Puerto Rican Bomba and The Cuban Rumba


The intention of this paper is to introduce the reader to some general history and
important issues key to a basic understanding of traditional Afro-Caribbean musical
traditions of the Puerto Rican Bomba and the Cuban rumba. The reader is provided with some key historical information about the African Slave trade and the important implications it had upon the cultural legacies of the Caribbean region, focusing primarily on the Spanish speaking islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico. The reader is also introduced to the musical traditions through brief descriptions of each musical genre as well as the theme of "identifying the African cultural roots" of these particular musical genres. In combination with musical instruction, this short paper attempts to put these musical traditions in context while presenting background information important to a general understanding of when, how and why these traditions evolved.

West Africa and the Trans-Continental Slave Trade

West Africa can be defined geographically as a long quadrilateral of territory extending about two thousand miles from the Atlantic ocean to Lake Chad and about seven hundred miles from the Gulf of Guinea to the Sahara. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade had far reaching implications upon the cultural legacies of both West African and European peoples. According to Hallet:

"By the fifteenth century direct contact had been established between West Africa and Western Europe- the development of plantation economies in the tropical lands of the Americas lead to a steadily increasing demand for African labor, and many thousands of Africans were shipped across the Atlantic" (255).

It is important to acknowledge that the slave trade did exist prior to the arrival of the Europeans in West Africa although according to some sources slaves in African communities were often treated as "junior members of society with specific rights" and many were absorbed into their masters' families as full members. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans there existed in Africa an elaborate network of kingdoms each with specific territorial claims. These claims included rights to control specific trade routes as well as to exact tributes from subordinate political powers. Some of the most well known empires in West African history include the Mali empire, the Ashanti empire and the Yoruba empire.

With the arrival of the Europeans the volume of the slave trade in West Africa grew rapidly from its inception around 1500 to its peak in the eighteenth century. Phillip Curtin, a leading authority on the African slave trade estimates that roughly 6.3 million slaves were shipped from West Africa to North and South America, about 4.5 million of that number between 1701 and 1810" (Hallet, p.255). The demographic impact of the slave trade on West Africa was probably substantially greater than the number enslaved because a significant number of Africans perished during slave raids or while in captivity awaiting transshipment.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the Spanish Speaking

In the case of the Caribbean it is essential to review some basic history in order to understand the historical factors which contributed to the mass shipments of Africans to the Caribbean. Many of the islands of the Spanish speaking Caribbean are found in a geographical region known as the Greater Antillies which includes four islands and five countries: Cuba, La Española (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. The Caribbean also includes another set of islands known as the Lower Antillies and other territories such as the north coast of Venezuela, and the coasts of Colombia, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize which belong to a geographical category known as the Caribbean Basin. A key element in the history of the Spanish-Speaking Caribbean begins in the late 15th century in Spain. In the process of the reconquest of Spain the kingdoms of Aragón and Castilla were unified. One of the main pretexts of this unification was the establishment of ethnic purity throughout Spain. This pretext which was geared towards religion more than anything, resulted in a process known as the crusades in which all Moors, Jews, and Gypsy members of Spanish society were either converted to Catholicism, expelled from the country or killed.

The reconquest fueled the next step in Spanish history- the conquest of foreign territories. Some important factors in this expansion were 1) the growth and consolidation of European commerce 2) religious fanaticism and 3) the compatibility of expansionist doctrines with religious fervor. The conquest was a process laden with evangelistic pursuits and domination. Upon his arrival to the Antillies Cristobal Colón and his fellow Spaniards found a tropical gold mine (Scarano p.5). Spain had "discovered" an ideal Trans-Atlantic border as well as the ideal climatic conditions for the cultivation of exotic agricultural products. After first contact with the native peoples of the Antillies (the Taínos and related groups) the Spaniards began their attempts to civilize and Christianize them. During the 15th century Spain established its mining and agriculture industry in the Caribbean. This century also provided the destruction or genocide of the great majority of the Tainos. This mass destruction of human life can be attributed to the subjection of indigenous peoples to forced labor, forced conversion as well as the inability of their immune systems to fight foreign illnesses and pathogens such as small pox and the measles. For the Spanish, the destruction of the Tainos led to a lack of a necessary workforce.

The Spanish had to find a new source of labor for their growing Caribbean industry. In the next phase the Caribbean, West Africa and Spain were linked together in a "Triangle of Commerce". The products manufactured in the Antillies and other colonized territories were sent to Spain and then sold in Europe. From Spain merchants would sail to the coasts of Africa, buying slaves and transporting them to the "New World". This period of slave commerce occurred over four centuries until approximately 1865-88.

Puerto Rico, African Slaves & the Bomba

It is almost impossible to determine the ethnic roots of the slave populations brought to Puerto Rico. In many cases slaves were registered, documented and in the process given new names and new identities and a new lingua franca or common language, Spanish. In a process known in anthropological terms as "deculturation" which can be defined as the process by which slaves were forced to accept hegemonic structures, ideals, and ideals while being exploited for the purpose of economic gain, the face of Africa in the "New World" was drastically altered. The systems of decuturation in the Americas worked in distinct ways. For example, in the North American South it was believed that slaves would more easily accept new structures if they were ethically mixed and matched- in other words in any given slave population there were not allowed any two slaves that shared common linguistic or cultural backgrounds. In Cuba, slaves were treated differently- they were actually divided along ethnic lines, so that each population might have its own solid ethnic identity. Granted that all these systems were conditions of slavery none of them functioned in the best interest of the slaves. According to Fraginals: "In Cuba although slaves were divided along ethnic lines and the formation of "cabildos" or "nations" was allowed, urban authority was always sure the none of them would overpower another or cause slave disturbances such as revolts" (p.16).

In Puerto Rico, as in all of the Americas slaves were brought from a variety of ethnic groups and political states- each with its own cultural legacy. According to historian Scarano: "Alvarez Nazario identifies the West Sudan and Bantu Africa as the two major geographic areas from which slaves were taken. (106)" Other main groups listed are: 1) Congos- this name can be defined in two ways a) all slaves that were sold in the area of the Congo River (although ethnically could have originated as far away as West Africa) and b) slaves of the ethnic group Congo- i.e. Loango, Bamba, Mondongo, Mandunga, 2)Angolos and 3) Mozambiques (Western Africa).

The Puerto Rican Bomba is an Afro-Puerto Rican folkloric musical tradition which has many variations. "These variations, known as "Seises de Bomba" show the African origins of their names: 1) Cunyá 2) Cocobalé 3) Leró 4) Yubá 5) Sicá 6) Gracimás 7) Calindá 8) Cuembé 9) Danuá 10) Holandés 11) Belén 12) Babú, as well as Holandés seco, Holandés cuarteado, Belén corrido, and Cunyá mesón" (Cruz, p.47).    Some of these names reflect the influence the of slaves who were transported from Africa to French speaking areas and then to Puerto Rico.

"Los Bailes de Bomba" or Bomba dances were traditions practiced in the coastal regions of Puerto Rico where sugar manufacturing took place.    They developed in such coastal towns as Ponce, Loiza Aldea, and Mayaguez where in the 1800's large communities of black workers gathered around sugar mills. It was at "Biales de Bomba" (Bomba Dances) where enslaved Africans celebrated baptisms and marriages, and also planned rebellions. For this reason, these celebrations were only permitted on Saturdays and occasionally on Sundays during Feast Days such as during harvest season. Cruz outlines the progression of a Bomba dance:

  1. The organizers and musicians come together.

  2. As the musicians warm up, a crowd of spectators forms around them.

  3. While the musicians warm up, apprentices such as community members and children play for a while until the dance officially begins.

  4. Suddenly, a lead vice begins to sing (frequently women).

  5. The chorus answers the singer (p.48).

  6. Bomba Instrumentation, Musical elements and Dance


A typical Bomba ensemble includes 2 drums (Bombas, Barriles), one smaller than the other, two sticks (los cuá) and one maraca. The large drum is called the Buleador. The smaller drum is called "el primo" or "subidor". The cuá play a constant rhythm throughout each seis, unchanging and accompanying the barriles- particularly the buleador- which also sounds a constant rhythm. The cuá player traditionally plays its rhythm upon the buleador barrel, kneeling in front of the barrel and percussing the wood surface of the drum. The job of the smaller drum is to mark the "figuras" or "figures" of Bomba dancers. The drummer responds to the dancer in an intricate dialogue of sound. The maraca also plays a constant rhythm accompanying the buleador.

The musical elements in Bomba include the melody of the song and rhythm. Some of the seises are in 2/4 meter and others in 6/8. Usually there is no presence of vocal harmony in the bomba- the chorus sings in unison. Bomba dancers traditionally dress in the following manner: males in Western style clothing (suit and tie) and women in a dress typical of the Flamenco traditions of Southern Spain. It is said that women bomba dancers would typically dance with their skirt raised, showing their slips, to ridicule the attire (and fancy slips) worn by plantation ladies. The tradition of Bomba dancing in Puerto Rico is alive in Puerto Rico to this day although it has definitely entered into a time of decline.

Cuba, Cabildos and the Rumba

Cuba, like Puerto Rico displays a background of diverse African cultural influences. African slaves were brought into Cuba from regions of Africa such as Ashanti, Togo, Dahomey (Benin), Calabar, and Bantu-Congo. In the example of Cuba it is possible to determine with greater clarity the main ethnic roots of its African culture due to the existence of African social organizations which evolved in Cuba known as "cabildos". According to Urfé: "(trans.) The cabildos were social support groups which were almost always composed of free slaves sharing similar ethnic origins" (p.216). These organizations provided support for their members as well as provided the social climate in which individual ethnic group traditions could survive. These cabildos served as catalysts for ethnic cohesion among Africans in Cuba.    The cabildos were also known as "naciones" or "nations". In Cuba the cabildos were formed around three main African ethnic groups: 1) Yoruba 2) Calabar (Efik, Ibibiyo) and 3) Congo-Bantu. For each main ethnic division mentioned above there evolved many different cabildos with many different names, e.g. Cabildo Carabali-Efik, Cabildo Arará Sabalú, Cabildo Lukumí. In Cuba there are many musical traditions that evolved particularly to each ethnic group. Some cultural traditions and the music that accompanies them such as the Abakuá tradition of the Cabildo Carabli-Efik are no longer in existence in their place of origin in Africa.

According to Urfé: "(trans.) The genre known as rumba originated among Africans of Bantu-Congo cultural heritage" (Urfé p. 231) . The term "rumba" actually refers to a group of musical traditions, including a) rumba estribillo b) rumba yambú c) rumba guaguancó d) rumba tahona e) rumba columbia. This list can also be divided into subgroups, for instance Rumba Guaguancó also includes Guaguancó Habanero, Guaguancó Matanzero, Guaguancó Satigüero. These subgroups identify the regions from which each guaguancó comes from, somewhat like the traditions of Jazz in the U.S., e.g. New Orleans, Chicago, New York, etc.

Guaguancó Instrumentation

The very basic and traditional instrumentation of this folkloric Cuban music includes the following: 3 tumbadoras (congas), catá, claves, and a shaker. The claves and the catá maintain constant rhythms, serving as the time-line (claves) and the complimentary time line (catá). The three tumbadoras represent three voices, low, middle, and high- a characteristic melodic family of voices very common in West African and African Diaspora musical traditions. The low drum (salidor) and the middle drum (segundo, trés dos) sound within certain spaces in the time line, and may play unchanging rhythms, but also engage in musical interaction with each other. The forms of interaction between the salidor and the segundo vary depending on which region the guaguancó being played comes from. The smallest drum (quinto) improvises, interacting with the other instruments as well as with the lead singer and chorus.    The "quintero" or quinto player also plays according to the dancers movements and steps. All of the
instruments, singers and dancers depend on the claves, or time line as their basic point of

Although the guaguancó demonstrates a mix of cultural influences it has been written that there is a very heavy Bantu-Congo influence upon its instrumentation and dance. "The conga drum also known as mambisa, tumba or tumbadora is an instrumental contribution of the Congos" (Urfé p.222). The Guaguancó dance can be described as a mix between Spanish Flamenco and dances of African descent with heavy Bantu-Congo and Abakuá influences. Guaguancó is a couples dance. Traditionally the woman wears a dress very similar to that of the Spanish Flamenco of Southern Spain.    Males are usually dressed in a European suit. At first glance the dance seems to imitate European salon dances, but then evolves into an elaborate drama between the male and female dancers. In the dance which symbolically represents courtship between male and female, the male is the "rooster" and the female is the "hen". In the drama the male entices the female with his elaborate movements and at any given time makes an abrupt and obvious motion towards the woman's pelvis with with a handkerchief or "panuelo" which he carries in his hand. The woman attempts to protect herself. If she does, the male must keep trying until the end of the dance. If she is unable to protect herself, the male is successful in his courting attempts. There is a name for this part of the drama in the Guaguancó dance, "el vacunao", or literally "injection". The guaguancó is performed as a social dance, and may occur at any social occasion when the mood is right.


In the history of the Caribbean and more specifically in the Spanish-Speaking Caribbean the slave trade brought with it a myriad of diverse African cultural influences which set the stage for unique cultural mixes and cultural structures and traditions where each island or geographical region has its own individual legacy. It is true that in many cases the attempt to determine the ethnicity of slave populations in the Caribbean is almost impossible; slave registers and documentation of the slaves' names and place of origin were not the "number one priority" for those who bought and sold human beings. Yet, by looking at the cultural traditions such as the Puerto Rican Bomba and the Cuban Rumba it is possible to investigate at least some of the roots of these traditions by identifying the African characteristics which have survived. Afro-Caribbean musical traditions express their African roots in their instrumentation, social function and structure in the Caribbean. They also show the process of transculturation (mutual cultural influence) that has been going on in the Caribbean for centuries. This mix of cultures is reflected in the musical traditions, language, customs, food, etc. of each island according to their own particular history.


Cruz, Francisco Lopez. 1987. La Música Folklórica de Puerto Rico.    U.S.A: Troutman Press. Fraginals,

Manuel Moreno. 1987. Africa en América Latina. Mexico:    Unesco.

Hallet, Robin. 1974. Africa Since 1875- A Modern History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Scarano, Francisco. 1993. Puerto Rico- Cinco Siglos de História.    Bogota: McGraw Hill. Urfé, Odilio: La Música y La Danza en Cuba. In Africa en América    Latina. Mexico: Unesco