February 1, 2008

Peru Negro: The Electrifying Sound of Afro-Peru

By James Klein

NEW YORK (KPRENSA) – The intersection of African rhythms and Latin song has a special resonance. It is why Cuban and Brazilian music are so popular in the US. It is also why American audiences are now discovering PERU NEGRO, the electrifying song and dance ensemble from Peru.

The pioneering 20-member group’s new CD “Zamba Malató” (the name refers to an old chant sung by black women as they performed their daily chores), was released on January 22nd on Times Square Records. The CD is the follow-up to their last release, 2004’s “Jolgorio” that scored both Grammy and Latin Grammy nominations. In addition to the CD, their current tour of the U.S is their biggest ever and brings their carnival of Afro-Peruvian sounds to 46 cities.

Peru Negro presents the wildly celebratory Afro-Peruvian carnival of songs and dances that trace their history to the arrival of African slaves in Peru in the 1600’s. The group has ignited a craze for Afro-Peruvian sounds in their home country of Peru. Ronaldo Campos de Colina started Perú Negro over three decades ago as a 12-person family troupe and directed the ensemble until his death in 2001. At first supported by the government, cultural and political upheaval in Peru made it impossible to tour there, and the group now makes its living touring abroad.

Perú Negro’s repertoire is as complex, unique and exhilarating as Peru’s own rich cultural history. The group has now become the standard for Afro-Peruvian music, emulated by other groups in Peru and achieving the official title of “Cultural Ambassadors of Black Peru” by the government. They run their own school in Lima, developing the next generation of performers in a junior troupe of dancers and musicans called Perú Negrito (Little Black Peru). They have performed around the world, saving from extinction the African music and dance forms that are related to, yet distinct from, Puerto Rican plena, Haitian voudou, and other African American hybrids.

Perú Negro’s live show features a brilliant cross-section of African-descended styles that had all but disappeared from Peruvian culture by the 1950’s. Those dances include the celebratory festejo, the sensual landó, the slave protest songs called panalivios (banned by the Catholic Church in the 18th Century) and the tap-dancing zapatecos. African diaspora instruments also include the djembe (the single headed goblet drum from West Africa), the batá from Cuba, however the centerpiece of rhythm is the cajón, or crate drum, a percussion “instrument” that traces its birth to Peru’s slave quarters where traditional drums were banned by slave owners and the Spanish Inquisition, and now are a staple of most Latin jazz and flamenco groups.

For the 2008 tour, the group will feature new material from “Zamba Malató,” as well as their acclaimed reinterpretations of classic Afro-Peruvian songs. But on the album, the focus is on creating new material that builds on the past with equal parts innovation and respect. Weaving Peru’s complicated past into the world’s complicated present is the genius of Perú Negro, one of Latin America’s musical treasures.

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