Peru Negro: Coastal Music and Dance in Peru

By Skoog, Don | American Visions, June-July 1997 | Go to article overview

Peru Negro: Coastal Music and Dance in Peru


Skoog, Don, American Visions


On the beaches of Peru, there is a lost tradition living in the voices and the feet of the descendants of slaves. Isolated geographically and culturally over the ages, the blacks of Peru have maintained in music and dance a soul, style and spirit reflecting the joy and pain of their existence. They move sensually to their own beat, but with more than a hint of melancholy.

In 1995, the release of the album El Alma del Peru Negro (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.), which featured some of the most talented artists on the Peruvian coast, gave the world a look at the vitality of Afro-Peruvian music. Still, it was only a brief look, and Afro-Peruvian music and dance, despite their presence in Peru's chic nightclubs, remain among the world's best-kept cultural secrets, suppressed along with the people who gave them life and nurtured them.

Because of their small numbers and their long separation from Africa, the blacks of Peru lost many aspects of their specific tribal cultures. Their identity gradually faded among the Quecha and the Aymara Indians of South America and among the Spanish. In coastal towns Afro-Peruvians conserved what they could of their culture and taught their children what they remembered. It was out of this culture that the Afro-Peruvians created a tradition of poetry, dance and, music.

As with most performance art, the music, dance and words are complementary aspects of the whole. To delete any would damage all. The melody, rhythm, movement and text were developed together so that each style has a specific rhythm, dance and story type.

Of course, the presentations vary, reflecting different lifestyles and interests. Performances can be sexy, playful, religious. They are stories about everyday life. A dance may be about drawing water from a well, taking gifts to the baby jesus, or attracting a man. A woman rotates her hips for her partner and then scurries away when he reaches for her. Or a man, in an elegant soft shoe, measures his skills against his rival's.

The romantic marinera is a traditional dance, performed with a graceful waving of handkerchiefs. Another early dance makes fun of the Spanish, portraying them as effeminate dandies, prancing minuets and powdering their noses. The alcatraz is danced with lit candles: A dancer tries to light a paper tail tucked into the back of his or her partner's waist. Other dances are about people working their fields or going down into the mines.

The dances have lost much of the abandon of their African predecessors, but they have assumed in their emergence a subtle grace of movement, a gentle humor and a certain sadness.

Afro-Peruvian music has an identity, a feeling all its own. Complex and sensual, it combines the melodic spirit of the Quecha Indians with the harmonies of Spain and the rhythms of Africa. The guitar, which is the only Spanish instrument in the tradition, owes much of its impact to the pathos of flamenco. Played finger style, Afro-Peruvian guitar is similar to the playing styles of Cuba, although the actual rhythms are different. The guitarist accompanies the singer, arpeggiating chords in the slower styles and strumming chords in the faster ones, supplying the essential link between the harmony and rhythm.

The most unique instrument in Afro-Peruvian music is a wooden box called a cajon, which provides the fundamental rhythm and a variety of tones and colors for each song. The cajon is struck by hand, with the performer sitting on top of it. Once simply constructed, today's cajon is a more complex, carefully made instrument played by a more sophisticated musician. One of the stories told about the cajon over the years is that it came into use when slave owners discovered that the Africans were using drums to send messages between communities. Although both drums and words were thereafter forbidden, slaves could still sit on top of a box and pound it like a drum, which they did to continue their mode of communication. …

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