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Don Rafael Cepeda – The Patriarch of the Bomba

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“We always want Puerto Rico’s culture to prevail.” Don Rafael Cepeda

RAFAEL CEPEDA ATILES (1910-1996) was a prolific musician, composer, leader, ambassador, the “Patriarch of the Bomba” and the world-renowned Cepeda family, the “keepers” and ambassadors of Afro-Puerto Rican music and culture.

He was born on July 10, 1910, on the Carolina ranch in the Puerta de Tierra neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Leonor Atiles del Valle, a native of San Juan and Modesto Cepeda of Santurce. Or, as Cepeda tells it, he was born while his mother was in the middle of a Bomba dance.

Don Rafael attended primary and secondary studies at the San Agustin College of Puerta de Tierra. Initially, he worked various occupations: baseball, boxing, a maintenance worker, and carpenter, but his calling was the drum and music which he inherited from his great-grandfather Marcelo Cepeda Chavier, his grandfather, Manuel Cepeda, father and wives, who were skilled Bomberos, Pleneros, and Dancers.

In 1932, he married Doña Caridad Brenes, a native of the municipality of Humacao and a dancer and designer of traditional costumes. They established a home in the Melillas de Santurce neighborhood and gave birth to twelve children: Rafael Jr., Orlando, and Luis Daniel – today – deceased. Also, Modesto, Lucia, Carlos, Petra, Mario, Daniel, Roberto, Inocencia, and Jesús. All are exponents of Afro-Puerto Rican music and dedicated their lives to keeping the tradition authentic and alive.

In 1940, Don Cepeda formed the group “Grupo ABC” with several friends and appeared on the radio program, “Tribuna del Arte,” hosted by Rafael Quiñones Vidal.

In 1953, he organized “El Conjunto Trapiche,” which became “La Familia Cepeda.” Also, Cepeda was a member of “The Knights of the Bomba.”

In 1956 Don Rafael participated in Franciso Arrivi’s play “Vejigantes” (by Francisco Arriví). Also, he appeared in various hotels in and around the San Juan areas, including The Normandie, San Gerónimo Hilton, and The Caribe Hilton, among others.

The group also appeared in several films, including “Carnivals of the Caribbean” (1961), “Felicia” (1963), “While Puerto Rico Sleeps (1964), “Experience in Puerto Rico.” A 1965 and “Caña Brava,” with the participation of the Dominican Roxana Bellini and Fernando Casado; the Mexican Javier Solís and Puerto Rican Braulio Castillo. Also, Don Rafael participated in the Manuel Jiménez “Canario” Ensemble (1966).

Don Rafael composed roughly 500-600 compositions, many of which appear on commercial recordings and have attained widespread international popularity. Also, he recorded several albums including “Don Rafael Cepeda Patriarca de la Bomba” and “That’s the Plena.”

In 1973, members of the Cepeda family, which included his children, formed the “Ballet Folklorico de la Familia Cepeda” (The Folkloric Ballet of the Cepeda Family). The group gained international fame and participated in the 1975 film “Mi Aventura en Puerto Rico” (My Adventure in Puerto Rico). Also, the group became a Puerto Rican institution and performed in the United States, South, and Central America, Europe, and Asia There is probably no town in Puerto Rico in which they have not performed their music and dance.

Don Rafael Cepeda transitioned on July 21, 1996, shortly before the Legislature of Puerto Rico assigned him a life pension in recognition of his legacy. His wife Caridad died on February 25, 1994. They are buried in the Cemetery of Villas Palmeras in San Juan.

In recognition of his contributions to Afro-Puerto Rican culture, the Government of Puerto Rico officially named Don Rafael “The Patriarch of the Bomba and Plena.” Also, in 1986, the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture produced the documentary film, “Don Rafael Cepeda: Patriarch of the Bomba y la Plena.”

Among the many awards and recognitions awarded Cepeda are the National Heritage Fellowship Award (1983) from the National Endowment for the Arts of the Smithsonian Institution, and a certificate of recognition from President Ronald Reagan.

Don Rafael Cepeda’s legacy survives through institutions such as the Cultural Folkloric Foundation of Rafael Cepeda. Also, The Rafael Cepeda Festival of Bomba and Plena, sponsored by The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, celebrated annually in San Juan.

SOURCES: Wikipedia.org, Entrevista a Rafael Cepeda por Gustavo Batista, Kentake Page, National Endowment of the Arts website.

A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Editor-in-Chief Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject. His writing appears on Latin Jazz Network; Chamber Music America magazine and numerous other publications.

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