more than four centuries worth of history. Bomba may be from a small island but it transcends national barriers.

Goat-skin barrel drums, a large maraca, and sticks called los cuá are the instruments that make up bomba. It's Puerto Rican folk music, born in Spanish colonial times from rhythms of African slaves.

Gregorio Allende is the musical director of the Tampa group Nostalgia Amarilla. Bomba has different styles but most commonly it involves the instruments, a lead singer and chorus and dancers. Allende first experienced the music at the end of the street he lived on in Puerto Rico.

“At the corner up from my dad’s street, every Sunday, like legendary bomberos would be drumming, nonstop and then, one of the neighbors said, 'dale dale, baila baila!'  like I don’t how to dance! 'Haz asi' she told me, 'go like this, go like this' and that’s how it started," Allende said. "I fell in love."

Bomba also involves an element called piquete. That is the phenomenon where at any moment a dancer can approach the lead drummer and make eye contact and initiate a challenge to the drummer, who will attempt to make sounds on the drum that correspond to the movements of the dancer.

“What makes bomba special is that you have that opportunity - it’s not a necessity, to do that with the lead drummer," said Hal Barton, associate professor of anthropology at Long Island University in New York.

Bomba has strong roots in Puerto Rico going back about 400 years. For Allende, it's part of his identity.

“Some people wear Puerto Rican shirts with the flags or they put the Puerto Rican flag in their cars, I don’t," Allende said. "I carry bomba inside of me, that’s enough. That’s way more than enough so that’s what I love, it’s mine and nobody can take it away.”

Bomba is not just Puerto Rican. Bomba rhythms are a part of a bigger umbrella of African Diaspora music. Bomba elements cross the island's barriers.

“It’s not just significant in terms of understanding Puerto Rico, Puerto Rican bomba is very significant for understanding American music," Barton said.

Barton says bomba was cultivated on different lands from seeds originally planted in Africa.

“Bomba is the trunk of the tree, everything else is roots and branches," Barton said. "Blues, jazz, R&B, hip-hop, all the stuff going on in the African-American music, all the stuff going on in Afro-Caribbean music, Afro-Cuban music, the Eastern Caribbean - all of that, those are all roots and branches.”  

Those branches and roots can't be separated, he said.

“It’s because of the rhythm, it’s because of the language of the body, it’s because of the melody and the ways that the songs are sung," Barton said. "It’s all connected.”

Allende has connected some of his songs in a short film he produced called "Currency and Exchange." He'll be premiering it Saturday. Currency and Exchange are economic terms. What does that have to do with music and culture?

“The deeper theme is how much do we really value this music?" Allende said. "What are we doing so that this music is worth more for us and for everybody else? If we make it worth more, others will make it the same worth that we give it. So let’s give it the best worth we can.”

The show starts at 8 P.M. on Saturday at the Simone Salsa Dance School in Tampa.

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