Headshot of a man.

Photo by Frank Elias

Modesto Cepeda

Bomba and Plena Musician


Modesto Cepeda is a leading advocate, performer, and grand maestro of two of the most important folkloric dance, drumming, and singing traditions of Puerto Rican cultural heritage: bomba and plena. Cepeda has energetically passed on his knowledge and passion of these art forms to his children, grandchildren, and a broad community of enthusiasts both in Puerto Rico and the continental United States.

Bomba originated from the playing of barrel-drums on Saturday nights, Sundays, and holidays by enslaved Africans on the plantations of the coastal areas of Puerto Rico in the early Spanish colonial period of the 17th century. It was a music of communal expression, survival, relief from misery, celebration, and resistance, and it is still a vital part of Puerto Rican daily life and cultural identity. Plena—sometimes referred to as the “sung newspaper”—developed near the beginning of the 20th century. It is also a percussion-based dancing and singing tradition that involves the playing of the pandereta, a round hand-held drum struck with the palm.

Born in 1938 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, into a family that for generations has practiced and promulgated bomba and plena, Cepeda learned these expressive arts from two of the most revered practitioners on the island: his parents, doña Caridad Brenes Caballero and don Rafael Cepeda Atiles, a 1983 NEA National Heritage Fellow. Adding to his folkloric training, in the ‘70s and ‘80s Cepeda majored in education at Puerto Rico Junior College, Metropolitan University, and the University of Puerto Rico. He taught for many years in elementary schools, Head Start, and teacher training programs, incorporating bomba and plena into the curriculum. In 1976, Cepeda was the first artist in the island to establish a bomba and plena school for children and adults. He also gave workshops to other folkloric groups locally and in the U.S., and directed his children’s bomba and plena troupe El Grupo Cimiento Puertorriqueño, which has performed throughout the island, the U.S., and Europe. In recognition for his labor of teaching generations of students from all social sectors of Puerto Rico and for his excellence in keeping bomba and plena alive and relevant, he has received two honorary doctoral degrees from universities in Puerto Rico, among other accolades.

Over the course of his career, Cepeda has played professionally with various groups; produced six recordings; organized countless festivals, performances, and public bombazos; and performed at governmental events. In 2011 in San Juan, a new heritage center and school opened, named in his honor—El Centro Cultural de Bomba y Plena Dr. Modesto Cepeda. At this school Cepeda continues, along with his daughters, to teach.

Bio written by Loretta Collins Klobah, University of Puerto Rico

Watch Modesto Cepeda perform with his group Cimiento de Puerto Rico.

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