This is the third and final series of photographs from my weekend trip to Puerto Rico’s Viejo San Juan. If you’ve been keeping up, you know that it was more than just a weekend getaway – it was a weekend getaway with my first steady “girlfriend” since my wife passed away back in 2018. And if you’ve been keeping up, you know that the weekend getaway relationship “test” was a resounding success.
First, we spent a few days walking Old San Juan, and what’s really not to like about Old San Juan, right? Then a visit to the truly remarkable Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. Then we stumbled upon a special evening performance of Puerto Rican bomba music and dance at the Plaza de Armas from the folks at Escuela de Bomba y Plena Doña Caridad Brenes de Cepeda, a local non-profit organization dedicated to promoting music and dance as representative elements of the cultural richness of Puerto Rico.
Bomba is defined by its percussion and dates back to the early European colonial period in Puerto Rico. It comes out of the musical traditions brought by enslaved West Africans on Puerto Rico’s sugar plantations in the 17th century. Because they came from different tribes and spoke different languages, they were able to communicate and express themselves through music.
Plena developed from Bomba music around the beginning of the 20th century in southern Puerto Rico, when the island was transitioning from Spanish to U.S. colonial occupation. Much like Bomba, Plena served as an outlet for the working class to set the concerns of their day to song and address topical themes. Because of this, Plena is often nicknamed el periódico cantado (the sung newspaper).
The Cepeda family have been nationally recognized for promoting and preserving the traditions of Puerto Rican bomba music and dance. The current Cepeda family are descendants of Rafael Cepeda Atiles, a prolific musician, composer, and “Patriarch of the Bomba”. He was born on July 10, 1908, in the Puerta de Tierra neighborhood of San Juan and according to Cepeda, he was born while his mother Leonor was in the middle of a Bomba dance. His calling ultimately became the drum and music which he inherited from his great-grandfather Marcelo Cepeda Chavier.
In 1932, he married Doña Caridad Brenes, a native of the municipality of Humacao and a dancer and designer of traditional costumes. In ancient times, men used to dominate the Bomba scene with strong movements and sharp steps, while the women used skirts to make subtle swings and shy movements. Caridad Brenes de Cepeda broke the unspoken rules of Bomba, changing the genre forever. She used her skirt to make more aggressive moves, raising it higher than before as a sign of rejecting oppression.
You can read more about Cepeda HERE but let’s just say that his contributions to Afro-Puerto Rican culture earned him a National Heritage Fellowship in 1983 from the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, DC, the United States government’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. Then there are his 500-600 compositions, many of which appeared on commercial recordings (“El Bombon de Elena”, “Madam Calalú”, “El Chivo” & “Mofongo Pelaó”, to name a few). He (and his wife) were a pretty big deal. Nuff said.
Their twelve children have become exponents of Afro-Puerto Rican music and have dedicated their lives to keeping the tradition alive. And on my last evening in Old San Juan, I witnessed the legacy of Rafael Cepeda Atiles in action, led by Tata Cepeda (born Margarita Sánchez Cepeda), widely known and respected in Puerto Rico as “La Mariposa de la Bomba” (the Butterfly of Bomba) and considered one of the most important and influential “bomberas” of our time. She was raised by her grandparents Doña Caridad Brenes and Don Rafael Cepeda Atíles. She began dancing when she was nine years old in the Familia Cepeda group.
The Escuela de Bomba y Plena Doña Caridad Brenes de Cepeda was named by Tata Cepeda after her grandmother as an expression of her deep love and gratitude and in tribute to her legendary dancing. Tata’s oldest daughter, Barbara Liz Cepeda, has opened a school in Florida and named it after her mom. Escuela de Bomba y Plena Tata Cepeda is located in Kissimmee, Florida. Both schools offer classes in “Baile de Bomba” and percussion as well as workshops.
Watching them perform that evening was one of the highlights of my trip back to San Juan after more than 20 years (they perform at the Plaza every first Saturday of the month). Had my new Sony A7RV with the Samyang 35mm f/1.4 FE and the Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 lenses. Enjoy the photographs…
Margarita “Tata” Cepeda welcoming the crowd…