This fall the Bronx Arts Ensemble was planning a performance with the Bombazo Dance Co., and we wanted to perform an unusual crossover with traditional bomba. “What if we combined bomba with Balkan folk music?” we asked ourselves. And the more we layered the melodies and the rhythms, the more it felt like a perfect match. We were very lucky on this project to have the support of Bombazo’s wonderful drummers and dancers, and a quartet of talented musicians. Together we turned a freewheeling, improvisatory collaboration into a musical evening with new choreography and a narrative: two musics meeting for the first time and getting to know each other.
As always when musics meet, there were similarities that we hadn’t realized initially. Both are traveling musics. Bomba has roots in rhythms that came from Africa to Puerto Rico. Balkan music was traditionally performed by bands from town to town, and had its roots in the music of the Romani, who often were the bands’ traveling companions. Both musics have evolved during their time in the United States through contact with jazz and other forms. Both musics are focused on dance and represent ecstatic joy and deep sadness. Both musics rely on improvisation between dancer and musician.
Bomba originated in the 17th century with the enslaved and free people of color in Puerto Rico, and today is an expression of interactive, community culture. The barriles or traditional drums used in bomba came from the barrels that the enslaved were forced to fill with rum and wheat during the times of slavery. Through music, the tools of slavery were transformed into the tools of liberation and resistance. Similarly, Klezmer tradition did not include brass or percussion until the Jewish musicians of Eastern Europe began to be conscripted into the military, and their music took on the influence of the military bands they were forced to be a part of. Many of the Balkan tunes performed came from the Klezmer tradition.
The fusion of Balkan and Bomba turned out to be a very fun experience for all who attended the show!