International audiences have only recently begun tapping into music from key parts of the New World African diaspora—including many that extend beyond the Caribbean, Brazil, and the US, which have long enjoyed popular attention abroad. It’s not that this music is new: communities of African descent in Central and South America have (sometimes quietly, often loudly) kept cultural traditions alive since their ancestors came ashore. Those traditions have evolved in each place where they set root, mutating and multiplying, leaving a colorful tapestry of local styles and instruments that changes over time. Unfortunately many have been flying under the radar of the global market.
Occasionally a recording breaks through in Europe or the US and illuminates some of the idiosyncratic ways African and American cultures have fused—like last year’s Wátina, a community project, led by the late Andy Palacio, which told an entrancing musical story of the Garifuna people. As a result, many listeners went on to (re)discover Belize’s national music, punta rock, which is built upon a heavily Africanized Garifuna rhythmic foundation. And to their delight for the most part, because punta rock is extremely groovy.
Perú Negro, a veteran group whose members are now the official “cultural ambassadors of black Peru”, chose a different route to inject Afro-Peruvian music into American ears six years ago: just go there in person and allow the music and dance to speak for themselves. On the heels of Grammy and Latin Grammy nominations for the group’s 2004 record, Jolgorio, the march immediately resumed again in 2008, following the release of Zamba Malató: 20-some performers promptly invaded the States for a barrage of over 40 shows in order to show off the color and motion that infuses and surrounds contemporary Afro-Peruvian music. This recording captures the contagious spirit of openness, celebration, and discovery in crisp, inviting fashion. It’s probably not much of a revelation to listeners who have followed the group for part or all of its three-decade existence—and Peruvians have long been hip to the retro sound, which locals call “Afro”—but for the rest, it’s been a real eye and ear-opener.
The easiest place to start in order to properly appreciate Afro-Peruvian music is percussion, and specifically the cajón, which thoroughly dominates it—and has subsequently popped up all over the world in various international styles, like flamenco. As in Cuba and other Spanish territories, Peru’s landlords once decided that eradicating the drum would solve problems with imported labor. But not only did their eradication attempt fail, it spawned a new kind of drum.
Literally a “big box” (and probably a shipping crate, originally, where available), the wooden cajón is struck by the hands of a performer seated on top. Most members of the group play the instrument, among other drums (eg. conga, batá, djembe), and it stands out in most settings. The rich, layered percussion betrays West African roots. The individual drums, shifting and interweaving together, usually make sense only when experienced as a collective whole. The aptly titled “Afro” provides an excellent example. The piece starts out with wooden drums and then glides over to skins, with ritual chanting on top.
Those voices converge on the upbeat opener (a festejo, literally a celebration), where the band members sing in unison, alternating male and female voices to tell the story of two newlyweds. The ending becomes the sly refrain: “¡Eso no se dice!”, meaning “That cannot be told!” On the title track and “Toro Mata”, both in the landó style, guitars weave in and out, shaping a supple, assymetrical pulse. Both pieces embody a warm, glowing romanticism, shifting between lead vocals (by Marco Campos or Monica Dueñas) and choral refrains. The lyrics of “Zamba Malató” describe love for a mixed-race black woman, cast in the shape of a colorful bird, with a certain bird-like bounce. In contrast, the lyrics of “Toro Mata”, a bloody bullfight metaphor, are far darker than the music might otherwise suggest, but they’re equally relevant to its cultural history. Both songs were compiled/composed by important Afro-Peruvians, and both also wound their way, in highly mutated form, onto Novalima’s Afro, an exceptional Afro-Peruvian ritual/electronic disc from 2006.
The glow and exuberance of the songs on Zamba Malató, as easy to embrace as they may be, are no accident. They’re the product of a rich and cherished tradition, attentive musical craftsmanship, and an extroverted performance style that projects the musicians into the midst of their audience, rather than onto a stage in front of them. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the people who made the recording did it right, emphasizing the detail, nuance, and warmth that make the magic possible. Short of experiencing the group live, with all those dancers, on the fly, this is about as good as you’ll get.