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Bomba and Plena Rocked El Barrio

Last week Centro’s special event Raíz de Bomba y Plena shook the walls of the auditorium at the Silberman School of Social Work in El Barrio. Jorge Arce’s artistic skills led participants on a journey into the origins of bomba and plena to its current practices as demonstrated in his interactive presentation. Similarities among different styles of Caribbean music were explored and traced back to Africa through a musical exploration of instruments, rhythm and clave.

Prof. Antonio Nadal from Brooklyn College offered an introduction about the importance of giving credit to our African roots on many levels, including music and rhythm. Nadal spoke about “the power of artistic expression” on both our history and our community in the formation of our personal identity.

The presentation took place on the auditorium stage, with an oversized projection of the Arno-Peters world map as a backdrop. This version of the world map shows a cylindrical equal-area projection, which results in a larger size of the African continent. Arce used this projection to initiate the discussion about the point of view and language that is used to speak about the influence of African people in our culture today.

This was how he took the audience on a journey through the process of both integration and transformation of the Caribbean native culture with the African presence. He used drama, excerpts from his writings, dance steps and vocalization to do so. Then he went through the naming by association and demonstration of all of his instruments. “Most of the names of these instruments come from the way they sound. What is your name? (He hit a drum twice) Bom-bá!” said Arce. In that manner he demonstrated a wide selection of African instruments and their role, like counting with the shekere, maracas and güiro. Then he added dimension to the rhythm with the jawbone or quijá de burro, the cowbell and the agogô (which in Yoruba means bell). He made sure the audience recognized and appreciated the wide variety of instruments inherited by the Africans, but also mentioned the influence and contributions of Arabic and Asian instruments.

Rhythm and clave are both at the heart of the Puerto Rican bomba, Dominican merengue, as well as the Cuban rumba. A common clave underlines many rhythms from the Caribbean: bomba, plena, samba, even tango and danza. It was fascinating hearing the instruments speak and associating each sound to their name. A large gourd rattle singed “she – ke – re”, one drum “tum – ba – do – ra”, another “tum – bá”, and another “con – ga”.

Arce then presented some hand held drums used throughout the Americas: the pandeiro(named like this in Brazil), and the tambourine. He followed with the pandero or panderetadrums used for plena: the bajo or seguidor (which follows the heart beat and marks the main rhythm), the banao or punteador (which has a higher pitch) and the requinto (with an even higher pitch).

The event concluded with a participatory performance. Arce invited and directed several members from the audience to play each instrument, from the shekere to the clave, and every single drum. Juan Gutiérez from Los Pleneros de la 21 and Jose Ortiz from Bomba Yo played the bomba drums. Dancer Sandra Marcelino got up and danced on stage and Arce lead a conga line around the auditorium seats with almost all members of the audience.

One of the attendants from the community, Julie Anna Alvarez, who grew up familiar with bomba and plena music said, “It was rewarding to attend Jorge Arce's presentation and learn so much more details about the African instruments and rhythms as they were transplanted to Puerto Rico by our ancestors. It was fascinating to hear about the common threads among the various Caribbean music styles that developed from the shared African ancestry. Arce's academic knowledge was in evidence and his entertaining and interactive approach made the evening a joy to experience for everyone in the audience.”

Another attendee who enjoyed the presentation was the musician Carlos “Tato” Torres, who manages and performs with the Puerto Rican roots music group Yerbabuena. “I enjoyed the presentation immensely. Jorge Arce is highly talented, entertaining and insightful, which made the overall experience extremely pleasant and educative,” said Torres.

The event concluded with a Q&A session. Questions about regional differences in instrument playing, practices and rhythms where answered by Arce who reached into his years of research, investigative travel and performance to satisfy the attendees’ curiosity.

If you missed this special event, stay tuned to Centro’s YouTube channel where the event will be posted shortly.

For more on Centro’s upcoming events Click Here.