Not even a minute into Novalima’s 2006 international debut, Afro, a voice was already shouting, “Coba coba!” So there’s a certain deja vu about the Afro-Peruvian group’s second global release, and not just based on the title alone. Those two words form a slang phrase used by the musicians to egg each other on—something like “Go for it!”—which becomes apparent as they slide in and out all over Coba Coba. The approach of this disc, like the band’s first, is that of a jam session with heaps of percussion and regular vocal riffing. You might expect its electronic elements, instrumental layering, and super-tight production to work against that feeling of spontaneity, but they never do. And therein lies the magic. Lightning has struck twice.
The recent renaissance of Afro-Peruvian music, evidenced dramatically on record and in live performance by Perú Negro, has been about more than history, roots, and tradition. Sure, you’ll hear references to slavery all over these records. For example, the lyrics on “Africa Landó” come from a text by the Peruvian poet Nicomedes Santa Cruz, which starts this way (translated from the Spanish): “My grandmother arrived from Africa / Dressed in shells”. But the “black drums” that beat out the rhythms of slavery are still very much alive today, and perfectly suited for dancing and enjoyment in the 21st century, as the lyrics end up concluding. The close juxtaposition of anguish and celebration reflects a remarkably diverse spread of music from all over the New World African diaspora, including species from the US (blues) and Jamaica (reggae), which may be more familiar to English-speaking listeners than their various Latin relatives.
One of the first things that hits you up front on Coba Coba is the rhythmic aspect of the music, and not just the hot overlays of cajón (box drum), percussion, and electronic beats. Four of the first five songs are in a distinctive 6/8 time, usually accented in an asymmetric fashion for flair. The third track, “Se Me Van”, may be purely about getting down, but a few alternating fives and sevens may sound a little weird if you’re stuck on the usual four-square beats. The liner notes say this song was a frequent jam session piece during the production of the previous record, and indeed, it’s one of the grooviest tracks on this disc.
Novalima started as a quartet of producers, but has since expanded to include five additional vocalists and percussionists, and that doesn’t count the 15 or so guest musicians also featured on this record. Three of the four original members, who met in high school in Lima, scattered to London, Barcelona, and Hong Kong. They’ve since come home (the group recently played to a crowd of 30,000 in Lima), but parts of this disc were still recorded outside Peru. That’s all good, and it reflects a worldly approach that goes above and beyond what electronic instruments and production make possible. Elements of funk, reggae, salsa, Afrobeat, hip-hop, and dub mingle freely with traditional landó, marinera, cumanana, and vals criollo—there are no forced combinations—and the guest musicians, mainly horn players and vocalists, add extra flavor. “Ruperta/Puede Ser” updates the feminine Afro-Peruvian classic “Ruperta” (previously recorded by Perú Negro, among others) with reverberant, dubby production, then segues into a brief, slippery rap by the Cuban hip-hop duo Obsesión and returns home. It sounds more radical in print than it does on disc, actually.
Back in 2006, Afro was such an incredible anomaly—mainly because of the brilliant collision of deep folklore with modern technology—that there seemed little chance of another recording coming close. This one does, and it’s really just as good. You can dance to it on your feet or in your head, but either way, it’s contagious and irresistible. Coba Coba is a dramatic improvement on its predecessor in one sense: Cumbancha’s liner notes, which include images, background, and detailed track-by-track information in both English and Spanish, are a wonderful complement to the music. Word to the wise: they make the physical CD, which also has crisp, warm sound, a superior alternative to the download.