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on the Arts
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NJ State Council on the Arts
P.O. Box 306
Trenton, NJ 08625-0306

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Trenton, NJ 08608
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Tel: (609) 292-6130
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From Cape May to The Palisades, New Jersey is home to diverse communities with traditional folk arts, shaped by the aesthetics and values of the cultures they represent. The State Arts Council is committed to supporting the artists at the heart of these communities, working to pass distinctive art forms from one generation to the next, and preserve their cultural legacy.
 
Each year the New Jersey State Council on the Arts awards Folk Arts Apprenticeship Grants to help Apprentice artists hone their skills under the guidance of a Master artist in the same craft. Here we shine a light on their work: from them, to us, to you, we are "Passing It On".

Bomba y Plena
The Rich Complexity of Puerto Rican Rhythms

 
Apprentice, Edwin Estremera, drumming with Master, Nelson Baez, during a one-on-one session in Nelson's home.

Connecting to the history of one's cultural heritage has the power to illuminate one's identity. In the case of Master Drummer Nelson Baez, this illumination "came later in life", but made quite an impact on his understanding of who he is. The impact of Nelson's intense studies in the rhythmic-based traditions of Bomba y Plena has affected his life profoundly, linking him with his multi-cultural ancestry. In turn, others have benefited, and continue to benefit from his journey into self, through the mastery of his historical and practical knowledge of these rich musical forms.

So, what is Bomba? "Bomba is community", Nelson says, "in Puerto Rico, played and danced in the backyards of your neighborhood". It is the relationships created between drummers, singers, dancers, and the rhythms that unite them all. Nelson's current Apprentice, Edwin Estremera, admits that he never ceases to be amazed, "with Bomba, there is always something else to be learned". It is akin to peeling back the layers of an onion; the more you peel, the more you find. Currently, Nelson and Edwin are peeling back the layers of Bomba y Plena together through the NJ State Arts Council's Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program. Having first engaged with Apprentices through the program in the 1990's, Nelson is a veteran Master, as well as his wife, Magda, who instructs and performs the dance components. Together they have built a following and a community of Bomba y Plena in New Jersey.

When uncovering the details of Bomba y Plena, we realize some basic, but fundamental facts that according to Nelson, "many Puerto Rican-Americans don't know". For instance, it is often misunderstood that Bomba and Plena are one form, when in fact, they are distinct from one another. Bomba is the older of the two, with over 300 years of existence to claim. The younger Plena, born out of Bomba and known as the "newspaper of the streets", has its own rhythm, lyrical style, and even instruments. What undeniably connects the two, is their African origins. Afro-musical traditions were brought to Puerto Rico by enslaved people hundreds of years ago, and integrated with Caribbean culture, by way of various European influences. The result is musical forms with multi-cultural seeds deeply embedded in them. With Bomba y Plena we are talking about beloved traditions of music and dance that are as layered with people's history as they are with rhythms. Inside this complexity is where Nelson Baez realized his identity and now happily, generously, and fluidly shares all he has come to know with his community.
 
 
Master Bomba y Plena Practitioner, Nelson Baez, detailing the relic drum he is holding. A contemporary version of the relic can be seen on display in the background.
 
Q & A with the Master

What are some of the most important historical aspects of Bomba y Plena for you to impart?

NELSON:
When talking about Bomba y Plena it's really important to emphasize that these are both marginalized forms, as are all things African, from the mainstream culture within Puerto Rico and within the Puerto Rican diaspora. So, they are always on the edge of oblivion, especially Bomba, being a clearer symbol of the Island's African heritage. At one time it was not allowed to be played in the streets of Puerto Rico. Plena has benefited sporadically from glossy commercialism within Latino communities since the 1920's. But, we need the lineage of Masters who teach to help preserve it. It is not uncommon in NJ to meet people of Puerto Rican descent who know very little of the rich history and multi-cultural story of Bomba y Plena.
 
Can you speak to the influence of your teachers, and how they shaped your teaching style? Is there something unique that you offer?
NELSON: I learned from many different Masters of the tradition, most who were very protective of it and how things are played. Authenticity is highly valued in the Bomba community. Teachers of Bomba are often concerned about their reputation. They want what is being taught and learned to be accurate; some of the old-timers especially can be really strict in their teaching styles. Ongoing debate within the community about authenticity is very common. But, I also believe that teachers have to figure out the student's best learning style. What works for one student may not work for another. Performing is also a great teacher for students. Interacting with an audience is integral to the experience. I offer my apprentices a chance to perform with Cimarrones, my performance ensemble.

Can you give us a Bomba y Plena 101? Tell us about the experience.
NELSON The tradition is a dynamic, rhythmic interplay between drummers, dancers, and singers. The structure is a traditional call and response which has its roots in African musical forms. This is both an affirming and spiritual act. Dancers are telling stories with their dancing and the drummer interprets those stories. Each dance has its own foot work, its own personality. The dancer and the drummer work together to raise the energy, and the sounds will correspond to the movements of the dancer. There is one lead, improvising drummer who marks the dancer's movements and also responds to the lead singer. The songs are often about everyday life of the community and its members. Some are songs of protest, or songs that send out a message.

In what way does this art form connect you to your cultural identity?
NELSON When I was growing up in the U.S. as a "New Yorican", it wasn't popular to be Black or Puerto Rican. And there was no assimilation for me. I eventually had an identity crisis. When I found Bomba, it circled me back to New York, where I began my lessons, and then it sent me to Nigeria, where my connection to my African roots came alive. Learning to play Bomba y Plena gave me a chance to restore and confirm my identity.

 
 
Edwin Estremera playing the Cua and practicing patterns associated with Bomba. /span>

Q & A with the Apprentice

Will you tell us your background as a musician?
EDWIN: Growing up I was always attracted to drums, to rhythms. I started practicing on cans, boxes, anything that made noise. As a teenager I played with a Haitian band in Trenton. Now I perform with Spanglish Fly, Grupo Afinque, Machuco's Trabucosand Los Cimarrones. I'm very active as a musician.
 
Tell us more about the ensembles you play with and their role in the community:
EDWIN: My ensemble Machucos Trabuco played an event at the Ellarslie Museum in Trenton. There was a sense there that we brought community together, and I believe that because of the type of music that we were performing: Jazz, Afro-Cuban, Afro-Boricua, and R/B. It appealed to many different types of listeners. In regards to Spanglish Fly, we are re-surging an interest in "Bugaloo" - a genre started in the 60's from New York, that kind of disappeared. With groups like Afinke, it's about just being able to continue bringing our Latin sound to future generations, and that gives back great pleasure and satisfaction.

What is the significance of your studies? Why are you studying with Nelson?
EDWIN: Technically, I have the fundamentals of the rhythms and the dancing, but in order for me to develop further I need to learn the more intricate and varied drum patterns on the Buleador as well as variations of the cua and the guiro patterns. I have to learn to play the Subidor and understand the interrelationship between the dancer and the drummer. Also, I need to develop my quality of sound, speed, and endurance. I have chosen to study with Nelson because of his reputation within the Bomba y Plena community, and the fact that he instructs both genres. Personally, is another story.


What is the personal side to your deeper study of Bomba y Plena?
EDWIN: As a percussionist from Puerto Rico I feel it's a priority for me to learn this tradition. I was already playing Cuban rhythms when I thought to myself, 'why not learn MY rhythms'? I also feel it's important to pass this on to my son and to anyone who wishes to learn it. If I have the knowledge I should be prepared to share it. And, if I'm going to teach this to students, I need to develop my skills to the level that I have credibility within this art form.


The title for this publication was inspired by Rita Moonsammy's book entitled,
Passing it On, Folk Artists and Education in Cumberland County, New Jersey, published in 1992.

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The New Jersey State Council on the Arts, created in 1966, is a division of the NJ Department of State. The Council was established to encourage and foster public interest in the arts; enlarge public and private resources devoted to the arts; promote freedom of expression in the arts; and facilitate the inclusion of art in every public building in New Jersey. The Council receives direct appropriations from the State of New Jersey through a dedicated, renewable Hotel/Motel Occupancy fee, as well as competitive grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. To learn more about the Council, please visit 
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