Utah’s Only Puerto Rican Bomba Band Brings Island Culture to Beehive State
Members of the band Bomba Marilé, which plays Afro-Puerto Rican bomba music, pose for a photo before an evening performance at Tracy Aviary’s Jordan River Nature Center in South Salt Lake on August 26. The band members are, from left to right, Omar Gonzalez, Isaias Alavez Martínez, Zeke Southern, Liliana Rodríguez, Melanie Espinal and Miriam Padilla. (Spencer Heaps, Deseret News)
Estimated reading time: 8-9 minutes
SOUTH SALT LAKE — The move from Puerto Rico to Utah has been difficult for Liliana Rodríguez. But there was one thing that made her stay – bomba.
Rodríguez is part of Bomba Marilé, the first and only bomba band in the state. Bomba is a traditional style of music and dance in Puerto Rico that has evolved into a communal form of expression.
“I want to go back there every day,” Rodríguez said in Spanish. “But we’re helping to share our culture in new places. It made me feel like we need to stay here and keep writing this story. I really think what we’re doing with the bomba is coming in in Utah history.”
Rodríguez moved to Utah in July 2018 after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. The entire population of the island, which is around 3.4 million, lost power as power was not fully restored for months. It was the largest and longest blackout in US history. More than 95% of Puerto Ricans lacked drinking water, the majority of roads were impassable and nearly 3,000 lost their lives.
Rodríguez initially cried when people from Utah asked him about Puerto Rico, but joining Bomba Marilé was a turning point.
“Being in the group is being able to share and come together with people who love the same culture as me,” Rodríguez said. “We all have different ideas and personalities, but we all learn from each other.”
Bomba Marilé was launched in November 2017 by co-director Miriam Padilla and her partner, Isaias Alavez Martínez. For Padilla, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Maryland at age 7, Bomba Marilé was part of a process of reconnecting with her culture and ancestry.
“It’s music that really belongs to our ancestors. It’s music that is part of who we are and who we are,” Padilla said. “The Puerto Rican community is growing here, so it’s really nice that we can also provide music that brings back memories of Puerto Rico for them.”
The couple traveled to Puerto Rico and participated in bomba workshops in San Francisco before starting their own band in Utah. Building a bomba presence from scratch, however, presented some challenges.
Alavez, the group’s co-founder and musical director, said it was difficult to get support and interest from the community. For a time, the group consisted of just him and Padilla, who paid out of pocket to offer bomba lessons for free. After seeing one or two people – or worse people – show up to their classes, the duo began to wonder if it was worth continuing to push the bomba in Utah.
They decided to give him three more months. It was about five years ago. Today, the group has eight members.
“I always thought that in any case, if a person shows up and takes advantage of it, I’m more than happy,” Alavez said. “It’s a slow process, but it’s moving forward. I don’t know where it’s going to go and I don’t know how long we’re going to be here. But for now, we’re here.”
Another problem was getting the right instruments. The bomba is traditionally played with three instruments: the “barriles”, drums made from barrels and goatskin; cuá, two sticks struck on a wooden surface; and a large maraca. For the first year, Bomba Marilé used Cuban conga drums and maracas until she was able to import the right instruments from Puerto Rico. Even then, the barriles sometimes broke in transit, and artisans in Puerto Rico had to explain to Bomba Marilé how to fix them over the phone.
Alavez emphasized how technique goes into the bomba game. In fact, the genre has a variety of rhythmic patterns that are each used for specific purposes or emotions.
“It’s not just, ‘Oh it’s a drum, hit it,'” Alavez said. “I would love to see more of that, learn and understand its history and respect it.”
Unlike other musical genres – where the dancers follow the rhythm of the music – bomba musicians base the rhythm on the movements of a dancer. A lead drummer, who uses a higher-pitched “subidor” or “primo” drum, mimics the movements of the dancer. Other drummers use a lower pitched drum, or buleador, to maintain a steady beat. A dancer will begin by making a “paseo”, walking in a circle to mark their space, before saluting the SUBIDOR. Once the dancer has finished, they bow to the SUBIDOR and the process can begin again with another dancer. The music will continue until a singer, who usually sings a refrain to which the others respond, signals a stop.
For Alavez, who is the only member of the band without Puerto Rican heritage, it was the power of the percussion that first drew him to the bomba and Caribbean music in general.
“You can just drum and you’ll hear it a block away. So that vibe usually hits people,” he said. “I’ve experienced this with babies who are around 2 or 3 years old. When we start playing it takes about a minute and then they start moving because the vibration hits them. For me it was really something amazing.”
Bomba, however, is more than just a style of music and dance. It reflects Puerto Rico’s history, culture and spirit of resistance and strength. Bomba Marilé member Melanie Espinal, an American-born Puerto Rican, hopes the group can help educate people about Puerto Rican culture, history and current affairs.
“At the end of the day, our culture is not separate from our history. We don’t want you to dance with us, we want you to understand the issues we face and the history,” she said. . “Our history is intrinsically tied to American history. I think a lot of people don’t realize that and it’s easy to ignore the fates, situations and issues that Puerto Ricans face.”
Although Puerto Rico is a US territory and its inhabitants are US citizens, they do not have the same rights as US-born citizens. For example, they can vote in presidential primaries but not in general elections. The island is also plagued by corruption, a debt crisis and failing infrastructure.
Ultimately, our culture is not separate from our history. We don’t want you to just dance with us; we want you to understand the issues we face and the history.
–Mélanie Espinal, member of Bomba Marilé
For Zeke Southern, learning more about bomba and eventually joining Bomba Marilé has been a personal journey. Southern was born in Connecticut to a Puerto Rican mother and an American father. Growing up, he had heard of the bomba but didn’t know much about it.
“It was difficult because what I learned was a journey. It’s not something you can learn in a month or a week or even a year. It’s something that takes a good part of your life — like talking well past your 40s — because you’re walking with your ancestors and reconnecting with your ancestors,” he said. “When people think of Puerto Ricans, they think of light and matte skin. They don’t think black Puerto Ricans exist, but we do. And it’s very apparent in our culture, from our music to our food.”
The African influence in the bomba is undeniable. The genus originated with African slaves who were brought to Puerto Rico, a population that totaled 15,000 in 1555 and 29,335 (or 5% of the island’s population) by the time slavery was abolished in Porto Rico in 1873.
The bomba was originally used as a means of communication by slaves, who came from various African tribes and spoke different languages. It was eventually banned due to its use as a planning tool for rebellions. Today, it can be seen in the protests on the island, including the Black Lives Matter protests.
We’re here for the long haul to share that with the community. Bomba is something that normally you play music with the community and everyone dances and sings along with you.
–Miriam Padilla, co-founder and co-director of Bomba Marile
However, like Puerto Rico itself, the bomba is a blend of a variety of influences. In addition to its African roots, the bomba also includes Spanish, Taíno, Haitian Creole and Dutch influences. The name Bomba Marilé itself is also a mixture of influences. It’s a combination of “mar”, the Spanish word for sea, and “island”, the Yoruba word for home. The two words combined mean “house by the sea”, a nod to Puerto Rico.
Omar Gonzalez, who played bomba for 17 years, joined the band after moving to Utah in 2018 in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Playing bomba in Utah isn’t quite what he’s used to doing back home.
“The music scene is very different,” he said. “We come from a place where you go out three days a week and experience live music and friends and people that you constantly see on a periodic basis. That’s something you won’t see here in Utah. , and that’s something we’re missing a bit.”
Padilla said the group hopes to eventually reach that level in Utah.
“We’re here for the long haul to share that with the community. Bomba is something that normally you play music with the community and everyone dances and sings with you,” she said. “It’s going to take some time for people here to figure out what bomba is and be ready to participate in it the way it’s really meant to be.”
Where and when can you see bombas in Utah?
Bomba Marilé will perform:
- Saturday, September 10, during the Hispanic Heritage Parade at the Footbridge from 1:40 p.m. to 2:10 p.m.
- Saturday, September 17 at the Draper International Festival at Draper City Park from 12:30 p.m. to 1:15 p.m.
- Saturday, September 24, at the Afro Utah Festival at the Gallivan Event Center in Salt Lake City between 1 p.m. and 9 p.m.
The group also organizes Bombazos Comunitarios, or community events, where the public is invited to learn about and participate in bomba. The next Bombazo Comunitario will take place on September 25 from 3-7 p.m. at the Black Cultural Center at the University of Utah. Beginning October 15, the band will have a Bombazo Comunitario every second Friday of the month from 5-8 p.m. at the Sorenson Unity Center in Salt Lake City.
For more information on Bomba Marilé, visit the group’s website or Instagram page.