Reclaiming the Past: The Afro Puerto Rican Art of Cocobalé
The island of Puerto Rico is an island of many rhythms. Whether it’s the salsa that cascades from the open windows of pastel-colored houses or the cars that pass with their trunks open and speakers reverberating the heavy bass of dembow, the streets are alive with music. But there is another rhythm, an older rhythm, one birthed in rebellion and practiced in secret. It is the rhythm of cocobalé, the Puerto Rican art of machete and stick fencing.
Among the African diaspora of the Caribbean, machete fencing has a rich history. Martial arts like the Haitian Tire Machet or the Cuban Juego de Maní, all share origins in the slave trade, traditions brought over by warriors made prisoners and adapted to tools of the cane fields. Cocobalé is undoubtedly a part of this tradition. Yet, it’s more amorphous, its genesis harder to pin down, obscured by time and secrecy. Carlos Padilla is trying to change that.
Founder of Proyecto Kokobalé, he offers a comprehensive explanation of its origin. And it is an origin intrinsically linked to the national music of Puerto Rico, bomba.
“Cocobalé was born from a necessity of the enslaved to free themselves. In PR, slaves were given leisure time for fear of rebellion. Ironically, [during] this leisure time, bomba drum circles were allowed and it was during these encounters that the rebellions were planned. It was here that that kokobalé as we know it today was born, with the bambula as a rhythmic base [allowing] techniques to be practiced that could be applied to real life.”
In Padilla’s opinion, the incorporation of dance, similar to other martial arts of the African diaspora, served as a disguise, a way for the enslaved to practice their techniques in secret. He is also quick to point out that the practice of martial arts to music is something common in African culture.
It is simply that, in the Caribbean, this aspect evolved to serve a more clandestine purpose.
Restoring an Art from Oral History
This secretive nature, however, has contributed to the loss of the practice in modern times. Today, there are a handful of dedicated cocobalé practitioners openly taking on students.