Discovering the Riches of Puerto Rico
‘Doesn’t this remind of you of Miami?’ And it did, but only for a short while. I was in the Condado neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and though I had a culturally packed itinerary ahead of me, I had to initially agree with my fellow travelers. It was beautiful: sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, pristine resorts lining Ashford Avenue, a perfect atmosphere to get away from the cold, dark winter of New York City if only for fours days. But this is what everyone else sees when they come here. I was anxious, thirsty to find the true treasures of this island that intrigued me from the numerous phone calls and emails I had sent investigating and researching prior to my trip. What was this island really about? The perfectly situated San Juan Marriott Stellaris® Resort & Casino was host to six vloggers, including myself, who were sent down on a mission: we were to film whatever we wanted in 24 hours, edit a video in 12, and then screen the videos at a small film festival, judged by a panel of industry experts including one of Puerto Rico’s top travel bloggers (PiccoloMondoPR.com), the photo editor for the top tourism magazine of the island (¡Que Pasa! Magazine), the marketing head for the hotel, and head of one of the local sponsors (Hertz Car Rental). It was an eclectic group of people, us vloggers, showcasing our talents and honing in on what each of us loves to do. Of course, the minute after I received the invitation to join this group a few weeks prior, I hit the web and started doing my homework. To be honest, I thought I would be salsa dancing my way around the island – I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Initial research via the island’s tourism board (hint: best place as a starting point for any trip you plan) pointed me in the direction of the Cepeda Family and the music of bomba y plena. This music and dance was born in the former slave town of Loiza at the beginning of the 19th century. A conversation between musicians and dancers, this intricate and extremely complicated set of rhythms is completely turned up-side-down by the improvisational relationship between the lead drummer and the dancer. I was fascinated and determined to find the family members whose legacy has been passed down for generations: the Cepeda Family created their own rhythms which are now part of the musical canon in the bomba y plena genre.
William Cepeda, distant relative to the patriarch Rafael Cepeda, was born surrounded by these rhythms, but unlike his family counterparts, he decided to take his musical upbringing and study its structure and form in the classical setting. He attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston and became a composer and a properly trained musician. Since then, he has been nominated for a Grammy Award, created the Afro-Rican Jazz genre, and performed with notable artists such as Dizzie Gillespie. Classical orchestration and arrangements of his own works are full and lush, but they are always driven by the rhythms from his informal training as a child back home in Loiza. I could not have been any luckier, as this man had recently relocated back to San Juan from New York City. A phone call back from this musical master was better than a nugget of gold!
Margarita ‘Tata’ Cepeda is the queen mother in the Cepeda Family for dance. As it turns out, the rhythms and the dancing go hand in hand, but the mastery of this dance form cannot be surpassed, except maybe by her bewitching daughter, Margarita. There is an air to Tata, who with time and history behind her, falls onto the crowd as a cultural matriarch, watching her children, observing their movements, correcting their faults and making it a priority that the those learning are learning the purest form without dilution. Margarita the younger, on the other hand, is young and spirited and eager to show her prowess. She is stunning, and though she does aid her mother in instruction, she is the face of the next generation of master bomba y plena dancers. Both of these women are untouchable, yet accessible to all who are eager to learn. They are true jewels of the island that continue to shine.
When I arrived on the island, I was more than eager to get myself (and my camera) in front of bomba y plena. Reading about the dance and seeing photos could not do justice for this intoxicating art form. In my first night, as I darted out of the press dinner a little early, I hurried to the Nuyorican Café in Old San Juan and met Nino, the young, film student/doorman at the local hotspot. He was excited to practice his English with me, and of course I felt silly that I could not speak to him in his local tongue. But he had a continuous smile on his face, even more excited to see I had a camera with me and to hear that I was there to document the beauties I would see in his boss’s venue.
I walked in, and the room seemed empty. My anticipation fell to the floor. Was it a bad night to come? Would I find what I was looking for? Would this place live up to my expectations, or was I aiming too high? A band of musicians lingered in the doorway, men ranging from the ages of 25 to 60, drinking a few beers, and happily taking their time with whatever they weren’t doing. This was island life, and as I finally took a breath after a whole day of frenetic travel and wining and dining with the hosts, I realized, I was in the right place. This was as local as I was going to get. The friendly musicians very casually approached the stage, took their positions at each drum, and with a short introduction from the youngest member (who was also the singer and band leader), the three drummers began a most complicated rhythm without any warning or cueing. They were in perfect synchronization, and the high in my body shot through the roof. Los Seis del Barrio, as they were known, were opening my ears to something I had never heard before!
People began coming out of the shadows of the venue, hidden by the tall pillars and low banquettes of the place. They began to move towards to the band, swaying and bouncing, unable to stay still from the pulse of the incredible beats that pounded through the space. Three women moved to the front, taking a seat to the left of the stage, and one by one, they each took their turn dancing alone, speaking to the drummers with their bodies, creating a story of movement and music. Annie, Betsy, and Lily were born and raised in Loiza, and gave me my first taste of bomba. Annie, as it turns out, teaches bomba, and gave me some direction as we danced side-by-side, I imitating her every move (or at least attempting to). It was a magical feeling, and slowly the room began to fill with warm bodies. Other patrons of the club took their turn in the spotlight and conversed with the local musicians.
As the night continued, family members of the band began to join them on stage, taking places behind the many microphones, adding voices to the chants and choruses driving the music. After bomba, a full salsa orchestra graced the stage and the café soon turned into a packed house with dancing, drinks, singing, and reveling in every nook and cranny. I knew then and there that the rest of my time on this incredible island would be nothing short of magical, and my expectations did not fall short.
Join Mickela on a Bare Feet™ Tour to Puerto Rico!
Like what you see? Join us on a Bare Feet™ Tour to San Juan where you can experience the dance and music of Puerto Rico for yourself! For more information, click here:
1. Bomba classes: Tata Cepeda’s Escuela de Bomba y Plena offers weekly dance and music classes for adults and children, and is situated right in the heart of Old San Juan. It is a must-visit for anyone interested in learning the rhythms of bomba y plena!
2. Hot Spots: Old San Juan is filled with tourist traps, but to find true, authentic, and local music, these are my favorites: The Nuyorican Café offers live music every night including bomba y plena, bomba rock, and salsa. One of the cultural centers, Celebrate Puerto Rico, is a fantastic place that offers salsa lessons and live music, and it is always filled with locals. Bar Gitano, situated across the street from the San Juan Marriott, is a Spanish Tapas restaurant that offers live flamenco/gypsy performances by Fusion Jonda every Thursday and Sunday evening.
3. Salsa lessons: Cambio en Clave was founded by attorney Rafa Cancel who started giving salsa lessons to his friends for fun. It has since grown into a dance movement where hundreds of students come together at a time in cities across Puerto Rico, crossing socio-economic borders. A great way to meet locals, classes are offered weekly. For more information, go to CambioEnClave.com.
4. Loiza: The neighboring town of Loiza has delicious food kiosks run by locals, featuring the fried dishes best known from this area. A little further in the town, in the Piñones neighborhood, you find El Balcon del Zumbador, a local hotspot right on the beach where the only tourist is YOU!
Thank you to our sponsor! The San Juan Marriott Stellaris® Resort & Casino sponsored this Puerto Rico adventure! Conveniently located to all attractions, this beach-front property includes two pools, restaurants, a nightclub, and a casino. Cyber Monday special TODAY ONLY (Nov 26,2012), book and receive 30% OFF all reservations! Use promo code D3Q