Don’t stop the beat
Afro-Peruvian legend Perú Negro still represents after 30 years
“When we toured America before, in 2002, we found that a lot of Americans were not even aware there were blacks in Peru,” says Juan Morillo, manager of the legendary Afro-Peruvian musical group Perú Negro. “But many remembered those Paul Simon Andean pan flute songs from the ‘70s with the added English lyrics.”
Back in the 1700s, when Spanish slave masters in colonial Peru banned drums as “tools of the devil,” the slaves found innovative ways to preserve their musical culture. They used whatever they could, from empty boxes and chairs whacked with bamboo sticks to teeth-rattling donkey skulls as shakers. To them, the regal minuets and uptight waltzes of their pompous masters were a joke—completely opposite to real feeling in music.
Today, there is a rich history of black Peruvian music cultivated from melting pot Pacific coastal towns such as Canete and El Carmen where those same homemade instruments are still in use. The West African-influenced percussive style shares more in common with warm Afro-Cuban rhythms and vibrant Latin American styles such as salsa and flamenco than any Andean mountain songs.
Chicoans have a chance to experience the foremost proponent of this proud musical history when the Lima-based, 20-person Perú Negro takes over the Laxson Auditorium stage for the opening night of its nationwide, major-city tour in support of the infectious new album, Jolgorio, translated as “a state of celebratory frenzy.”
The story of Perú Negro begins in 1969, when founder Ronaldo Campos was playing cajón (a wooden box) in a Lima tourist restaurant. After encouragement from the owner, Campos began incorporating black dance music with his group, and Perú Negro (Black Peru) was born. After the ensemble later made stylistic adaptations, adding Cuban conga and bongo playing into the mix, Perú Negro won a surprising grand prize at the 1969 Hispanoamerican Festival of Song and Dance in Buenos Aires, garnering the group instant credibility and fame as a national treasure in Peru.
The group had arrived just a year after a revolutionary military government took over and sought to gain popular support through promotion of indigenous Peruvian folklore. Thus initial funding was not a problem. Building on this publicly forgotten music, Perú Negro came to define the Afro-Peruvian sound during the 1970s. Intricate, African-influenced rhythms helped create a new, highly syncopated festejo style, while provocative, hip-thrusting, tail-chasing dances brought the folklore to life on stages around the world.
With the collapse of the military government and its cultural policies in the 1980s, Perú Negro was back playing small nightclubs. Although founder Campos died in 2001, his son Rony Campos has taken over the mostly lineal group, which has cut two albums of new material in the new millennium and is now returning to international touring, financed “solely through private donations,” Morillo says.
“The dance is essential with this music,” Morillo explains. “Although ethnomusicologists argue what came first, with this show you can really see that the dance developed simultaneously with the music.”
Morillo says that audiences learn historical aspects by watching the progression of colonial song styles to today’s sound, from small, unrelated tribal groups to an urban musical hybrid. The group’s ideal for this tour is not only “to spread black Peruvian culture … but to experience the new areas we visit.” And Morillo doesn’t anticipate any hassles with traveling (all of the group’s members, from ages 14 to 72, have visas), though he says Texas INS officials “can be temperamental.”
Opening night is sure to be a festive show of wild dancing, organic music and bright, colorful costumes all choreographed to provide a glimpse into an inspired history of human resilience, of cultural passion forever aligned with the spirit of music.