A Peruvian singer with a powerful voice, commanding stage presence, and versatile flair for many music styles, Eva Ayllón began performing in Peruvian peñas (nightclubs) in the 1970s. By the 1980s, she had produced popular recordings and collaborated with established Peruvian groups such as Los Kipus. In 1989, her performance as lead vocalist with Los Hijos del Sol sealed her status as a Peruvian national star. Many would agree that, by the 1990s, she had become Peru’s most popular living singer of both música criolla and Afro-Peruvian styles, with several platinum records and an adoring mass of Peruvian fans around the world. In 2003, Eva Ayllón garnered two Latin Grammy nominations in the “Best Folk Album” category, and in 2008 she sold out the house in Carnegie Hall, reputedly the first Peruvian singer since diva Yma Sumac (in the 1950s) to perform at the prestigious U.S. venue.
I first experienced Eva Ayllón in concert in 1998. Walking the streets of Lima that year, it was impossible not to know the name Eva Ayllón—nearly every record store prominently featured window displays of her CDs, her smiling image was plastered across public spaces on hundreds of posters in commercial districts, and private parties and discos tended to end the evening with recordings of her well-loved songs. I attended several of her then-weekly shows in a Peruvian peña called La Estación, in the Barranco neighborhood, a center of Peruvian music nightlife and tourism in Lima. Typically, the room held tourists from many (especially European) countries along with some local Peruvians. As is common in peña shows frequented by tourists, Eva Ayllón paid tribute to the national origins of audience members with short clips from songs of many countries, joking, cajoling, and charming her way into their hearts. One evening, as she reached out her arms to the audience, an enamored Dutch listener draped a glittering bracelet over her wrist. While steering clear of standard choreographies performed by Afro-Peruvian folklore groups, during instrumental breaks in the Afro-Peruvian numbers she demonstrated her viruosity as a dancer. Easily straddling the sentimentality demanded by some of her repertoire and the distance required to present it to her audience, Eva Ayllón served as a kind of musical tourguide.
Ayllón’s musical roots are in two coastal Peruvian styles: música criolla (Creole music) and Afro-Peruvian music. Peruvian música criolla—the legacy of the multiethnic coastal culture that developed among the working classes in 20th century Lima—involves strophic songs with lyrics about lost love, romance, patriotism, and nostalgia for colonial Lima. Genres include the marinera and the vals (waltz), the latter of which is one of Ayllón’s specialties. Música criolla has been performed, since the mid-twentieth century, on two core instruments that symbolically express Lima’s European and African heritages: the guitar and the cajón (box drum). Typically, the lead guitarist plays elaborate solos and active, strongly plucked figures on the upper strings, while a second guitarist performs repeating patterns (bordones) on the two lowest strings and strums rhythmically. The cajón, a rectangular wooden box drum with a sound hole in the back—recently declared Peru’s “National Patrimony” by the Instituto Nacional de Cultura—provides a rhythmic counterpart with an impressive variety of timbres.
Although Black Peruvians have long been known alongside their European-descended neighbors for their contributions to música criolla, a common perception was that African-descended music had disappeared in Peru by the first half of the twentieth century. Beginning in the 1950s, an Afro-Peruvian revival re-created the forgotten music, dance, and poetry of Black Peru. As in música criolla, the musical core of Afro-Peruvian musical styles such as the festejo and landó is the interplay between the cajón and the criollo guitar. Various percussion instruments (quijadas or jawbones, a smaller version of the cajón called the cajita, congas, bongó, cowbells, and so forth) and occasional harmony and/or melody instruments are added for specific genres. The music combines traits associated with West African music styles (polyrhythms, layered percussion, call-and-response vocals, metric complexity) with elements of Peruvian música criolla (vocal timbre, guitar melody styles and strumming patterns, the prominence of triple meter, hemiola). Songs tend to describe blackness or Black culture in Peru, with lyrics about slavery, abolition, rural Black life, and imagined ties to African heritage.
What is it that sets Eva Ayllón apart in her seamless performance of both of these Peruvian national styles? For many listeners, her voice is addictive, fraught with a kind of combined fragility and strength that perfectly complements her favored repertoire of coastal Peruvian songs. Her voice seems to break, then surges powerfully—she was only playing at heartbreak, she is in control. And in control she is, of not only her keen musicality, but also her ability to play with standard arrangements. While other Peruvian musicians are criticized when they stray from tradition, Eva Ayllón seems untouchable. For example, Eva Ayllón has long been known in Peru as the “queen of landó,” and she has moved this folkloric genre in a new direction since the Afro-Peruvian revival, re-imagining it as a kind of sensual and highly syncopated popular ballad with varied instrumentations. An innovator in both criollo and Afro-Peruvian styles, she adds Afro-Cuban batá drums, West African djembe, jazzy keyboards, and salsa-style horn sections to the mix. Yet, Eva Ayllón’s style remains both fiercely individual and distinctively Peruvian.
When Eva Ayllón toured the United States in the 1990s, she, like most other Peruvian performers, normally played for the Peruvian “colony” of expatriates abroad, in special shows advertised only within that community. Then, in 2003, Eva Ayllón disappointed her Peruvian audiences by moving to the United States, where she began to tour more widely and released her first U.S.-produced recording.
Since moving to the U.S., Ayllón has broadened her repertoire and increased her already impressive versatility with respect to style. This is no surprise; Ayllón is continuing the voyage she began in her native Peru. While most of her band (including Peru Negro director Rony Campos on congas; his brother Marco Campos on djembe; Leonardo “Gigio” Parodi on cajón; Mariano Liy on bass; Tito Manrique on guitar; and Moises Lama on keyboards) is based in Peru, she has also collaborated with renowned U.S.-based artists including Mexican bassist Abraham Laboriel, Colombian saxophonist Justo Almario—along with Puerto Rico’s legendary salsa orchestra El Gran Combo—since her move to the U.S. As this recording demonstrates, Ayllón also is working with several new arrangers and musical directions, resulting in a deeper stylistic variation. From the dancehall beat of Peruvian Spanish rocker Miki Gonzalez’ “Akundún” (arranged by California-based Afro-Venezuelan pianist/composer Allan Phillips) to the adventurous ballad-style arrangement of beloved Peruvian composer Chabuca Granda’s poignant vals “María Sueños” (reconnecting Ayllón with long-time collaborator Walter “Jocho” Velasquez), from composer Victor Merino’s Afrobeat-flavored festejo “Quimba Fa” (in a compelling arrangement by Phillips) to a salsified festejo-montuno version of the legendary Cuban Sonora Matancera’s “Muñeco de la Ciudad” (arranged by Ayllón’s bassist Mariano Liy), Ayllón continues on her journey to connect her music with the sounds of her multiethnic heritage.
-Heidi Carolyn Feldman
Author, Black Rhythms of Peru: Reviving African Musical Heritage in the Black Pacific (Wesleyan University Press, 2006)
Marco Campos - Congas, Cajon and Afro Peruvian Percussion
Moises Lama - Piano
Mariano Liy - Bass
Eddy Sanchez - Guitar
Jesus "Gigio" Parodi - Peruvian Cajon and Percussion
Abel Paez - Trumpet
Eric Kurimski - Additional Guitars
Eva Ayllón Los Kipus y Eva (Iempsa, 1977)
Eva Ayllón Esta noche (Sonodisc 1979)
Eva Ayllón Al ritmo de Eva Ayllón (Sono Radio, 1980)
Eva Ayllón Señoras y señores (Sono Radio, 1981)
Eva Ayllón Cuando hacemos el amor (Sono Radio, 1982)
Eva Ayllón Eva Ayllón (CBS, 1983)
Eva Ayllón Eva Ayllón en escena (CBS, 1984)
Eva Ayllón Para mi gente (CBS, 1985)
Eva Ayllón Para Todos (CBS, 1986)
Eva Ayllón Huellas (CBS, 1987)
Eva Ayllón Landó de la vida y yo (Sono Radio, 1989)
Eva Ayllón Eva Siempre Eva (Sono Sur, 1990)
Eva Ayllón Concierto de gala en vivo (Discos Independientes, 1992)
Eva Ayllón Gracias a la vida (Discos Independientes, 1993)
Eva Ayllón Para tenerte (Discos Independientes, 1994)
Eva Ayllón 25 años, 25 éxitos (Discos Independientes, 1995)
Eva Ayllón Ritmo color y sabor (Discos Independientes, 1996)
Eva Ayllón Amanecer en ti (Discos Independientes, 1998)
Eva Ayllón Juntos llevamos la Paz (Pro Estudios, 1999)
Eva Ayllón 30 años en Vivo (Iempsa, 2000)
Eva (Sony 2002)
Eva! Leyenda Peruana (Times Square Records, 2004)
Eva Ayllón y Los Hijos del Sol (Nido 2005)
Eva Ayllón Kimba Fá (Times Square Records, 2008)
Eva Ayllón Canta a Chabuca Granda (Suramusic 2010)
Eva Ayllón Enamorada del Perú (11 y 6 Enterteinment 2011)
Eva Ayllón 40 Years of Afro Peruvian Classics (2012)
Eva Ayllon: Afro-Peruvian Queen
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April 17, 2009 - Eva Ayllon is sometimes called Peru's Tina Turner. Her 30-year career has taken her...April 17, 2009 - Eva Ayllon is sometimes called Peru's Tina Turner. Her 30-year career has taken her in many musical directions, but she remains best known for her renditions of Afro-Peruvian music. That's a style that emerged in 1950s Lima, hand in hand with the notion of "black pride."
Afro-Peruvian music has complex, sensual rhythms. Its instrumentation is spare, originally just nylon-string guitar, bass and a wooden box called cajon. When it started getting outside attention in the mid-'90s, it felt new. The music's lean architecture and introspective mood differentiated it from the likes of salsa and merengue. But to experience the full-on gravitas of Afro Peru, you need to hear the husky voice of Allyon.
Enslaved Africans had to make two long passages to reach Peru, first across the Atlantic, and then over the landmass of South America. The people of the so-called Black Pacific were so far removed from their African origins that the creators of Afro-Peruvian music couldn't rely much on cultural memory. So they created instruments, rhythms and a compelling musical aesthetic that was largely a product of their imaginations. The pride of Afro-Peruvian music is the lando, an elegant dance with intertwined rhythms and a seductive undertow. Ayllon mastered the form early on and soon became known as "the queen of the lando."
On Kimba Fa, which means "joyous energy," Ayllon takes all sorts of liberties with Afro-Peruvian music, adding in piano and sometimes a brass section, as well as jazz harmony and ideas from other Afro-Latin styles. Ayllon is big enough to get away with just about anything. In "Huye de Mi," she even indulges her affection for the folksy Creole music that was the dominant sound of Lima a century ago.
The 17 tracks on Kimba Fa span the musical styles Ayllon has performed over her three-decade career. She experiments here and there, including on a pop track with Andean flute samples, blaring keyboards and Ayllon rapping — fun, but not her best work. When you hear this Lima native tearing into a salsa vocal, on the other hand, it's clear that she's far more than just a Peruvian treasure. Eva Ayllon is one of the great figures of today's Latin music.
Peruvian pop star to Jersey housewife?
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Eva Ayllon, Peru's premier pop performer, says she's tired of show business. She's been at it for 34...Eva Ayllon, Peru's premier pop performer, says she's tired of show business. She's been at it for 34 years, showered with adulation by stadiums full of fans. Now she wants to settle down with her new husband in New Jersey and just be a housewife. She dreams not of more fame and new horizons, but of cooking her man's meals and washing his underwear.
Yet Ayllon, 48, didn't look anywhere near ready to retire during her high-spirited and virtually impeccable performance at UCLA's Royce Hall on Sunday. On the contrary, the singer was like the Tina Turner of Afro-Peruvian music -- energetic and playful, sexy and fully charged.
World music fans may be more familiar with her low-key colleague Susana Baca, who has recorded for David Byrne's Luaka Bop label. But Sunday's show left no doubt that when it comes to genuine Afro-Peruvian music, the kind that crystallizes centuries of cultural history on stage, Ayllon leads the field.
"When I have the microphone in my hands, I have the strength and vitality of a girl of 3," she said in an interview last week. "Nobody can stop me then. And I don't want the evening to end.
"But when I finish singing ... ay! ... everything hurts. And I feel fed up."
Ayllon says her managers tell her not to talk like that. This is no time to surrender, just as they're trying to expand her audience beyond her faithful Peruvian base. They want to attract more Latinos from other nations and especially more Anglo Americans, which explains why Ayllon frequently, and humorously, addressed Sunday's predominantly Latino audience in her broken English.
Surprisingly in this crossover age, Ayllon's career has lacked a comprehensive marketing strategy beyond her country's borders. Though she's made 22 albums, the singer has never had a domestic U.S. release -- until now.
"Eva! Leyenda Peruana" on Times Square Records is a compilation of hits newly recorded for the U.S. market. It serves as both a survey of her repertoire and a primer on the festive genre itself, popular in coastal areas around Lima.
Her show, which drew heavily from the album, highlighted the spectrum of distinctive rhythms developed by the descendants of slaves in Peru -- the undulating lando, the frenzied festejo and the bawdy alcatraz. They are only distant cousins of more familiar Afro-Cuban dance styles. But the instrumentation and the improvisational spirit is similar to salsa.
Ayllon, whose voice can be both powerful and tender, has also helped modernize the elegant vals criollo, or Creole waltz, one of the loveliest styles on the continent.
Her eight-member backup group had two outstanding young soloists, guitarist Luis Manrique and pianist Moises Lamas, plus a powerhouse rhythm section featuring the typical Peruvian cajon, a crate played much as slaves once did in the fields.
Ayllon used a piano as a prop, leaning on it like an old-fashioned crooner and even using it like a practice bar for freestyle dance moves during a particularly exciting jam segment.
The singer seemed to thoroughly enjoy herself during the 90-minute show, converting the stately stage into a pena criolla, the intimate bohemian venues where Peruvians go to eat, drink, dance and listen to this music. Moving with the agility of a woman half her age, Ayllon strutted across the entire stage like a rock star, wildly shook her long black hair and vibrated her hips with erotic abandon in the style typical of this Afro-folkloric music. She kissed her pianist's hand, hugged her guitarist and did playful mating dances with her percussionists, all to the delight of the audience.
At one point, Ayllon gave a private greeting to a person seated near the front. "Terlinda," she said in English, "I love you so much."
She gave no explanation to the audience. But during the interview over lunch three days earlier, Ayllon said she had lost touch with an aunt, Terlinda Ayllon Garcia, who had moved to Los Angeles. She hoped to find her on this trip and hired a private detective to track her down.
She obviously did. The reunion meant a lot because Terlinda, her father's sister, helped the family survive by sending home $50 every month. It was a kindness the little girl from Lima never forgot.
Ayllon, the oldest of 14 children, was born to a seamstress and a driver who worked for a union. Her father named her Maria Angelica, she recalls, after his mistress who lived nearby. Her mother didn't discover the infidelity until the girl was being baptized at age 3. In the midst of the ensuing family uproar, her baptismal name was quickly changed to Eva, after the paternal grandmother who raised her.
Despite the conflict, little Eva performed at the party that day, singing boleros while standing on a conga drum. Though she never had any formal training, she's been singing ever since.
After a long-distance, on-and-off relationship over the past 23 years, Ayllon last year married Juan Yatakami, a Peruvian American from New Jersey. They have an 18-year-old son together, and each has one other son from separate relationships. She plans to move to the States later this year with her blended family.
Sure, she's tired of the business -- weary of watching her weight, of being on the road, of doing interviews like a beginner for new audiences, of always being compared to Baca.
Still, Ayllon has no plans to stop singing.
"I really would like to rest now," she says. "I think I've given enough of myself to my country, and I don't need to explain anything anymore.
"But in the end, I keep going because I love it."
There are no upcoming dates at this time.