As a freshman at Indiana University still unconvinced that I should pursue a degree in Ethnomusicology (or maybe just unaware that this was inevitable) I enrolled in a performance class focusing on “the music of coastal Peru”. The music that I listened to and performed as a part of that class has since played an important role in my life, most notably in my decision to spend a semester studying in Peru during my junior year of college. Now, having left university, I still wonder about the lack of exposurela musica afroperuanafaces worldwide.
The history of Afro-Peruvian music is, as could be expected, inherently tied to the history of African-descended people in the South American nation. In contrast to countries such as Brazil and Cuba, which have well-documented Afro-influenced musical scenes as a function of a history of slavery that saw whole communities transplanted from Africa to the Caribbean and the Atlantic coast of South America, Peru’s slave populations were historically more separated. As opposed to the large plantation-style slave economies elsewhere, Peruvian slaves were frequently household servants, miners, or workers on small family-owned ranches. In light of this, until relatively recently a history of black Peruvians was largely absent, and the kind of cultural groups and associations that formed in other countries with large populations of African slaves and their descendents. The result in Peru has been a dark, unspoken racist attitude that the country is still working to overcome, and a gaping hole where one would expect to find musical traditions of Afro-descended Peruvians.
All of this changed dramatically in the 1970s behind the work of Afro-Peruvian scholar and musician Nicomedes Santa Cruz. Seeing the success of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Santa Cruz (along with several other prominent scholars and musicians) sought to reclaim a tradition of music and dance that had been lost to history. While a few accounts that spoke of instruments, dance steps, or names of songs survived, by the time Santa Cruz was planting the seeds of an Afro-Peruvian revival very little traditional Afro-Peruvian music was being performed. Faced with such a challenge, Santa Cruz got creative. Traveling to Brazil to research Afro-Brazilian song and dance, Nicomedes Santa Cruz began to hypothesize connections between songs known in Peru and styles written about historically across Latin America with African roots based on linguistic similarities. While this may leave some doubt as to the authenticity of the music that began to spring from Peru’s Pacific coast, it gave musical life to a movement to establish Afro-Peruvians as a dynamic cultural group in the country.
The artists (and scholars) of the Afro-Peruvian revival frequently borrowed ideas common to Afro-Cuban or -Brazilian musical styles and applied distinctly Peruvian twists to claim the music as a link to Afro-Peruvian heritage. The dance moves, typical attire and costumes, and instruments used in the performance of Afro-Peruvian music were all used as markers to demonstrate that this was very much a Peruvian phenomenon.
The percussion instruments used in Afro-Peruvian music may be the best example of this focus on Peruvian-izing Afro-descended music. Symbolic of the music is the cajón (literally “big box”), a box drum said to be adapted from shipping crates in Peru’s port cities. Also important are the cajita (“little box”) and quijada, adapted from tithing boxes and mules’ jawbones, respectively. Finally, Peruvian versions of Afro-Cuban drums such as the congas and bongos began to surface, the animal-skin heads replaced with wood a la the cajón. When paired with guitars, violins, and breathtaking singers, the Afro-Peruvian ensemble is complete.
Afro-Peruvian music encompasses a number of different genres, from the dual-time signature ballad of the landó to the upbeat dances of the marinera and the festejo. All of these are characterized by the aforementioned Afro-Peruvian instrumentation, rhythms that waver deceptively between duple and triple-feel time, and vocals that play over the instrumental base in surprising fashion. With famous female vocalists such as Eva Ayllón and Susana Baca fronting ensembles such as the Nicomedes Santa Cruz-founded collective known as Peru Negro, the music is sensual and exciting to listen to. In many ways Afro-Peruvian music exists as an answer to and challenger for Afro-Cuban music, and the complex rhythms, seductive melodies, and powerful singers match up well in comparison.
Almost 45 years after Nicomedes Santa Cruz founded Peru Negro as a way to promote the newly “rediscovered” Afro-Peruvian music he had been writing and recording, the music is still very much alive. Continuing to sell out concerts in Peru, divas of the music such as Eva Ayllón (currently touring with Peru Negro) and Susana Baca (touring across the U.S. as we speak) seem to be bound to perform until they literally can no longer continue. The music has also continued to evolve, as electronic iterations (lead by Novalima, who will someday get their own post here) and Afro-Peruvian Jazz (a great example is Gabriel Alegria, a bandleader whose group does a pretty incredible version of “Summertime”) have become steadily more popular at home and abroad. Nobody outside of Peru really listens to Afro-Peruvian Music (for that matter, it was surprisingly hard to find even when I lived in Peru), but the fascinating history and cultural significance behind a series of musical genres invented to foster a black identity in Peru adds depth behind the hot rhythms and scintillating sounds of this music that deserves to be much more readily recognized.