Growing up in a working-class section of Jersey City, Cynthia Renta learned how to negotiate between many colliding worlds: the Cuban crowd she hung out with in Union City; her fellow Puerto Ricans downtown; the Filipinos, Italians, and Irish Americans who populated her neighborhood; her Catholic school that comprised mostly Latino students, but wouldn't allow anyone to speak Spanish. "There's a different sort of Puerto Rican identity that one develops growing outside of the island," explained Renta, who came up listening to hip-hop on the radio, along with salsa and meringue from her parents' record collection. "I didn't actually start speaking Spanish until I was sixteen years old, when I made my first trip to Puerto Rico." She did, however, learn to embrace her Latino roots through dance, first by taking salsa classes at her sister's behest, and later, by falling in love with Afro-Puerto Rican bomba.
Rooted in West African rhythmic styles, bomba came to Puerto Rico by way of the Middle Passage, and had a social dimension similar to the work songs and field hollers that emerged on Southern plantations in the US. (Like spirituals and work songs, bomba music delivered subliminal messages about running away, Renta said.) It's an arresting, percussive, hypnotic form that puts a dancer (or dance ensemble) in dialogue with a primo drummer — wherein the dancers' movements serve as a rhythmic template for the drums. It's traditionally a "mixed-gender activity," Renta explained, in that the drummers are almost always male, the dancers male and female. Thus, Renta's newly formed all-female bomba ensemble, Bomberas de la Bahia, really goes against the grain.
Bomberas de la Bahia formed out of jam sessions that Renta led at Fruitvale's now-defunct Deep Roots Urban Teahouse, starting in 2005. Formally consecrated in 2007, it was the first iteration of Project Cimmarona: La Bomba Es Nuestra, which seeks to preserve the folkloric dance tradition — but in a "woman-centered" space. (Besides executive-producing the Bomberas dance ensemble, Project Cimmarona offers dance and song composition classes at Destiny Arts Center in Oakland.) This Friday, July 18, the ensemble presents a multidisciplinary dance performance that includes storytelling and spoken-word tributes to historical female rebels from Puerto Rico. Dubbed "Cimarronaje: A Neofolkloric Journey Celebrating the Lives of Revolutionary Puerto Rican Women," the event features seven visiting artists (from New York City, Puerto Rico, and San Diego), performing alongside Bomberas de la Bahia. At Laney College Theater (900 Fallon St., Oakland). 8 p.m., $18-$20. MySpace.com/projectcimarrona
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