What with Mario Vargas Llosa winning the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, Lima finally shedding its dour and grim image, and ceviche becoming a foodie’s darling, it was only a matter of time before the music of Peru had its moment in the spotlight. Not just any Peruvian music, though, but a true revelation for those who discover it, and still awe-inducing for those who have experienced it. Such are the rhythms of black Peru, or the Afro Peruvian community of that South American country.
Descendants of slaves first brought by the Spanish in the 16th century, generations of settlers took to the coast and blended their African roots with influences of their new home. On February 4, South Floridians will have a rare opportunity to hear this music, and see its dance — finding out what it means to have soul in Peru, as two of the leading acts of that genre, the Perú Negro ensemble and Grammy-nominated singer Eva Ayllón, take to the stage at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in a concert titled Festejo: Perú Negro & Eva Ayllón, part of that venue’s 2010-2011 World Music Series.
“A lot of folks don’t know that there are black people in Peru,” Juan Morillo, Perú Negro’s producer and executive director, tells Artburstmiami. “I think maybe there is a notion that Peruvian music is just Andean music, but they don’t know much else beyond that.”
Morillo is right. Peruvian music is much more than late-night TV commercials extolling the virtues of the panflute with images of condors.
Any 1950s-music lover who knows his exotica or space age tunes well enough, will remember singer Yma Sumac, with an out-of-this-world voice that sounded like birds and jungle beasts. Those lucky enough to have found out about Peru’s creole music, or música criolla, most likely were exposed to Chabuca Granda, a white chanteuse who in the late ‘70s helped pave the way, believe it or not, for the once-disdained Afro Peruvian rhythms to be acceptable in Lima’s high society (Granda died in Miami in 1983). Then in the ‘90s, there was a mini boom, thanks to musical chameleon David Byrne, who produced an album titled The Soul of Black Peru, and made of Susana Baca a world music star. Rockers such as Pedro Suárez-Vertiz and Gianmarco have also left their mark.
But for the music of Peru’s black communities, first brought out into the mainstream by Nicomedes Santa Cruz in the 1950s, then energized by the rise of black power and the civil rights movement in the ‘60s (and the founding of Perú Negro by Ronaldo Campos de la Colina), it has been somewhat of a struggle. Undaunted, the richness and legacy of música afroperuana have pressed on with the efforts of cultural ambassadors such as Perú Negro, which, just like Ayllón, is commemorating 40 years in the industry, and celebrating all that time with this series of performances in North America.
“This is a small tour [of Canada and the United States], which we put together with Eva, because a lot of people had asked for it,” continues Morillo, who has been working with Perú Negro since 2001, when the group first visited the States. “We were finally able to get everyone together. There will be landó, festejo, camacueca… Everything that has an Afro Peruvian origin.”
They also have a new album out, available for sale during the performances, in support of the tour, and perfect for anyone who wants a sampler of this music’s greatest tunes. Will they ever reach massive exposure, or remain somewhat below the radar? Morillo has faith in the music’s widening acceptance.
“Right now, for example, there are a lot of people taking classes to learn how to play the cajón,” says Morillo of the box-like percussion instrument that is a staple of Afro Peruvian rhythms. “Also, wanting to learn how to dance to the music.” For their Canada and U.S. shows, 10 musicians and 10 dancers will show everyone the way this is done. Which does not mean that, although the rhythms are traditional, they are fossilized in the past. These are songs that adapt to the times, explains Morillo. “Today, attitudes have changed,” he adds, “and this music is very much embraced by everyone in Peru.”
Time for Miami then to do the same.
Festejo:Perú Negro & Eva Ayllón, February 4, 2011 at 8 p.m., Knight Concert Hall, Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd. Tickets: $30 – $65. For reservations, visit arshtcenter.org or call the box office at 305-949-6722.