Live at UCLA, Feb 24 By
Pilar and Douglas Patzkowski
With this one word,
Perú Negro transformed the stage into a rhythmic pageant of percussion
and song, satire, and sensuality at UCLAs Royce Hall on February 24.
When the Spanish arrived
in Perú nearly 500 years ago, they brought African slaves to work the coastal
plantations. The Spaniards attempted to crush the culture of their servants, including
their music. Drums were prohibited because of the sexual rhythms that they inspired.
So the slaves took to tapping their rhythms on crates used to carry fruit to market,
and the principal instrument of Afro-Peruvian music, the cajón, was born.
Small offering boxes were borrowed from the Catholic churches after the mass for
the same purpose, and the cajita began to sound. Most creative of all was the
quijada, a donkeys jaw left to bleach in the sun until the teeth loosened
in their sockets and rattled along with the beat.
Spanish influence was strong enough to include a guitar in the mix, which brought
a strain of melody to the gyrations of the African music. Eventually, the modern
versions of the Afro-Peruvian dances that have been popular since the 1950s made
use of congas, bongos, and other drums borrowed from the Caribbean. The addition
of the flute to support some tunes is a bow to Andean music, which many people
outside Perú still think of as that nations only major contribution
to world music, at least until they hear Susana Baca, Eva Ayllón, or see
Perú Negro perform.
Perú Negro got its start in 1969, when the late Ronaldo Campos, who had
been playing the cajón in a tourist restaurant, formed the group in Lima.
This was at the time of the resurgence of black pride in African roots throughout
the Americas. Since that time, Perú Negro has been on the road introducing
the world to a strain of Peruvian music that most had never imagined.
The wealthy colonial masters in Perú gathered to celebrate their holidays
with dignified minuets in the 1700s. When the party was over, they changed their
clothes and went to bed, leaving all their finery with the slaves who would wash
them the next morning. Then the fiesta really began. The slaves would dress up
just like their masters and the classical minuet would be transformed into a West
African fertility dance with the distinctively Spanish title of Toro mata,
originally a bullfighting song. Batting their shoulders like wings to the beat,
the lithe torsos of the dancers pulsate to the rhythm of the cajón in an
ancient mating ritual. The irony is that they made do with makeshift instruments
and the sweaty silk of their masters to create a spectacular parody of the stiff
One of the most striking dances is the Son de los Diablos, using the religious
concept of the Devil, which the Spanish had introduced, to create a full-blown
carnival dance. Elaborate masks are accompanied by the wild chant, Devil,
Devil, booooooo! The band of devils would move down the streets
of Lima to the sound of the cajita and the quijada, shoulders and hips synchronized
to the beat, shouting at whomever passed by.
All of Perú Negros songs are moved by the percussion instruments,
but the Creole guitar and the lead singer, Mónica Dueñas Avalos,
bring the poetic melody of Spanish songs to the music. Nevertheless, the beat
is by no means in the background; it is the driving force of this music, and it
brings out the very alluring undulations that the Spanish masters had so much
feared in the past. The Africans seemed to have the beat within them, and when
they were restricted from expressing it, they took on the musical forms of their
captors and gradually transformed them until they came to be the Afro-Peruvian
music of today. What began as a parody became a new music form that outflanked
Peruvian Creole songs with an intensity of sensual motion that wont let
the dancer stop until she reaches the ecstasy known as jolgorio.
Perú Negro has long been at the forefront of reviving and reinterpreting
Afro-Peruvian music. Since the release of their latest CD, Jolgorio, in 2004,
they continue to blend old and new to create a distinctively Peruvian music style
with African, Iberian and Andean influences. But what characterizes the music
most of all is still the beat. It is impossible to listen to Afro-Peruvian music
without swaying the hips and at least trying to get those shoulders going, too.