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Puerto Rico's Bomba Scene

Another tourism board I met with during Virtuoso at Sea last week was from Puerto Rico. For a uniquely wonderful way to immerse yourself in Puerto Rican culture, how about taking bomba lessons? 

Excerpt below from 2/13/2024 Virtuoso article by Coral del Mar Murphy-Marcos can found here. 

 

On a humid night in December, bomba instructor Marién Torres walks down San Juan’s muraled streets to witness the product of 12 weeks of dance lessons. Dozens of people gather at El Boricua in Río Piedras, a central neighborhood in Puerto Rico’s capital, to listen to heavy percussion and participatory songs, while some of Torres’ students – a crowd of locals ranging from pre-K cuties to spry parents – arrive to practice the steps they’ve learned in a bomba dancing workshop with Torres’ nonprofit, Taller Tambuyé. Parents and onlookers beam, watching the performers embrace a dance that has endured for generations.

 

In Puerto Rico, where musical prowess is practically a national export, the beating heart of the island’s culture lies in bomba – a dance born in secrecy. The dance style stretches back 400 years, created as a means of expression by enslaved Africans on sugarcane plantations during Spanish colonial rule. To this day, some of the island’s most admired performances take place in Loíza, a historically Black municipality in San Juan.

 

Bomba has more than 30 types of rhythms, and improvisation is key. In each song, there’s a nonverbal conversation between one dancer and the primo, the main drummer, in the dancing space known as el batey, with musicians and singers supporting. The primo’s rhythms inform the dancer’s improvised movements, called piquetes, and the traditional long skirt worn by the dancer flows with each gesture. A bond emerges. There’s prolonged eye contact between dancer and drummer, a powerful exchange that results in an elegant push-and-pull: The drummer follows the dancer and anticipates their next step. 

 

Torres welcomes people from all walks of life and parts of the world to learn the dance and approach it with respect. “It’s not simply a genre or a dance. Bomba is something much deeper,” Torres says. “We create a fraternization space for the community.” Skilled musicians and dancers champion this melodic and rhythmically intricate art form, transforming local bars, beachfront shacks, and historic sites into lively showcases.

 

“People from all over the world are looking for bomba lessons,” says Amauro Febres, a Puerto Rican bomba professor and member of local dance group La Bomba Va. Over the last decade, Febres has seen interest in classes and private lessons surge, and has even traveled to Barcelona to host a class for new dancers. “It’s a burgeoning movement, and it’s gaining so much traction that I feel a greater unity within the community.” 

 

For visitors looking to experience Puerto Rico’s bomba scene, “The best way to experience bomba is by including yourself – not imposing yourself,” Torres says. “Bomba has a lot of nonverbal codes because it’s a genre that was developed when enslaved people could not speak freely.” Embracing it offers travelers a unique opportunity to connect with Puerto Rico’s roots. Here’s where to experience bomba lessons and performances in San Juan.

 

In Loíza, about a 30-minute drive east of San Juan, the heartbeat of bomba echoes loudest. El Imán, a seaside restaurant in the fritter-filled sector of Piñones, hosts live performances all week featuring drummers and local dancers. Call ahead or check social media to confirm showtimes, and save room for crab-stuffed alcapurrias, coconut arepas, or meat-and-plantain piononos.

 

Río Piedras

On the second Saturday of each month, Taller Tambuyé’s students show off their new bomba skills at El Boricua, a bar near the University of Puerto Rico known for its revolutionary-green facade. Musicians gather outside while a collegial crowd drinks Medalla or Presidente beers, watching the students dance to the rhythm of wooden-cask drums.

 

Old San Juan

With regular bomba performances and local brews on tap, Cervecería del Callejón is an Old San Juan staple. On the third Sunday of each month, the La Bomba Va ensemble brings their barriles (goatskin barrel drums), maracas, and powerful voices to call on dancers to enter the batey.

Corner restaurant Vergüenza regularly hosts bomba gatherings, giving travelers an opportunity to enjoy the music from its ocean-view rooftop bar. Its mojitos and stuffed mofongo with pork are great accompaniments to this lively spot, surrounded by historic cobblestoned streets and colorful buildings.

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