Dancing to the Beat of West African History: Cultural Preservation in Loiza, Puerto Rico

  • This is the third in a series of blogs written by students from Wilfrid Laurier University who participated in a field course in Puerto Rico sponsored by the History Department, the Faculty of Arts and the Residence Department, in May-June 2016.  The blogs focus on the Afro-Puerto Rican experience.

The town of Loiza, Puerto Rico, is particularly rich in colonial and ethnic history. Traditionally one of the largest sugar-producing sectors on the island, it became the settlement for freed West African slaves following abolition. Unlike the rest of Puerto Rico’s predominately Spanish make-up, Loiza is a cosmopolitan municipality that combines all ethnic origins of the island, Taino, European, and African, into a secular community.

Although I have never visited West Africa, I lived in Kenya during August of 2014. The sights in Loiza are quite comparable. The housing in Loiza differs from other municipalities in Puerto Rico as many are constructed out of concrete blocks versus singular concrete walls, similar to the apartment buildings and school houses of rural Kenya.

My favourite part about visiting Loiza was partaking in a traditional Bomba dancing class. Originating from the sugar plantations as a ceremonial activity, this form of music and dance allowed slaves to freely express personal emotions in response to enslaved life. La Corporacion Piñones Se Integra (COPI) is a non-profit community organization invested in the education, instruction, and preservation of traditional African music and dance. Specializing in the instruction of Plena, a traditional dance distinguished for the playing of hand drums, and Bomba, a dance central to Afro-Puerto Rican culture with music characterized by large barrel drums, the COPI centre provides locals and tourists with a unique learning experience.

The La Bomba de Loiza style is so central to this municipality that it was the genre we learned to perform. During rehearsal, passing locals shouted encouragement “to move our hips” and videotaped the final performance. It was a time of delightful high energy and happiness communicated through sweaty feet and smiles. The awkwardness the group initially felt upon arrival slowly melted away alongside the guidance of our lovely instructor.

What is so fascinating about learning the Bomba is the relationship that exists between the dancers and musicians. One female of the dance troupe is considered the “lead” and must direct the drummers via body language communication. One drummer marks hand gestures, arm, and skirt movements with a beat while the others maintain the rhythm of the dance. This highly percussionist expressionism is a form of universal communication. Regardless of our language barriers, my group and I were able to tell a historical story alongside our musicians, making this class a truly magical experience.

 

Pictures:

Left – La Corporacion Piñones Se Integra (COPI) in Loiza, Puerto Rico. Photo by Grace Jansen in de Wal

Top Right – Preparing to dance the Bomba in a traditional performance skirt.  Photo by Stephanie Newhook

Bottom Right – Stage inside  COPI in Loiza, Puerto Rico. Photo by Grace Jansen in de Wal

By Grace Jansen in de Wal, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Canada

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Afro-Puerto Rican Culture through Samuel Lind

  • This is the second in a series of blogs written by students from Wilfrid Laurier University who participated in a field course in Puerto Rico sponsored by the History Department, the Faculty of Arts and the Residence Department, in May-June 2016.  The blogs focus on the Afro-Puerto Rican experience.

The culture and diversity of Puerto Rico leave many to marvel at how this uniqueness has survived. One of the many ways that this diversity has survived is through artisans and creative people living and breathing ideals and traditions of the past. A well-known artist, Samuel Lind, connects deeply to the earth and nature much like early Puerto Ricans did. Lind is well known for his depictions of nature and community, but he has a special focus on the Afro-Puerto Rican experience.  He lives and works in Loiza, an Afro-Puerto Rican town settled by former African slaves, which is the beating heart of African culture in Puerto Rico today.  Lind’s gallery and studio are incorporated into his home, with varying studio spaces stretching over multiple floors and past signs of everyday life. Passing through his garage and parked car you find a small room with a portrait of a young girl in the works, as well as a completed statue ready for final touches or a buyer. His cat sits on the table on top of a print seemingly accustomed to this life of constant creativity. It mirrored in my mind an old Taino (indigenous Puerto Rican) village of movement and work being integrated with everyday living.

samuel-lind-studio

One the pieces of art that stood out in his house was a picture of women resembling mother earth. He used a contrasting light and dark colour palate to resemble night and day. This connection to earth is what makes the whole area of Loiza unique and special. This art gallery is also filled with art pieces resembling and inspired by people of the community. I purchased a piece that was modeled after an Afro-Puerto Rican woman who lived at the top of his street. She is pictured doing the Bomba, a traditional dance originating in the African slave culture of the sugar and coffee plantation era.  Lind also has paintings of beaches and what appear to be ordinary people walking in nature. This connection to the earth and nature struck me as a fascinating tribute to the way of life of the Taino and Afro-Puerto Ricans.  It is a way of life that celebrated nature and the world that they lived in. Samuel Lind’s studio, nestled in the trees and immersed in art is a fabulous place not only to visit and purchase art, but to immerse yourself in the ways of Puerto Rico’s African heritage.  His work keeps the island’s African heritage alive and presents it for the world to celebrate and remember.

By: JJ Doran, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada