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On Tuesday, while the D.C. Council voted for economic relief for child care workers, folks experiencing homelessness, and low-income families, a revived White House task force met for the first time to discuss economic relief for another vulnerable group: residents of Puerto Rico.
Like D.C., Puerto Rico has no voting representative in Congress and its residents are without full voting rights. Lawmakers and media outlets have increasingly linked the two areas’ decades-long fights for statehood as they have gained ground in Congress this year. In recent months, the self-determination bill Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed has faced controversy. But the White House task force on Puerto Rico, which President Biden re-established to give options for Borikén’s political status and relationship with the U.S., is instead focused on recovery relief over statehood, according to the president.
When people don’t have a legislative voice, they speak up and out in other ways. (You know it, D.C.!) For residents whose heritage is caught up in a limbo of unrecognized autonomy, celebration and resistance can come in the form of intergenerational solidarity, cultural practice, and oral history preservation. For Puerto Ricans from the island (or whose parents hail from there) who live in D.C.—a growing population—this dual limbo state isn’t immobilizing, it’s galvanizing. And the lack of autonomy and federal aid back home as Puerto Rico has faced devastating natural disasters, its own racial reckoning, and public health crises even pre-pandemic have spurred local millennials to delve into their roots, playing old-school Afro-Boricua rhythms with siblings, and inspired parents to play progressive bomba and plena melodies with their children.
What Are Bomba and Plena?
Bomba, a percussive genre centered on call and response that’s considered the anthem of Puerto Rico, has resurged among Boricuas outside the island, including young people. While bomba has been on the brink of becoming mainstream, it dates back to enslaved 17th-century Puerto Ricans, for whom the lyrics conveyed their rage and melancholy and the songs both galvanized uprisings and created community and identity. Its 16 rhythms are a result of interactions among enslaved Puerto Ricans and those from Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Dutch Caribbean colonies.
Plena, a one-rhythm Afro-Borikén musical tradition often paired with bomba, is known as “the newspaper of the people” for a reason: Its narrative lyrics and function in news reporting and political commentary hail from sugarcane fields (cañaverales) in the southern part of the island in the early 1900s. For this reason, one of Kadencia Orchestra’s original songs in their first album is “Bomba de Cañaveral.”
Machetes have a special place in Puerto Rican culture, particularly so with plena. “Tito” Sanabria, the buleador and requinto drum player for Kadencia Orchestra, links the knife with the sugarcane his ancestors would cut when they developed the genre. His great-grandfather, who worked as a train conductor transporting sugar canes in the 1930s, would regale Tito Sanabria’s father with tales of folks in the sugarcane fields dancing during their scant free time. The machete and its associated music genres symbolized a dual resistance via education through plena news sharing and as a means to put their children through to university.
Kadencia Orchestra members who hail from Puerto Rico or strongly identify with their Puerto Rican heritage—and who will be performing in Fairfax tonight— actively engage in this act of celebration and resistance.
“The 2-piece Combo,” AKA “the Roman Duo”
As Jersey kids, they broke a futon imitating The Hardy Boyz’ and The Undertaker’s wrestling moves. As teens in Prince George, Virginia, they walked out together when Alfredo, their mentor in the church band, dealt out too much tough love during rehearsal. Will Roman on the drums, Marc Roman on the trumpet—the two brothers, now 30 and 27, respectively, stuck together. Their father, a DJ in the ‘90s who moved to New York City from Puerto Rico at the cusp of adulthood, would sit them down on the couch and have them memorize album covers of Latino-Caribbean artists: Eddie Palmieri, Fania All-Stars, Puerto Rican Power Orchestra, Buena Vista Social Club. At family reunions, 5-year-old Will Roman would play percussion on top of the salsa music playing while people enjoyed pasteles and empanadillas.
Salsa music helped them weather transitions like the move from a “super loud” and highly Latinx-populated city to a highly tree-populated Virginian town as pre-teens. “I came over here and it was, like, super quiet,” says Marc Roman. “And it makes you kind of paranoid because it’s too quiet.” But it was also the place he learned to play trumpet (in Jersey, their school didn’t have the music programs they did in their new home). It was the place he and his brother adjusted to their new home through music, joining and unjoining salsa bands with bad-attitude bandmates.
And, in 2018, it was the place that a friend from church introduced Will and Marc Roman to a man that would offer the light-skinned Puerto Rican brothers a new way to experience their Afro-Boricua roots: playing bomba and plena, the Puerto Rican musical genre. (Salsa and reggaeton music, contrary to popular misconception, didn’t originate in Puerto Rico; they are, respectively, Afro-Cuban and Afro-Panamanian in origin.)
A man that, during his first meeting with Will Roman in the man’s living room, pulled up a PowerPoint with his vision for a bomba and plena band he was resuscitating: Kadencia Orchestra.
The vision jolted Will Roman and made his wife say, “I think you should do this,” when he climbed into their 2014 Honda Accord afterward and, despite all the bad bandmate experiences, made him say yes. It drove his brother to commit as well—putting in motion the dynamic brass-percussion duo that a Kadencia bandmate would later call “the 2-piece combo” and “the Roman duo.”
The man’s name was Maurice Sanabria.
Keeping It All in the Familia: Fathers and Sons
When 41-year-old Tito Sanabria found an abandoned bodyboard laying on the grass next to a basketball court in his town of San Germán, Puerto Rico, at age 12, he didn’t know what it was. Maurice Sanabria, who had surfed as a youth, asked his son if he wanted to learn the sport. In the weeks that followed, with the bodyboard Tito Sanabria remembers as “kind of split in half at the top, not completely broken, but somebody didn’t want it,” Maurice Sanabria taught Tito Sanabria how to move with the rhythms and swells of the ocean, how to balance it all.
Years later, when Tito Sanabria had come to Richmond, Virginia, for a job and, nursing knee injuries and feeling homesick (it was tough to find other Boricuas in the area then), picked up a requinto bomba drum, his father Maurice Sanabria taught him how to better balance the rhythms of bomba and plena. A photo taken in Puerto Rico of a bodyboard, a gift from Tito Sanabria’s mother, visible as he chats with City Paper, reminds him of the sport where he and his father took something ugly and discarded and harnessed it into a teaching tool and source of joy.
“[Bomba and plena] create an understanding that especially Puerto Ricans and many Latinos are a mix of races,” says Tito Sanabria, alluding to the genres’ origins in slavery. “There’s beauty in that, there is value in that, there is a rich history … and there’s an ugliness too that we can’t cover up that contributed to these rhythms.”
Maurice Sanabria, in a way, followed in the salsa-dancing footsteps of his own father, who sang in Miami and New York. In the military, while stationed in Germany in the late 1980s, he uncovered a big salsa community and joined a military salsa band. Invites for him to sing in other bands poured in, and Maurice Sanabria eventually started one focused on bomba and plena rhythms: the original Kadencia Band, which later disbanded in the early 2000s.
As a teen, Tito Sanabria’s father played in bands with friends in marquesinas, wall-less garages, with equipment one of those friends, a band boy for a well known salsa group, sneaked out at night. Maurice Sanabria had already been singing and playing tambora, a two-headed drum hailing from the Dominican Republic, at family parrandas since age 8. In marquesenia gatherings, folks would cut down palm trees with machetes, put up some lights, and dance to music, sometimes live playing; that’s where Maurice Sanabria and his friends came in. That’s when Maurice Sanabria “really got into it.”
The Band That They Bonded
Through contacts he met through friends and randomly at venues, Maurice Sanabria had gathered an all-star team of diverse drummers, bass musicians, and vocalists to accompany his singing-storytelling. His dream was to rebuild the Kadencia Orchestra with new members, so he brought his original songs from the original salsa band and bought the melodies from former band members. Will Roman on the congas and primo drum and Marc Roman, the trumpet player and back-up singer, have been two mainstays since the group re-formed with Maurice Sanabria as the lead singer and güiro player and his son Tito Sanabria on back-up vocals and the requinto and buleador, drums made of goat skin. Maurice Sanabria’s grandfather’s stories became the stuff of the orchestra’s songs: “No Me Quite el Tambor,” for instance, is the story of an enslaved person who prostrated himself before captors who threatened to take his drum—for him, it would be like taking his life.
Their first gig as the new Kadencia Orchestra, the 12-piece ensemble that frequently plays in the DMV, was at Hawk n Dove on a chilly January 2019. During the pandemic, after a year of only virtual rehearsals, when the COVID-19 cases had dipped, Maurice Sanabria brought the band together in one room in his house. He had bought clotheslines and curtains to separate each player in the rehearsal space. They took rehearsals seriously, playing as though they were still performing at the Lincoln Memorial, as they did in August 2019 as an invite from Music at the Monument. Tito recalls glancing over at his father, incredulous that they, Puerto Ricans playing Afro-Boricua music, were standing at the same spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. had made his “I Have a Dream” speech.
“We have a dream!” says Maurice Sanabria, chortling as he recalls the performance. Behind him, as he talks to City Paper, is a portrait of Black Boricuas dancing bomba and plena that his oldest son, Michael, photographed.
Apart from performances, Kadencia Orchestra keeps the oral history going with bomba and plena workshops and discussions on Afro-Caribbean music for the Virginia Department of Education.
“I think whenever we can have a conversation that brings to the center…the importance of acceptance, of understanding where we come from,” it’s more than worth it, says Tito Sanabria. For them and so many others in the DMV, the resistance plays on.
Kadencia Orchestra plays in the DMV area tonight, from 7:30-8:30 pm, at Royal Lake Park, 5344 Gainsborough Drive, Fairfax, VA, 22032.
—Ambar Castillo (tips? firstname.lastname@example.org)
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