My Voice is like Bomba

Gabriela García Sánchez

Writing, music, art, and dance all have one thing in common–voice.  No matter the art form, the creator laces his or her own voice into the work. In Eleanor Parker Sapa’s blog, Finding Your Unique Writing Voice, Sapa defines voice as  “the unique way by which we see, experience, and interpret the world as individuals.” She goes on to discuss her thoughts about the use of voice and how there is no one-size-fits-all for this element of the creative process. Her definition demonstrates how the development of a voice is entirely dependent on the artist, and that makes sense to me. If no one person is exactly like another, how can their voices be the same? As someone who is both indecisive and fears commitment, I appreciate that fluidity that Sapa’s definition provides.

I am on a constant search for writers, singers and artists who share work that demands attention as well as a response from their audience. Lately, I have been very drawn to Latinx and Afro-Caribbean writers and artists. I’m interested in the variety of voices, experiences, and attitudes that come from these individuals because they possess similar identities to my own.

My desire to experience art created by artists who identify as Hispanic began when I read Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan. This novel did not fully embody my own experience as a female of Latin descent because Esperanza, the story’s protagonist, is Mexican and I’m Puerto Rican. However, I must give my parents credit for exposing me to a novel that was written by and of Hispanic females.

Similarly, my parents noticed early on that I had a passion for the visual and performing arts. They put me into a Caribbean dance class where I learned salsa, merengue, cha-cha, plena, and bomba. This time of my life was filled with people who looked like me, spoke Spanish, and taught me about my Boricua heritage through dance.

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Out of these dances, bomba was my favorite. Dancing Bomba leaves me in an empowered state, where I am focused on myself as well as my own interactions with the rhythm. In Bomba, this interaction produces the dance steps that in turn influences the beats.

Let me explain: Bomba is one of the beautiful treasures produced from the African influence within Puerto Rican culture. The rhythms, music, and dance of Bomba are derived from the traditions of the African slaves that were brought over during the colonial period, which is why we see variations of this dance and its rhythms throughout the Caribbean. Back in that time, bomba allowed people the space to express their sadness over their living conditions and the struggles that eventually drove them to rebel and protest. However, bomba was also a space they could explore as an expression of joy and celebration, which is how it is more commonly used today.

To truly understand bomba as an artform is to understand the conversation between the dance steps and the beat. In bomba there is always a call and response; a soloist sings a phrase and it evokes the drummers to begin. The crowd then gathers and the dancers begin to come forth. When a dancer comes to the forefront and engages the lead drummer, el primo, he or she is challenging the drummer to follow their steps and body movements with the beats that they produce. The challenge is done like a gentleman’s duel, starting with polite saludos, then the drummer and dancer can go for as long as possible until one tires and a new round begins.

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Bomba gave me an ear for rhythm that I now try to paint onto the canvas. Unfortunately, what the ears hear and the eyes see rarely translate perfectly. Transitioning from dance to painting as my artistic media was a challenge. Developing designs, compositions, and placement of colors to replace the feel of a rhythmic beat was both a strange and daunting task. Unlike dance, where everyone hears the same music, the rhythm that I feel and build into the painting is not the same rhythm that the viewer may experience. Rather than translate my perspective exactly to my audience, I allow my temperament in that moment of creation to dictate the art that I create. Therefore, my work is constantly changing. Recently, I have tried to redirect my art back to the basic of both colors and textures in order to depict movement. Either way, I find myself wanting to cut the ties I’ve placed on myself. The lack of cohesiveness in my art pushes me to explore the lack of a distinct voice that I feel. In all honesty, I still don’t understand the art I create.

The Devaluation of Creativity

In my long experience on the receiving end of the education system, I have found that there is a significant part of our culture that devalues creativity, especially the fields of Liberal Arts and Fine Arts. In my four years of college as an English and Psychology major, I have heard a variety of responses from people when I tell them I study English and Literature or when I say I want to work in Publishing. One of the main ones is: “Are you sure? You’re never going to find a job with an English degree. You might as well get a job at a cafe right now to save you some money on education.” This quote, in essence, displays a clear view of the Liberal Arts as something unimportant. I even got this response as well when I was in high school trying to decide if I wanted to be a Fine Arts major: “Oh you’ll never get good money from being an artist. So many of them struggle to scrape a decent living.” So why does our culture value the sciences so much or associate uncertainty and fear with the arts?

While I was researching this blog post, I came across a lot of talks on the TED network on how we can change the education system, how creativity works, and how the education system stifles creativity. This last one inspired me to write this blog post (and I encourage you to browse their collection of videos). In the talk, given by Sir Ken Robinson, he begins talking about the education system and how it relates to the arts, mentioning the pecking order that appears when funding cuts become necessary: at the top are math, science, and languages; then below those are the humanities and the arts. One of the reasons he gives is that math and science are considered to be “hard knowledge” while the arts are “soft knowledge” or something you do at your leisure that requires little knowledge or thinking involved. I get this opinion as well when I hang out with my engineering friends, one main comment being: “how long does it take you to do your homework, 15 min?” like the work I do is nowhere near as hard as engineering, yet many science majors complain to me when they take one English class.

So why or where do these opinions and thoughts come from? Robinson seems to think that they are a product of our culture and education system. He mentions that our education system is founded on the ideals of the industrial revolution where a person needed to be taught only what they could use to work in factories and other businesses. Thus the subjects of math and science were pushed to the fore-front. These ideals also influenced a culture of conformity in schools: standardized testing, and a standard way of teaching and treating students. These kind of beliefs stifle creativity, forcing students to learn subjects they have no interest in, contributing to the high drop-out rate of schools in the US (which is now 40%), and a low feeling of self-worth among young adults (which contributes to a high rate of suicide in those between the ages 15-25). They are encouraged to study the outward world through science and math rather than encouraging students to turn inward and examine their own consciousness, feelings, and imagination. We basically see ourselves, as Robinson says, as a head traveling on a body.

There’s another facet to this view of creativity and the arts. Watching a talk given by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, she also talked about this culture of seeing the artist as a tortured soul, associating insanity and instability with writers and artists of all kinds. There have been many cases of artists who have committed suicide or who may seem a little crazy or depressed. But why is this belief so widespread? Gilbert mentions the ideals surrounding the Humanist movement in contrast to ancient Greece. In Greece, creativity was embodied in outside forms called Muses, angel/spirit-like figures who would add their energy to artists’ works. With the Humanist movement, the locus of control for creativity shifted from outside of human conception to inside a person, putting more pressure on the artist to succeed and make great works of art and literature. Gilbert talks about feeling this pressure and people asking her whether she’s scared that her next book will never top Eat, Pray, Love.

This instability associated with artists and these ideals of standardization perpetuated by the Industrial Revolution influence people to view creative pursuits as both stupid risks and unnecessary or casual endeavors compared to subjects in the category of “hard knowledge”. Our culture’s view of this is unsubstantiated by science. There has been countless research done on the subject of creativity, imagination, and education. All of it points to a more individualized education system, revolving around the interests of the child and sparking their creativity. On the subject of doodling in particular, something that has for a long time been considered a distraction, there has been new evidence to show that it could help people remember more material as it engages multiple senses and parts of the brain while also commonly having an emotional element. There is this unfounded disconnect I see between the sciences and arts, when the science like engineering, ecology, medicine, all combine some aspect of creativity and imagination in order to come up with and construct novel ideas. Denying people the ability to pursue something they love just because there’s risk attached (like everyone should take the safe path to make as much money as possible) or because its not a science (like the arts haven’t contributed greatly to our education and culture up to this point) is denying people access to their inner self and creating a disconnect of the brain and emotion or the body and our identity.

Here’s some links to TED videos that have influenced this blog post or will expand on these concepts:

Doodler’s Unite (why doodling helps in memory):

Ken Robinson’s Do schools kill creativity:

Ken Robinson’s Learning Revolution:

Elizabeth Gilbert’s elusive creative genius:

Be an artist, right now!:

Teaching the arts and sciences together:

Ken Robinson, Educating the Heart and Mind: