Published January 27, 2023

Bomba Dance

Bomba is, as Margarita “Tata” Sanchez Cepeda puts it, “all about love. I was taught under love, bomba is a form of love, and we continue to carry bomba out of love.”

A collage of two photos: one of Tata dancing in a green dress as an adult; and one of her playing with a drum as a child.
Collage of Margarita “Tata” Sanchez Cepeda. Photo courtesy of Escuela de Bomba y Plena Doña Caridad Brenes de Cepeda.

As granddaughter to Rafael Cepeda—widely regarded as a leading ambassador of bomba and a recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship in 1983—Tata was quite literally taught under love. She remembers how her grandparents seamlessly got her involved into the tradition. On multiple occasions, after writing a new song, her grandfather would ask her to find a drum or a couple of drumsticks, so she could provide a rhythm and thereby hear his composition. Her grandmother, who is credited with leading the rise of women dancing bomba, would then casually start showing her steps while teaching Tata.

“In this way, climbing a ladder of love kept me constantly learning steps and movements, always climbing higher and constantly learning,” Tata said.

Tata has since taken up her grandfather’s roles of master practitioner, community leader, and cultural ambassador of bomba in Puerto Rico, earning the nickname La Mariposa de la Bomba (the Butterfly of Bomba). In 2001 she founded Escuela de Bomba y Plena Doña Caridad Brenes de Cepeda, a school of bomba dance in San Juan. A few years ago, she started to offer week-long intensives during the summer, welcoming Boricuas from the diaspora who could more easily take time off from work then. Tata’s daughter, Barbara Liz Cepeda, is now the eighth generation of the Cepeda family to be involved in sustaining this tradition through her school Escuela de Bomba y Plena Tata Cepeda—in honor of her mother.

In June 2022, with the support of a Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship, Isha Mary Renta Lopez completed a bomba intensive for experienced dancers with Tata. Isha understands the responsibility that comes with practicing bomba firsthand: She founded Semilla Cultural, a non-profit dedicated to nurturing Puerto Rican art and culture in the broader Washington, DC area, in 2014.

A young man plays the traditional barriles de bomba (bomba drums) on stage.
A drummer plays during the Bomba Showcase at the Richmond Folk Festival 2022.

“Through bomba, we are exalting and acknowledging the legacy of our ancestors,” Isha said. “Unfortunately our culture is filled with a lot of suffering, a lot of pain, and above all, a lot of love felt by people who were uprooted from their land to be mistreated and abused. We have to know and value this suffering. As a community leader in the diaspora, it is a very big responsibility to bear this whole story.”

“All my work is focused on my ancestors and thinking about all those taken from their land against their will,” Tata said. “I do this with respect and responsibility, I do it with love, but bomba is also filled with tragedy.”

Enslaved West Africans on Puerto Rico’s sugar plantations created the foundation of bomba in the 17th century, and the art form continues to develop, transform, and connect the island to its African heritage today. Bomba is defined by its dances, songs, and percussion, including barriles de bomba (drums originally made from rum barrels), a maraca, and the cuás (a pair of wood sticks). The drum was also used to send messages between communities planning their escape from enslavement. “Bomba was and will continue to be a form of resistance,” Tata explained.

“The song is nothing more and nothing less than a story.”

Margarita “Tata” Sanchez Cepeda

In bomba, songs are stories. The dancer transforms their body into an instrument, enters into conversation with the lead drummer, and taps into the spirit of the ancestors. “Bomba is a beautiful space where all this energy is flowing between the singer’s voices, the drums, and the dancer,” Isha said.

“When we make that connection to our mother country, Africa, it is an amazing thing,” Tata shared.

Isha and Tata performed together at the Richmond Folk Festival on October 8, 2022 on the Center for Cultural Vibrancy Virginia Folklife Stage. Tata traveled from San Juan for the performance, joined by drummers Ian Caleb Maldonado Carmona and Emanuel Martinez Pagán.

In the last few years, residents of San Juan embraced bomba with renewed energy. As Mariana Núñez Lozada wrote in a piece for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage magazine, bomba gatherings “serve to promote political awareness. Singers often weave new lyrics into traditional bomba songs to reclaim their African heritage and denounce social issues such as gender violence, government corruption, and the colonial status of Puerto Rico.” (Núñez interviewed Tata and Isha for the Virginia Folklife Program in Tata’s studio on June 17, 2022, and the majority of the quotes used in this story are from that interview.)

Tata rests her head on Isha's shoulder. Both are smiling at the camera.
A still from video captured by Mariana Núñez of Isha and Tata in San Juan.

“Today, on any street corner, people are dancing and playing bomba or plena, and dancers, singers, and players continue to come out,” Tata shared. “What is happening is very good, because we are accepting our Blackness, we are accepting who we are.”

By taking the intensive with Tata, Isha not only improved her form, but her relationship with Tata has rooted her deeper in the tradition, strengthening her ability to teach and practice bomba in Fredericksburg. Tata “opened the door” to Isha, inviting her to stay in her home and sing from her grandfather’s songwriting notebook, thereby building a relationship that will continue to be a source of mutual respect and admiration.

Isha M Renta Lopez and Tata Cepeda pose following their Richmond Folk Festival 2022 performance.

On October 9, 2023, Tata and Isha performed at the Richmond Folk Festival, supported by five members of Semilla Cultural, Tata’s daughters Barbara Liz Cepeda and Margarita Caridad Martinez Cepeda who travelled from Florida and Puerto Rico respectively, dancer Maggie Febo and drummers Emmanuel Martinez Pagan and Ian Caleb Maldonado Carmona, who play with Tata in San Juan. This time Tata’s visit also included a free bomba workshop at Dance FXBG, supported by Virginia Folklife. Their hour-long set in Richmond incorporated teaching the audience the story of bomba, so they could appreciate the intensity of the conversation happening between dancers, drummers, and singers.

As their time on stage drew to a close, many of the performers had tears in their eyes. Stage staff and audience alike could feel the love. “I have no words to express my happiness and pride for the weekend’s events,” Isha shared.

Aquí esta Tata y Semilla Cultural
(Opening song of the Bomba Showcase at the 2022 Richmond Folk Festival)
Se formó la bomba de verdad
Aquí esta Tata y Semilla Cultural
Llegó a Virginia a ponerse a bailar
Ando en la bomba, bailando de verda’
Los muchachos viajaron hasta acá
Tocan la bomba con Semilla Cultural
Las muchachas lo gozan de verda’
Bailan la bomba y no quieren parar
Tocan la bomba, la bomba de verdá
Aquí esta Tata y Semilla Cultural

Celebrate the accomplishments of Tata Cepeda and Isha M Renta Lopez and our other apprenticeship teams at the Library of Virginia on Friday, July 7 (more details).