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Cirque Du Soleil
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Julius Curcio
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Feature [Issue #20]
Peru Negro: Live at UCLA, Feb 24
By Pilar and Douglas Patzkowski
Jolgorio (CD Times Square)

With this one word, Perú Negro transformed the stage into a rhythmic pageant of percussion and song, satire, and sensuality at UCLA’s 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 donkey’s 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 nation’s 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 European dance.

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 Negro’s 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 won’t 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.

Times Square

Live at UCLA, Feb 24 Peru Negro Jolgorio

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