Today marks the birth of Rafael Cepeda Atiles (July 10, 1910 – July 21, 1996), a prolific composer, musician, orchestra director and folklorist often called the Patriarch of the Bomba and Plena, for promoting and passing on Afro-Puerto Rican folk music, especially the bomba and plena.
Cepeda and his wife, Doña Caridad Brenes—a gifted dancer of bomba and plena and an accomplished designer of costumes, accessories, and folk-art used in folkloric presentations—formed the most dynamic pair of dancers and performers of in Afro-Caribbean music traditions of Puerto Rico. With their 12 children they founded a musical dynasty of musicians and folklorists who continue their legacy to this day. A master percussionist, Cepeda was also known for his craftsmanship. He constructed his own barriles and panderos, an art that he passed on to his children.
Throughout the years, Cepeda was also a baseball player, boxer, maintenance worker at a racetrack, and carpenter. In 1940, Cepeda formed his first bomba and plena ensemble, Grupo ABC, with a group of friends and began to appear with them on the radio program Tribuna del Arte. In 1953 he organized the Grupo Folklorico Trapiche and in 1954 he formed Los Caballeros del Bomba. In 1956 the group took part in Francisco Arriví’s theatrical work Vegigantes, which presented shows on Puerto Rican folkloric traditions. The group also appeared in several films, including Carnivals of the Caribbean (1961), Felicia (1963) and Mientras Puerto Rico Duerme [While Puerto Rico Sleeps, 1966]. Later, other relatives joined with the ensemble to form the famous Ballet Folklórico de la Familia Cepeda.
In the ’70s Cepeda recorded Don Rafael Cepeda, Patriarca de la Bomba and Así es la Plena. Hundreds of his compositions were recorded by other artists in Puerto Rico and elsewhere, including the famous “El Bonbon de Elena,” “A la Verdugué,” “A Bailar Bambulé,” “Mofongo Pelaó,” and “Flores de Amistad,” among others. Cepeda received numerous awards and recognitions, among them the U.S. National Endowment of the Arts for his dedication to the traditions of his people and a certificate of recognition from the U.S. president (1983); the documentary Don Rafael Cepeda: Patriarca de la Bomba y la Plena, produced by the institute of Puerto Rican Culture in 1996; and an homage celebrating his contributions to the development of folkloric music (XXV Fiestas de la Música Puertorriqueña, 1991).
In order to maintain the patriarch’s legacy, Cepeda’s son Modesto founded the Escuela de Bomba y Plena de Puerto Rico in 1978. Shortly before his death in 1996, the legislature of Puerto Rico paid tribute to Cepeda by assigning him a life pension in recognition for his invaluable cultural legacy and one of the streets in Santurce was named after him.
Photo of Rafael Cepeda from http://foro.univision.com/t5/Las-Boricuas/NUESTRO-ORGULLO-PUERTO-RICO-2/td-p/336163005
Biographical information from http://foro.univision.com/t5/Las-Boricuas/NUESTRO-ORGULLO-PUERTO-RICO-2/td-p/336163005, http://fundacionrafaelcepeda.com/default.aspx, and http://www.puertadetierra.info/figuras/artistas/cepd/cepeda.htm in Spanish; and http://worldmusic.nationalgeographic.com/view/page.basic/artist/content.artist/rafael_cepeda/en_US in English.