This story starts in the early 1700s when Peru’s slaves were banned from using drums. Their rhythmical songs were adapted to the cajón—a wooden box of agricultural origins and a mainstay in Black Peru. A hybridization of African, Indian, Latin, and European music evolved over the next 200 years, but in the late 1950s the African elements of Peruvian music were reborn. On January 20, 2004, Perú Negro, the only Afro-Peruvian performance troupe to last 35 years, releases Jolgorio (Times Square Records), their second CD in recent years, and launches a North American tour that will hit a dozen cities.
For those familiar with the music of Black Peru, many tracks on Jolgorio—which translates as “a state of celebratory frenzy”—will sound familiar. Songs like Jolgorio and Taita Guaranguito appear on their new CD to show the artistic evolution achieved by the group while maintaining strong ties to their roots.
Two groups set the standards of contemporary Black music in Peru. One was the seminal group Cumanana, founded by Nicomedes Santa Cruz and which disbanded in the ’70s, and the other is Perú Negro. In 1969, Ronaldo Campos was playing cajón in a Lima tourist restaurant. With encouragement from the restaurant proprietor, Campos adapted his repertoire to emphasize Black music, and Perú Negro was born. Soon after, Perú Negro won the grand prize at the Hispanoamerican Festival of Song and Dance in Buenos Aires, Argentina and overnight became a national treasure in Peru.
Partial credit for the performance evolution of Black Peruvian music goes to a Cuban drummer named Jesus “el Niño” Nicasio who performed in Peru in the early ’50s. El Niño and Campos played together in Cumanana, where they incorporated Cuban conga and bongó into Black Peruvian music. El Niño invented the first drum patterns used for this genre. (El Niño's son “Macario” later perfected these patterns as a member of Perú Negro and today el Niño's grandson “Macarito” continues the tradition as a member of the group.) Perú Negro’s adaptations took on their own form and are now accepted as a wholly Peruvian phenomenon.
Perú Negro’s ascent came at a time when a new revolutionary military government sought to gain popular support through the promotion of indigenous Peruvian folklore, writes Heidi Feldman in her forthcoming book, Black Rhythms of Peru: Staging Cultural Memory Through Music and Dance (Wesleyan University Press, 2005). “The collapse of the military revolution and its cultural policy in 1980,” continues Feldman, “compounded by evening blackouts and bombings during the Maoist guerrilla army Sendero Luminoso’s crusade of terror—put an end to much of Perú Negro’s local theatrical work in the 1980s. The company stopped performing in theaters and returned to its origins, entertaining tourists in restaurants and peñas (nightclubs).”
When Ronaldo Campos died in 2001, his son Rony took over Perú Negro’s direction. Under the younger Campos, the group is experiencing a revival. The latest repertoire features such innovations as the presence of a flute, now becoming integral to Black Peruvian music, and Cuban drums made Peruvian, such as the wooden batajón which is a cross between a cajón and a batá (double-headed Afro-Cuban drum). The group reinterprets standards and composes new songs. They also feature some dances they had stopped presenting due to the economic crisis of the ’80s & ’90s; like Son de Los Diablos, which requires intricate and costly costumes.
The diverse elements in Perú Negro’s repertoire reflect a complex history of Blacks in Peru. Villancico Negro compiles Christmas chants from the mostly Black districts of El Carmen and Chincha. The violin chords reflect a lamento Andino or Andean lament; a melancholic tuning that may “sound wrong” to those unfamiliar with the tradition. The dance Toro Mata mocks the minuets and waltzes that slaves observed while serving the parties of slave masters who danced pompously dressed in colonial ruffles. The stiff, almost military alignment of the dance imitates the opening of the minuet, but the dancers mock the rigidity and absence of natural grace required for this dance. They accentuate this difference in style with explosions of rhythm, corporal dexterity, and in subtle elegance. Cesar Calvo’s solemn poem De España embodies the paradoxical influence of the colonizers who brought both slavery and Christianity: “from Spain Christ arrived, but so did the master, and just like the master did with Christ, he took Blacks and crucified them…” While the paradox created tragedy, the hybrid of influences of Perú Negro has created music rich with profound rhythm, passion, and history.