Nobody Listens to…Kanaku y el Tigre

Good music doesn’t need to fit neatly into one genre to be good.  Truthfully, there is a lot of really great music being made that is hard to classify, often deliberately.  Genre helps us as listeners define what we’re listening and group it neatly with things that are similar and contrast it with things that are different.  Genre helps us to look for inspiration and try to pin down influences that shape the artistic process. Genre comforts us- that something about this song or that artist belongs within the whole of its genre.  Genre, however, does not tell us if music is good and is not at all helpful in evaluating whether something is beautiful or not.  The music of Peruvian band Kanaku y el Tigre is difficult to classify generically, but it is beautiful.  Kanaku y el Tigre simply write and perform good music.

In the Spring and Summer of 2011 I was living in Lima, Peru.  I spent six months as a student at a university in the city, and was incredibly lucky to do some traveling within the country.   I grew much better at speaking Spanish, made lifelong friends, and saw a lot of amazing things.  I did not discover a whole lot of new music.  For whatever reason I had a great deal of difficulty breaking into the music scene in Lima and went to precious few concerts.  This is especially distressing now knowing that I could have been around just as Kanaku y el Tigre saw their debut album rise to success locally and internationally.  Instead I read about the band for the first time just last year through MTV Iggy and was instantly hooked.  The band’s debut album, Caracoles, has great replay value; it’s easy to dissolve oneself into the songs to the point that another listen reveals more sublime details that went completely unnoticed before.  This is a nice magic trick for a band that describes itself as “wandering folk”.

Kanaku y el Tigre formed in 2010 around the songwriting nucleus of Nicolás Saba and Bruno Bellatín, a pair of Limeños with a taste for indie-folk strums.  Bellatín had honed his skills on an acoustic guitar while studying abroad in the United Kingdom, and Saba’s voice lent a new dimension to the acoustic tones that Bellatín was plying.  After rounding out their lineup with the additions of Noel Marambio, Marcial Rey, David Chang, Fernando Gonzalez, and Manuel Loli the band set to recording Caracoles and growing their profile throughout Latin America.  To date the band still has just one studio release, but has performed in festivals from the heart of their native Lima to Mexico City.

Scenes are painted in Kanaku y el Tigre’s music.  This is music to be played on a sunny balcony.  It’s music to be played while shuffling down city streets on a warm day.  This is music to be played as a dinner party transitions to a cozy evening with friends.  The “wandering folk” label does seem to apply, but there are definite elements of pop, jazz, and rock to be found in the songs on Caracoles.  The group almost exclusively uses acoustic instruments, but also holds a fascinating with toy instruments and “cualquier cosa que suene” – anything that makes sound.  These songs are built around soft harmonies and acoustic guitar strums, but are colored with antique pianos and ukuleles.  Harmonicas and accordions make appearances as airily brushed drums are tastefully applied.  Upright bass punctuates staccato moments, while toy glockenspiels and turning bicycle gears help build the world around Saba’s delicate storytelling.

The tracklisting on Caracoles spans a wide variety of sonic and lyrical content.  The title track and “Lucia” are plaintive folk songs about life and love in Lima.  “Bicicleta” is a midtempo indie symphony, while “Tu Verano, Mi Invierno” and “El Funeral” are bouncy and simplistic in a way that’s reminiscent of French chanson songs.  The album reaches its emotional height in “La Inminente Muerte de Martín” as swaying vocals rise over accordion and distant drumming, and an acapella falsetto line immediately precedes a kazoo solo.  This is where anticipation is bred in Kanaku y el Tigre’s songs: an arrangement is just as likely to include a brass chorale as to feature a spotlight on a kazoo or tinny bells.  As brilliantly as “La Inminente Muerte de Martín” soars, the 1-2 punch of the English-language “Exorcist Love Song” and the slinky “Pascal y Julian” take the music to a slightly darker place.  “Exorcist Love Song” still jumps and jives despite a lyrical subtext about a destructive relationship, while “Pascal and Julian” is a duet about existential dread.  These songs are at once familiar and foreign, as though the band has purposefully inserted discomforting chords and words into an otherwise playful body of work.  Maybe that is exactly the point.

As a band Kanaku y el Tigre is still highly active.  Despite a fairly low profile on social media, the enigmatic group is still touring and performing in support of Caracoles, and seem to serve as curators and activists for similar artists.  The most reliable outlet of information on the band is their facebook page, as the group doesn’t appear to have an official website.  A twitter account in the band’s name does exist, but hasn’t ever composed a single tweet.  In lieu of these traditional tracking methods, the band is best followed in video and in the steadily growing number of glowing reviews they’ve received.  In any case, nobody seems to be listening to Kanaku y el Tigre right now, but the wondrous surprises that come so effortlessly and pleasantly from the Peruvian folksters’ music assuredly earn them a place in any music lover’s rotation.

Nobody Listens to…Afro-Peruvian Music

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.

Afro-peruvian music   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.

Cajonero

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.

Susana Baca

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.