Published March 22, 2021
Isha Renta founder of Semilla Cultural – Photo courtesy Semilla Cultural

Semilla Cultural is one of twenty-five non-profit organizations recently awarded a Virginia Humanities grant. Based in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the grassroots organization is dedicated to preserving and sharing the traditional Afro-Puerto Rican dance and music style of bomba. The history of bomba dates back to the seventeenth century and it continues today as a form of cultural expression and socio-political protest. Bomba is percussion-driven, consisting of drums (bombas or barriles, traditionally repurposed barrels of rum), two sticks, called cuá, for banging the sides of the drums, and a maraca. In bomba, the dancer moves to the rhythm and the main drummer (called primo or subidor) follows the dancer’s improvised movements, or piquetes.

We caught up with project leader and director and founder of Semilla Cultural Isha Renta to learn more. Below, in collaboration with other members of the group, Renta explains their project, “The Banyan Tree of the Americas: Music Evolution in African Diaspora,” and the importance of keeping the bomba tradition alive in Virginia.

What kind of work does Semilla Cultural do?

Semilla Cultural (Cultural Seed) is dedicated to raising cultural awareness by disseminating the Afro-Puerto Rican musical genre of bomba through classes, workshops, performances and community events.

Our focus has been more heavily on the artistic side of bomba, which has included dance and percussion instruction for all ages, and performances. This grant will help us connect more with local Virginia communities and will expand our programming to include panel discussions exploring the history of bomba and the ways the African Diaspora musical and dance practices in Puerto Rico and Virginia were shaped by their resilience to oppression.

Tell me about your project. What does the title mean?

The title of the project, “The Banyan Tree of the Americas: Music Evolution in African Diaspora,” was inspired by the similarities between bomba and other African diaspora musical genres. The Banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) has aerial roots that develop from its branches, which descend and take root in the soil to become new trunks. We compare this to our project in that Africa is the main trunk, as it expanded its branches to the Caribbean and the Americas and it developed new roots (musical and dance practices, among others) that are spread throughout the world. 

We will be hosting panel discussions and performances that will open a dialogue for making meaningful comparisons between bomba and African American musical traditions from Virginia. Attendees will learn how music and dance have served as critical tools of resistance – for coping, informing and planning during oppressive times, and how our shared African heritage connects us through music and dance today. 

How has your work been affected by Covid-19? And how have you adapted?

Once the pandemic began and the country ground to a halt, we had to make hard decisions. We stopped our meetings and limited rehearsals. We cancelled all in-person programs and had to reconsider how to keep the community engaged. We were forced to change our approach by converting our programs to a virtual medium.  We have offered online dance classes. and lectures on bomba history. On a positive side, the virtual space has allowed us to reach individuals at a national and international level; even though the number of workshops and performances we offer has decreased significantly.

What drew you to the Virginia Humanities grants program?

When we started exploring ideas for a new project in fall 2019, we knew we wanted to include the history and research of bomba in our programming. We narrowed down the plan and started searching for grants that supported projects like this in the state, learning about Virginia Humanities in the process. The grants program staff was very interested in the project as it connects directly with Virginia Humanities’ grant priorities and interests, such as: the history and culture of minority communities in Virginia, Virginia’s folklife and traditional culture(s), Virginia history, and African American history and culture. This is the first grant we’ve received from Virginia Humanities and we are excited for their support. Virginia Humanities is a great resource for the community and their support is invaluable to this project.

Our work brings people together and honors our shared humanity.