The move from Puerto Rico to Utah was difficult for Liliana Rodríguez. But there was one thing that drove her to stay — bomba.
Rodríguez is a part of Bomba Marilé, the state's first and only bomba group. Bomba is a traditional music and dance style in Puerto Rico that has evolved into a form of community expression.
"I want to go back every day," Rodríguez said in Spanish. "But we're helping share our culture in new places. That's made me feel like we have to stay here and keep making this history. I really do think that what we're doing with bomba is making history in Utah."
Rodríguez moved to Utah in July 2018 after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. The island's entire population of about 3.4 million lost electricity, with power not being completely restored for months. It was the largest and longest blackout in U.S. history. Over 95% of Puerto Ricans lacked drinking water, the majority of roads were impassable and nearly 3,000 lost their lives.
Rodríguez would cry initially when people in Utah asked her about Puerto Rico, but joining Bomba Marilé was a turning point.
"Being in the group is being able to share and come together with people who enjoy the same culture that I do," Rodríguez said. "We all have different ideas and personalities, but we all learn from each other."
Bomba Marilé was started in November 2017 by co-director Miriam Padilla and her partner, Isaias Alavez Martínez. For Padilla, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Maryland at age 7, Bomba Marilé was part of a process of reconnecting with her culture and ancestry.
"It's music that is really of our ancestors. It's music that's part of us and our identity," Padilla said. "The Puerto Rican community is growing here, so it's really nice that we can also provide some music that kind of brings back memories of Puerto Rico for them."
The couple traveled to Puerto Rico and participated in bomba workshops in San Francisco before starting their own group in Utah. Building a bomba presence from scratch, however, has presented some challenges.
Alavez, the group's co-founder and musical director, said getting community support and interest has been difficult. For a time the group just consisted of him and Padilla, who were paying out of pocket to offer bomba classes for free. After seeing one or two people — or worse nobody — show up for their classes, the duo started to question whether it was worth it to continue to push bomba in Utah.
They decided they'd give it three more months. That was about five years ago. Today the group has eight members.
"My thought was always in any event that we do, if one person shows up and they enjoy it — I'm more than happy," Alavez said. "It's a slow process, but it's going. I don't know where it's gonna to go and I don't know how long we're gonna be here. But for now we're here."
Another issue was obtaining the correct instruments. Bomba is traditionally played with three instruments: "barriles," drums made from barrels and goat skin; cuá, two sticks banged on a wooden surface; and a large maraca. For the first year, Bomba Marilé used conga drums and Cuban maracas until it was able to import the correct instruments from Puerto Rico. Even then, the barriles would sometimes break in transit and artisans in Puerto Rico would have to walk Bomba Marilé through how to fix them over the phone.
Alavez stressed how much technique goes into playing bomba. In fact, the genre has a variety of rhythmic patterns that are each used for specific purposes or emotions.
"It's not just, 'Oh it's a drum, hit it,'" Alavez said. "I would like to see more of that, learning and understanding the history of it and respecting it."
Unlike other music genres — where dancers follow the music's rhythm — bomba musicians base the rhythm on a dancer's movements. A lead drummer, who uses a higher pitched "subidor" or "primo" drum, imitates the dancer's movements. Other drummers use a lower-pitched drum, or buleador, to keep a steady rhythm. A dancer will start by doing a "paseo," walking in a circle to mark their space, before greeting the subidor. Once the dancer has finished, they bow to the subidor and the process can start over with another dancer. The music will continue until a singer, who typically sings a chorus that others respond to, signals for a stop.
For Alavez, who's the only member of the group without Puerto Rican heritage, it was the power of percussion that initially drew him to bomba and Caribbean music in general.
"You can just play the drum and you'll hear it a block away. So that vibration usually touches people," he said. "I've experienced it with babies that are like 2 or 3 years old. When we start playing, it takes about a minute, then they start moving because the vibration is touching them. To me, that was really something that was amazing."
Bomba, however, is far more than just a music and dance style. It reflects the history, culture and spirit of resistance and strength of Puerto Rico. Bomba Marilé member Melanie Espinal, a U.S.-born Puerto Rican, hopes that the group can help educate people about Puerto Rican culture, history and current events.
"At the end of the day, our culture is not separate from our history. We don't want you to just dance with us; we want you to understand the problems that we face and the history," she said. "Our story is intrinsically connected with the American story. I think a lot of people don't realize that and it's easy to be ignorant about the fate, the situations and the problems that Puerto Rican people face."
Although Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and its people are U.S. citizens, they do not have the same rights as U.S.-born citizens. For example, they can vote in presidential primaries but not in general elections. The island has also been plagued with corruption, a debt crisis and failing infrastructure.
For Zeke Southern, learning more about bomba and eventually joining Bomba Marilé has been a personal journey. Southern was born in Connecticut to a Puerto Rican mom and an American dad. Growing up, he had heard about bomba but didn't know much about it.
"It was difficult because what I've learned is it's a journey. It's not something that you can learn just within a month or within a week or even a year. It's something that takes a good majority of your life — like talking well beyond your 40s — because you're walking with your ancestors and you're reconnecting with your ancestors," he said. "When people think of Puerto Ricans they think light, olive skin. They don't think Black Puerto Ricans exist, but we do exist. And it's very apparent in our culture, from our music to our food."
The African influence in bomba is undeniable. The genre originated with African slaves who were brought to Puerto Rico, a population that totaled 15,000 by 1555 and 29,335 (or 5% of the island’s population) by the time slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico in 1873.
Bomba was originally used as a form of communication by enslaved people, who came from a variety of African tribes and spoke different languages. It was eventually banned due to its use as a tool for planning rebellions. Today it can be seen in protests on the island, including Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
However, like Puerto Rico itself, bomba is a mix of a variety of influences. In addition to its African roots, bomba also includes Spanish, Taíno, Haitian Creole and Dutch influences. The name Bomba Marilé itself is also a blend of influences. It's a combination of "mar," the Spanish word for sea, and "ile," the Yoruban word for home. The two words combined mean "home by the sea," a nod to Puerto Rico.
Omar Gonzalez, who has played bomba for 17 years, joined the group after he moved to Utah in 2018 following Hurricane Maria. Playing bomba in Utah isn't quite what he's used to back home.
"The music scene is very different," he said. "We come from a place where you would go out three days a week and experience live music and friends and people who you see constantly on a periodic basis. That is something you won't see here in Utah, and that's something we miss a lot."
Padilla said the group hopes to eventually get to that level in Utah.
"We're in this for long term to share this with the community. Bomba is something that normally you play music with the community and everybody dances and sings with you," she said. "It's going to take a while for people here to know what bomba is and to be willing to participate in it the way that it's really meant to be."