Artscape: Bringing Traditional Puerto Rican Music to Rhode Island

Sep 26, 2013

In celebration of Hispanic Heritage month, Rhode Island Public Radio’s John Bender profiled Warwick musician Lydia Perez. 

Originally from Puerto Rico, Perez has been performing throughout Rhode Island since the mid-nineties.

With her group, Yoruba 2 she has toured throughout the region, teaching and performing the traditional music and dance of Puerto Rico.

Lydia Perez and her daughter Yidell Rivera in their studio.
Credit John Bender / RIPR

“Well my name is Lydia Perez, I’m a traditional artist in the state of Rhode Island.”

“My name is Yidell Rivera.  I am Lydia’s oldest daughter, and I’ve worked with her since, well, my childhood.”

“And we are Yoruba 2!”

“I mostly work as a secretary for my mother, any administrative duties, but during performances I also play the drums and a wooden instrument called the cua,” said Yidell.

“So I am the boss. I am the president of the nonprofit organization named Puerto Rican Institute for the Arts in the State of Rhode Island and then I am the director and founder of Yoruba 2, Lydia Perez and Yoruba 2,” said Perez.  “We are seven members and we like to make music, and this is what we’re going to do all the time.  This is our spirit.”

Lydia Perez was born in San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico. She grew up singing and playing the drums.  When she moved to Warwick, Rhode Island in 1989 with her husband, she brought her music with her.   

When she had her two daughters, Lydia wanted to make sure that despite growing up in the states, they understood their Puerto Rican heritage.

So she began to teach her two daughters, Yidell and Dorothy the music she grew up with.

“I started in my house with my children first.  When I see that my children had to be proud to be Puerto Rican,” said Perez.

Then she, her daughters, and her husband and three other traditional Puerto Rican musicians began performing, and the group Yoruba 2 was formed 1996.

“Yoruba is a tribe from Africa, and we as Puerto Ricans, this is our third root,” explained Perez.

“We have the Taino Indians, who were native to the area of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.  When the Spanish came along they also brought along the African slaves.  And so the mixture of those three cultures influenced the Puerto Rican people as they are today.  And specifically one of those tribes from Africa are the Yoruba tribe,” said Perez.

This mix of cultures created the traditional music of Puerto Rico.  This is music centered on a call and response drumming pattern, paired with singing and dancing.  The two main forms they perform are Bomba and Plena.  Yidell explained the two.

“Bomba and Plena are two different musical styles that evolved on Puerto Rico.  Bomba is more with the larger drums and flowing dresses.  Plena is actually with smaller hand drums that you can walk around and play up on your shoulder. Both of these styles differ greatly and have their own identity,” said Yidell.

To prepare for Bomba, Lydia tunes her drums, the Bahoe and the Ripacador.  The Ripacador must be higher than the other she says, so that it can be heard over the other drums.

“Well this is the bahoe, it keeps the beat, the rhythm, and this is the ripacador this follows the dancer so therefore this has low and this has to be high ok?” explained Perez.

“For the most part we have three drums, two keep a steady beat, and one follows the dancer.  It’s improvised.  Bomba is kind of like a competition, or it’s an improvisational competition between the dancer and the lead drum where the dancer tries to outwit the lead drummer, but the drummer has to keep up with the dancer’s movements.  So no bomba performance is actually the same in that aspect because it’s all improvised,” said Yidell.

And while Bomba is pure entertainment, a rousing competition between dancer and drummer, Plena serves a more practical purpose says Yidell.

“They nicknamed plena the sung newspaper because you can use it to gossip, to spread news, anything you want, you can sing it in plena form.  The dance isn’t as prominent in plena as it is in bomba.  All it is is call and response. The chorus people would chant a fixed response, then the rest of song would be improvised by the lead singer,” said Yidell.

“So, when they worked in the cane fields, when the work in one cane field was finished all of those workers with that information would move on to the other cane fields and then spread that information on to other people through song and music there,” said Lydia.

“So whatever he wants to say, whatever he wants to portray, specific events that have happened.  For example one of the most famous one’s is “they’ve cut Elena.”  It’s one of the traditional ones usually you can make them up on the spot, but sometimes you can sing the traditional ones that have upheld through the ages,” said Yidell.

As they began performing throughout the Rhode Island, Lydia was approached by families and students interested in what she was doing.

“A lot of students say I would like to dance, I would like to do this.  And therefore I say oh this is a good tip.  And therefore this is what we’re going to do, this is what I like to do.  Assemblies with children in school.  And this is not just for the Puerto Rican people, this is for everybody. This is my intention with this organization is to introduce our heritage, into the curriculum of the education,” said Perez.

This is very important said Yidell, Lydia’s daughter.  She says there is a need for this cultural awareness in the schools.

“Respect comes through understanding, and in my personal experience I was made fun of a little at school for being different, but if I taught those children about where I came from I felt that they could also understand, and I could fit in a little more,” said Yidell.

So Yoruba 2 began an intense touring schedule to schools educating various.

In their 17 years the group has toured throughout the country, and, received recognition from Governor Lincoln Chafee, as well as fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.

But the work is far from done, says Lydia Perez.

“In Puerto Rico, we don’t know if we are Puerto Rican or citizens of the United States, and we are both of course.  And so we have this balance, ‘what am I?’  So therefore we make possible to the Puerto Rican people in Rhode Island feel that experience that we are Puerto Rican.  So this is our heritage, this is our commitment; to let you know that we are here, we are citizens of the United States and we are Puerto Rican.”

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic?  Please email us, we'd like to hear from you.