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Diasporican's Journey into the World of Afro-Boricua Music and Dance Tradition

Clara Galvano Rivera


Having known about La Familia Cepeda for years, my sister and I contacted them about taking dance lessons during our vacation in Puerto Rico. Without a doubt, they are the most famous exporters of Puerto Rican folklore, giving voice to its African roots. Gladys Cepeda Cámara (master choreographer and daughter of Modesto) graciously responded to our call and we two ladies representing the Puerto Rican diaspora were on their way!

La Escuela de Bomba y Plena de Puerto Rico Don Rafael Cepeda Atiles was founded in 1974, by Dr. Modesto Cepeda Brenes—the first school to teach their rich cultural Afro-Puerto Rican musical traditions. Modesto’s parents, Rafael and his dancer mother Caridad Brenes Caballero (both deceased), had previously established the “Grupo Folklorico La Familia Cepeda” which had introduced many audiences to the Bomba and the Plena through presentations in the United States, South and Central America, Europe and Asia.  Rafael Modesto, in fact, was awarded the title “The Patriarch of the Bomba and Plena” by the Government of Puerto Rico to acknowledge the important contributions he made to the Island’s African musical culture.

At the school, students of all ages were learning the history of the Bomba and the Plena, two completely different dances that are synonymous with Afro-Puerto Rican musical culture. The classes began with the musicians using instruments fashioned on the originals used for generations by descendants of African slaves brought to Puerto Rico to work the sugar fields. From being danced in the fields with few outside influences, the music and the dance have survived almost unadulterated through the ages.

We learned that La Bomba is characterized by the African-based call and response structure. The singer begins a song which is answered by the chorus. The main drums are the buleador marking the rhythm and the subidor follows the dancer’s movements. When a dancer shakes her skirt at a subidor, he responds by drumming back to acknowledge her movements. Fluid, flirtatious, sensual and primal. I bet these very same sounds are being duplicated in someone’s ear buds right now as they head out the door, whatever country they may be in.  This music reaches far and wide and a Puerto Rican in China may be feeling nostalgic and reaching out for the CD Modesto Cepeda Y Los Patriarcas de La Bomba or Plena Libre’s CD Corazón.

During our visit, once the Bomba class finished, it was time for students to learn to dance the Plena. Unlike the Bomba, the Plena is danced by couples. This dance originated in Ponce around 1900. Plena music didn’t have any lyrics until around 1907 and then it became the voice of the community, especially in the barrios where descendants of slaves lived. Plena was the daily newspaper sung out.  The school’s Pleneros, as the musicians playing plena music are called, play authentic, organic instruments -- hand held percussion instruments called panderos: the tumbador (largest), the seguidor (medium-sized panderreta) and the requinto (smallest). These are joined by a güiro, maracas, and sometimes a cuatro. Unlike the Bomba’s large barriles drums, pleneros can carry their instruments easily to share the news via music.

Even in the diaspora communities, there are certain songs heard in childhood that connect us to things that occurred on the island decades ago, like Cortaron a Elena o Temporal. No matter where we live, we and these songs are part of the fabric of the culture of Puerto Rico.  Gladys Cepeda Cámara: “Our culture is not only our music, it’s our values and our customs, our cuisine – el sofrito, la pinta del plátano! It is encouraging when Boricuas in the diaspora want to learn more about our culture, their culture. The most important thing for us is that once our students absorb these teachings, we want them to continue to honor them, wherever they may live. That’s why we worked so hard to establish our school. We didn’t want these values to disappear. We are honored to be able to continue these teachings.” La Escuela offers group classes and also private lessons by appointment. Classes are given in Bomba and Plena to singles, and couples can also learn how to dance the Plena together.  

It was an honor to speak with el profesor Modesto Cepeda and see the pride in his eyes as he talks about the school. After so many years of hard work, hope, and struggle, the school is standing as a beacon keeping these rich cultural traditions alive. It is Puerto Rico’s native folklore, of the people, by the people, wherever they may roam.  He is very proud of the fact that they are teaching the youth (local and abroad), to be proud of their cultural heritage.  The children enrolled in lessons get to perform as Los Cepeditas and they are a joy to watch! Students develop self-esteem and learn to socialize with others face to face, palm to palm, heart to heart. The dancers and drummers exercise their bodies and their minds. La Escuela Rafael Cepeda Atiles is an institution grounded in the knowledge that these music and dance genres will endure, just as its original creators endured tough lives.  One can already see the cultural traditions’ future secured in Modesto’s grandchildren (daughter Brenda’s son and daughter) who already demonstrate a talent for the drumming and dancing beyond their tender years.

La Familia Cepeda has travelled far and wide to bring their music and history to many. They have taught and/or performed in Fresno, California, San Francisco’s Centro Cultural la Peña, New York’s Bomplenazo, St. Thomas, Martinique, St. Maarten, Palmas de Mallorca, Spain and at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Austin, Texas. In Austin, they partnered with Dr. Ana Maria Tekina-elru Maynard. Once Dr. Maynard had all the dance steps down, she started teaching them to her students! The group’s most recent performance outside Puerto Rico was in Cuba, last November.

We in the diaspora live in a world surrounded by so many cultures that sometimes just having a solid Puerto Rican meal, made by Puerto Ricans as you can find at restaurants like “Fonda Boricua” in New York City or “Isla” in Seattle, Washington, soothes our rattled nerves.  Many expats, or those born outside the island, interested in cooking authentic Puerto Rican food are unable to find the ingredients they need in their local supermarkets! Having the opportunity to immerse oneself in the music and culture so graciously offered by La Escuela de Bomba y Plena de Puerto Rico Don Rafael Cepeda Atiles (http://www.prfdance.org/escueladebombayplena/EBYP.htm), is like a balm to the soul, something we highly recommend.  My sister and I have now arranged for classes during our vacations for a few years in a row. The beach can wait! The drums are calling us. Making time to connect with your ancestry in a tangible way through dance, music and other experiential routes will assuage those feelings of nostalgia. Immersed, your culture goes from being of the past to suddenly living in you, part of the vibrant present.