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Puerto Rican drumming is transforming lives in St. Paul

Art therapist Chantel Randle gives a presentation at a recent Bomba drumming class at the Black Youth Healing Art Center in St. Paul. (Photo by CBJ Reporter Jasmine McBride)

A centuries-old musical tradition from Puerto Rico is finding a new home in St. Paul.

On Wednesday nights students gather at the Black Youth Healing Art Center for a drumming class rooted in a cultural tradition called Bomba. Teacher Tearra Oso leads the class. Exposed to Bomba at a young age, Oso says it became an outlet for her as she navigated life’s struggles. She says it may have saved her life.

“Bomba is the reason why a lot of us are here today… because that's how our ancestors were able to survive and to thrive in their lifetime – through the craziest, most horrible things. They were able to flip it and regulate their nervous systems in this beautiful, fun way,” said Oso. “They were still able to find joy in their lives.”

Spaniards brought enslaved Africans to Puerto Rico in the 1600s to work on sugar plantations. The enslaved used wooden sticks to drum on rum barrels called “bombas.” The music served multiple purposes – providing temporary relief from enslavement, enabling Africans to communicate with one another across language barriers, and building community. Bomba has since evolved into a traditional dance and music style that combines both Puerto Rican and African culture.

Oso’s class is an intergenerational group. The evening features guided rhythms, singing, and community reflections.

BYHAC youth leadership team member Joseph Cole attends the class regularly. Cole says what keeps him going back is seeing how the energy in the space lifts collectively, no matter how people originally came into the room.

“People that are the same age as me, a lot older than me, a lot younger than me… We're all doing the same thing, playing the same rhythm; and it really feels like unity,” says Cole. “Being able to witness everybody else feel it is what fills me.”

Oso says she’s heard many stories of people being “saved” by the drum. And attendees are encouraged to lean into creativity as a tool in their healing journey. Joining Oso in a recent drumming session was therapist Chantel Randle. Randle says having seen the effects of art therapy, she wanted to affirm to attendees what they are accomplishing just by showing up to this Bomba class.

“I want people to know that you can have the life that you want,” said Randle. “The joys of being able to use therapy and art to build your own self sufficiency is going to show you, ‘I can do this.’ You can be self-sufficient in your own healing right through the use of arts.”

Randle says within her work, she has seen that when individuals feel empowered in their own healing, they are more likely to stick with it. She says this is key to building healthy and stable communities.

Bomba classes are free and open to the public at the Black Youth Healing Arts Center in Saint Paul, Wednesdays at 5:00pm.


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