Real world beat
Perú Negro delivers a musical history lesson at Laxson
Ten dancers—five men and five women—clothed in stylized suggestions of loincloths and animal-skin dresses opened last Tuesday night’s Perú Negro show with a captivating ritual dance called “Afro,” backed by a driving rhythm section of hand drummers.
The eye- and ear-catching opening set the stage for what was to come—a virtually seamless string of enthralling songs or dancer-focused pieces featuring various combinations of the 22 gifted instrumentalists (drummers, guitarists and a bass player), dancers and singers of Perú Negro.
The widely known Afro-Peruvian musical ensemble has been in existence since 1969, and is regarded by the Peruvian government as the “Cultural Ambassador of Black Peru.” The group was also central to the revival of Afro-Peruvian music in Peru in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s after the music had gone underground in the 17th century, when slaves were banned from drumming.
Perú Negro uses its invigorating, world-touring stage show to not only entertain but also present an exceptionally palatable history lesson in the process. Today’s Afro-Peruvians are descended from African slaves brought over to Peru in the early 1500s by Spanish conquistadors. Perú Negro’s opening dance number paid homage to these ancestors.
Following the opener was a musical tour through the history of black Peruvians, including some clever, good-natured digs at colonialism, as in the landó (a dance with Spanish and African rhythms descended from the Angolan londu) called the “Toro Mata.” Dancers wore black shoes with big buckles and white, frilly costumes cheekily mimicking the outfits worn by slave masters and their guests at parties during which they danced minuets and waltzes.
Lead singers Monica Dueñas and Marco Campos, who also played percussion, easily won over the crowd with their powerful and sensuous voices. Dueñas, dressed freshly in a white, ruffled cotton dress and white high-heeled shoes and Campos, also in white, with a dashing red sash around his waist, were particularly memorable on the song “Una Negra y un Negro.” At one point the two playfully divided the audience and separately led each half in a competitive call-and-response of the tongue-twisting, rapid-fire words, “Eso no se dice.”
If any members of the audience hadn’t been caught up in the show by that point (and that is difficult to imagine), they surely were drawn in by Dueñas and Campos’ admirably slick, musical-comedic move. Everyone, it seemed, was calling out and/or laughing by the end of the song.
The drummers were amazing. For close to 2 1/2 hours, the five percussionists—one of them a 10-year-old boy—played impeccable, complex and relentless rhythms on a mix of Latin and African percussion, including the more familiar bongos, congas and djembe as well as more unique instruments like the cajón (a sit-on box drum played with the hands), cajita (a smaller box drum with a lid played with a stick) and quijada de burro (or donkey jawbone).
The cajón, cajita and quijada were all creatively developed as percussion instruments by Afro-Peruvians after drumming was outlawed—the cajón evolved from wooden fruit crates, the cajita from Catholic collection boxes. The quijada is played as both a shaker (the loosened teeth rattle when smacked with a hand) and as the equivalent of the Latin-American gourd percussion instrument, the güiro, when a stick is run across the teeth.
The cajón is the quintessential Afro-Peruvian instrument, and Perú Negro embraces it by including a minimum of two, and at one point, five cajónes in its show—especially impressive when joined by five colorfully dressed female dancers playing cajitas.
When the performers took their beaming bows at the end of the show, it felt as if the audience was witnessing the end of a successful Broadway play. Perú Negro’s show was that enchanting and, like a good play, created a compelling world that was easy to enter and remain inside of throughout its duration. And, also like a good play, it left us all a little better off for having experienced it.