Perú Negro: Zamba Malató

Nils Jacobson

Peruvians have long been hip to this retro sound, which locals call "Afro". But for the rest of us, it's been a real eye- and ear-opener.

Perú Negro

Zamba Malató

Label: Times Square
US Release Date: 2008-01-22
UK Release Date: Available as import

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.