Peru Negro
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Music

The best kept secret in music

Press


A Peruvian Treasure

Song-and-dance ensemble Peru Negro makes a long-awaited U.S. debut.

When slave masters in colonial Peru banned drums, the slaves found new ways to preserve their outlawed rhythms. They used tables and chairs and almost anything that made noise when struck by a bamboo stick or slapped by the palm of a hand.
In the fields, workers expropriated wooden crates as impromptu percussion instruments. They discovered that the crates, emptied of fruits and vegetables, made a surprisingly rich range of sounds, depending on where and how they were struck.

Those humble boxes eventually evolved into a formal percussion instrument called the cajón, now a proud national symbol of Peru. Instead of eradicating the old rhythms and rituals, considered the devil's work, Spanish church and civil authorities had unwittingly helped create a new genre: the music of black Peru, one of the most vibrant styles in the hemisphere.

Southern Californians will have the opportunity to see the prime exponents of this exciting music in concert for the first time when Peru Negro, a 26-member song-and-dance ensemble formed in 1969 by a former bus driver, makes its U.S. debut tonight at UCLA's Royce Hall.

Under the direction of its late founder, choreographer Ronaldo Campos de la Colina, the group helped spark a revival of the genre with its showcase of colorful costumes, sensual dances and historic verses that were often preserved through oral tradition.

Its members perform with an array of authentic instruments, including the quijada de burro, a donkey jaw used as a shaker and scraper for its rattling teeth. Their dances, the landó and the festejo, are accompanied by suggestive pelvic movements that once earned condemnation from the dominant white society as immoral, contributing to the music's once marginalized status.

"There was high-class culture and there was low-class culture," says Juan Morillo, the group's U.S. manager and a doctoral candidate in history at Claremont Graduate University. "High-class culture would have been imported. In other words, whatever came from the outside was considered high-class. Black music simply wasn't recognized until recently."

Overdue recognition began in the 1950s with the nation's black artistic revival, led by poet, composer and musicologist Nicómedes de Santa Cruz. Before founding Peru Negro, Campos de la Colina played the cajón with another seminal black group, Pancho Fierro.

In the United States, however, most people are still unfamiliar with Peru's rich black cultural traditions. When they think of Peruvian music, many think of the Andean folk style, with its mournful pan pipes and flutes popularized by Simon & Garfunkel's 1970 hit "El Condor Pasa."

The music of black Peru is earthier, less ethereal. It is the urban music of Peru, cultivated in Pacific coastal towns such as Cañete and El Carmen, where Peru Negro was founded. They served as settlements for slaves working the region's cotton and sugar cane fields.

From these black communities, the music migrated to the capital, Lima, where it survived in segregated black neighborhoods, disparaged and almost forgotten until the renaissance of the 1960s.

This is soulful, melodic music with loping rhythms only distantly related to their more popular Afro-Cuban cousins, such as the son or the rumba. Unlike slaves in Cuba, who were allowed to keep African customs alive in communities with family and tribal ties, the slaves in Peru came from small, unrelated and dispersed groups, a strategy designed to discourage rebellion around tribal chiefs.

Cut off from ancestral memories, black Peruvians developed a distinct style, devoid of African language or santería religious references, which still infuse its Afro-Cuban counterpart.

The work of black Peruvian artists was first spotlighted in the U.S. on "The Soul of Black Peru," a 1995 compilation on Luaka Bop Records. It includes songs by Peru Negro and its vocal alumnae Eva Allyón and Lucila Campos, who are today among Peru's most popular stars, along with Susana Baca, who went on to record solo albums for the label.

Although Peru Negro has traveled all over the world in its 33-year history, concert promoters always balked at the cost of a U.S. tour for a company that numbered almost three dozen members at its peak. Its founder always refused to travel with a pared-down troupe, claiming it would violate its artistic integrity.

Promoters such as Morillo still remember the response of Campos de la Colina, who died last year of a brain hemorrhage at age 73: "We all go, or nobody goes."

Peru Negro, now under the artistic direction of the founder's son, Ronny Campos, currently has 26 members. All but four are scheduled to come on this tour, says the group's lead singer, Monica Dueñas, who is married to Ronny Campos and serves as director of a company for children, Peru Negrito.

Dueñas recalls how her late father-in-law painst - Agustin Gurza


Ritmo sabroso para una presentación histórica

Tras una carrera de 33 años que los ha llevado a innumerables escenarios de América Latina, México y Europa, los integrantes de Perú Negro, una de las más celebradas agrupaciones de canto y baile en el mundo entero, debutaron en Estados Unidos.

Fue una presentación histórica, no sólo porque el Royce Hall de la UCLA lució completamente lleno, con un público que delataba diferentes procedencias étnicas y culturales, sino porque era la primera vez que Perú Negro visitaba este país.

Se trató también de una de las escasas ocasiones, a lo largo de los últimos años, en que una agrupación procedente del país andino actuaba en un escenario norteamericano tan importante, y no en aquellos locales especialmente diseñados para recibir a la comunidad peruana.

La ausencia más grande fue la de Ronaldo Campos, figura legendaria de la música tradicional latina y descendiente de los esclavos negros del Perú. Campos, quien creó el grupo en 1969, falleció recientemente en Lima sin ver cumplido su sueño de actuar en la Unión Americana. Pero los que estuvieron en el estrado, miembros de la tercera generación del conjunto, hicieron honor al legado del patriarca, aunque Perú Negro no está conformado únicamente por integrantes de la familia Campos, sí tiene un estrecho vínculo con ésta, ya que sus miembros están siempre relacionados por lazos de sangre o de muy estrecha amistad. De hecho, los más jóvenes son los bailarines Eder Campos (16) y Emma Valdivia (13), nietos del recordado fundador.

Según Raúl Valdivia, representante de Perú Negro, una de las razones para que el conjunto no se hubiera presentado hasta entonces en estas tierras era que los organizadores de eventos locales no les ofrecían traer al elenco completo (22 personas).

"Nunca nos hemos desesperado por venir aquí", señaló Dávila en los bastidores. "Somos financieramente pobres, pero tenemos una gran riqueza cultural".DANZA NON SANTALo que se ofreció la noche del jueves fue un espectáculo cuidadosamente preparado en el que, a diferencia de un concierto tradicional, no hubo comunicación verbal con el público, pero sí un fluido intercambio rítmico y el empleo de un sentido del humor que se traducía en las bromas que se realizaban en medio de las coreografías creadas por Ronaldo Campos.

En realidad, los actos de danza fueron más sorprendentes que los estrictamente musicales, debido al extraordinario nivel de los bailarines, dotados de una riqueza técnica y física encomiable. Uno de los momentos más impactantes del show se dio a poco de empezar, cuando, siguiendo un ritmo repetitivo e hipnótico creado por los cajones y las congas, los bailarines dieron rienda suelta a un "afro" endemoniado con el que revelaron sus orígenes tribales. Poseído por el espíritu del baile, en un movimiento frenético que terminó a ras del suelo, el joven José Durand ofreció uno de los solos de danza más memorables de la velada.

No resulta extraño que los españoles que colonizaron el Perú y esclavizaron a los negros que llegaron de Africa se sintieran profundamente perturbados y ofendidos por unos movimientos tan seductores pero tan ajenos a la conservadora tradición cristiana.

La parte musical se dividió entre alegres incitaciones al baile como Arriba Perú Negro y Tuve covando; proclamas de orgullo racial como Negro por siempre, y reclamos ante la discriminación como el célebre Toro mata y De España, una brillante y poco conocida composición del poeta César Calvo ("de España llegó Cristo/ pero también el patrón"), interpretada con gran emotividad por la cantante Silvia del Río.

Cabe señalar que no todos los participantes pertenecían estrictamente a la raza negra, empezando por la citada vocalista y por Mónica Dueñas, quien se encargó también de las voces principales y que, además de exhibir un gran dominio de su garganta, mostró grandes talentos para el baile y una innata coquetería.

Junto al cajonero Marcos Napa, con 20 años de carrera en la agrupación, Dueñas es la integrante más antigua de Perú Negro, y su plena incorporación a la familia Campos se trasluce en el hecho de que es la madre del adolescente Eder. Fuera de la presencia de diferentes coros, lo que sí se extrañó quizás fue la presencia de un vocalista masculino que le otorgara otros timbres a algunas de las canciones.

Cajoneo y zapateo

Uno de los momentos más divertidos del show se dio cuando Williams Nicasio dejó momentáneamente de lado sus congas para disfrazarse de anciano y fungir de maestro de baile en una escena donde los bailarines y bailarinas se enfrascaron en una suerte de duelo dancístico que, más allá de mostrarse como una abierta competencia, los presentó inmersos en el más puro de los gozos. Y esa fue la esencia de la presentación: con la excepción del guitarrista Frank Pérez y del bajista Juan Castro, quienes se mantuvieron en una esquina dedicados a sus instrumentos, el resto del elenco (5 bailarinas, 5 bailarines, 4 percusion - Sergio Burstein


“Colorful costumes, sensual dances & historic verses”

- Journalist


“Great and compelling roots music by any standard.” - Radio Host


"Inspiring Black pride, South American Style" - The Village Voice


A carnival celebration of culture. - L.A. Times


Discography

Sangre de un Don, Times Square 2001
Jolgorio, Times Square 2004

Photos

Feeling a bit camera shy

Bio

A wooden crate, a tithing box, and a donkey jaw. Not your typical musical instruments. But if it weren't for a ban on drums placed on slaves by Spanish colonizers, Afro-Peruvian music wouldn't have developed its distinctive sound. The cajón-evolved from farm crates used to collect fruit-is a wooden box straddled by its player who bends down to beat the box by hand. The cajita is a small, lidded box used for collections in Catholic churches. One hand claps the lid open and closed while the other beats the side of the box with a stick. And there is no mistaking the sound of the quijada de burro. The side of this dried-out donkey jawbone is beaten with the player's palm, which resonates the tuning-fork shape causing all the loosened teeth to vibrate

This percussive backbone is joined by melodic guitar and passionate singing to form the heart of Afro-Peruvian music-a genre that was coalesced by the legendary ensemble Peru Negro. is

It is widely accepted that during the international black pride movements, this ensemble-founded by Ronaldo Campos de la Colina to preserve Peru's African heritage 30 years ago-became the national standard other bands emulated. And they haven't let up yet. Peru Negro's first internationally-available recording, Sangre de un Don, was released by Times Square Records in the US in Spring 2001.

For most music fans in the US, Peruvian music means Andean panpipes. While the African presence in such music kingpins as Brazil and Cuba are well known, Peru's African legacy has only recently gained major attention here. Furthermore, the legacy of slavery in Peru differed from elsewhere in the Americas in that slaves were brought from a wide variety of regions in Africa making cultural continuity virtually impossible.

It wasn't until 1995 when Luaka Bop released The Soul of Black Peru that the general public became aware of the rhythms and sounds propagated on Peru's coast by African slaves brought to work in the mines. But anyone who heard these recordings was left yearning for more. Peru Negro's debut US tour was a welcome antidote.

Initially Peru Negro comprised 12 family members. Now more than 30 people are involved and the Lima-based music and dance ensemble runs their own school and junior troupe, Peru Negrito. Peru Negro has performed all over the world and has been appointed as "Ambassadors of Peruvian Culture" by the government. Their album, whose title means "Heritage of a Gentleman," is dedicated to founding member Ronaldo Campos de la Colina, who passed away in 2001. Ronaldo's son Ronny Campos wrote most of the songs on the new CD and leads the ensemble into the new millennium.