What is Bomba?

This Afro-Puerto Rican genre of music and dance is lively, full of movement and rhythm, and best described, in the words of Bomba Master Nelson Baez, as a conversation between a drummer and a dancer: “The dancer is literally playing that drum through their body.” Bomba is completely unchoreographed—the drummer must predict intuitively what the dancer will do. Nowadays, drummers and dancers often perform onstage, but Nelson prefers to think of the experience of Bomba in its traditional setting: a circle amongst actively participating spectators. “As the people get inspired,” he says, “one would come into the center of the circle.” This intricate relationship between the dancer and the lead drum, or subidor, is enveloped by other drummers, singing voices, and the movements of the spectators, resulting in a beautiful and impressive artistic experience. In August 2018, State of the Arts captured Nelson’s group Cimarrones in a live performance at the Sixth Annual Latino Festival of Hightstown-East Windsor, a showcase of the diverse artistic traditions of New Jersey’s Latinos communities.

Nelson Baez, left, leading a Bomba workshop

“The New Jersey State Council of the Arts was really instrumental in my development,” says Nelson Baez, who trained under Tito Cepeda and Mickey Sierra. Nelson is now a master himself, and is training two apprentices through the NJSCA Folk Arts Program, as well as teaching large workshops at a yearly summer camp for 75 students aged 10-16 years old. A 2018 feature on State of the Arts offers a glimpse at the intricate training behind Bomba through a conversation with Isnard “Izzy” Mil-Merced, one of Nelson’s early workshop participants who came back ten years later to train as his apprentice. Immense skill is required to master not only the detailed and varied drumming rhythms and techniques, but also the intuitive side of communicating with a dancer while on the subidor.

Nelson Baez and his apprentices, Edwin Estremera and Isnard “Izzy” Mil-Merced

As Izzy muses, “You can definitely feel the history within each song, within each rhythm, within each dance step.” To hear more about the transformative power of the music and why Nelson Baez’s hairs stand up just talking about Bomba, watch our episode on State of the Arts.