A Beat Calls Puerto Ricans to Their African Roots
JUNE 7, 2015
By DAVID GONZALEZ
Jose Ortiz…straddled his drum and played.
This was not a performance. It was life. [T]his instrument…had transformed him into Dr. Drum, a man on a mission to reconnect Puerto Ricans with their roots…. He is a leader of BombaYo, a troupe that plays bomba, one of Puerto Rico’s traditional musical forms.
“Our music has been contaminated and our perception of it is not what it really should be,” said Mr. Ortiz, 56. “That is not who we are, and I want to change that. There is medicine in our drumming.”
Mr. Ortiz was one who had been under the spell of the drum ever since he came upon an informal jam session…when he was 4 and heard a guaguancó rhythm.
“Man, it was the tones,” he said…. “Boom, bap, bap, bap! Boom bap, bap, bap! Something about that sound drew me. I loved that sound. I could listen to drums all day long and not get bored.”
[N]ot…until the late 1990s, after he returned to New York and taken a job as a supervising school aide at a Bronx middle school…would [Ortiz] seriously embrace the drum. Assigned to lunch duty, he brought…his congas and would play — only if the youngsters behaved.
They did. Soon…he was…hauling his congas to a park and giving the children lessons. [H]e had a revelation.
“I woke up one morning and said, ‘I’m Dr. Drum. It hit me that it was a way of healing. I was that little kid who wanted to drum but never did when I was growing up. This is my second chance, to help them drum.”
[H]e met Melinda Gonzalez, who was with a bomba group in Brooklyn. Together, they formed BombaYo, which featured drumming [and] dancing, from women wearing billowing white dresses to men with guayabera shirts and Panama hats, all moving in ways that are a visual reminder of the culture’s links to Africa.
To him, culture…beats through his heart, like a drum.
Mr. Ortiz left his school job five years ago, dedicating himself to his music, which he teaches to the young and the old — and anyone else in between. For someone who “grew up without the drum,” …he is now living it.