I’d always been intrigued by Afro-Peruvian music. So it makes sense that I’ve found my way to Peru, foregoing the rush-hour crowds of the Machu Picchu Inca ruins in favor of this little-known three percent of Peru’s population who fashion unique instruments and make music that’s raw and polished, sassy and demure.
This was after four days devouring (quite literally—more about that later) the delights of Lima: spectacular views from tall cliffs that drop onto stoney Pacific beaches gracious Spanish colonial villas washed in seaside and desert tones engrossing museums and pre-Colombian ruins and the most scrumptious edibles on the continent.
I head south to the coastal area around the small city of Chincha, the nexus of Afro-Peruvian history and culture. The rhythms of Africa pull me up the steps and through the main building of the Casa Hacienda S. José, a few minutes’ drive from Chincha. The hacienda is an idyll, a 300 year-old complex of buildings (including a Baroque Jesuit chapel) looking up at an imposing yet not austere main house. Behind the main house, with its with 20-foot ceiling guest rooms, antique interior courtyard, and labyrinth of catacombs used for hiding in times of pirate depredations, are acres upon acres of verdant fields adorned by flowering bougainvillea and grazing horses.
On the hacienda’s rear verandah, a piebald group of musicians rollick through a wild alcatraz with only-too-willing men from the brunch crowd lined up to try and ignite the “tail” of a gyrating female dancer before them. Los Hermanos Cumbianca de Chincha follow up with a number of spirited tunes from the small but varied Afro-Peruvian repertoire. Their configuration is typical of Afro-Peruvian bands: cajón—the omnipresent box drum that originated from wooden crates slaves played between straddled legs—bongos, acoustic guitar, and the mischievous cajira de burro, a donkey jaw bone, its teeth loosened to make an eerie rattling sound when struck (traditionally) with a cow bone. Missing is a favorite: the cajita, or church tithing box, the opening and shutting of its hinged lid functions as a percussion instrument. All forms of drums were forbidden by slave masters so, as in Brazil, Peruvian slaves improvised masterfully.
After the sun breaks through a leaden mist, I head off for the town of El Carmen. The walk down a dirt road bisecting endless fields of cotton is a reminder of the bitter history endured by the thousand-strong African slave population that once worked the hacienda.
I can feel a special energy as I come into town, even though at midday few people are about. For the first time, I hear a radio from the street: Colombian salsa, cumbia, reggae-ton. As the sun begins to wane and the streets repopulate, I see, contrasting my experience in Lima’s criollo (descendants of Spanish settlers) Miraflores, black African people, people of mixed race, and purely indigenous folks.
I follow a knot of kids just out of school as they head for the main square. One is carryinga beat-up cajón. He puts it down and straddles it. The other boys gather round. He begins to play and they begin to dance zapoteando, tapping their feet in place to a complex, lightening-fast rhythm. I recognize this fancy footwork as an ancient traditional dance from the Ivory Coast.
Other African retentions are not so easy to identify. It’s only been in the last 50 years that Peruvians have reluctantly acknowledged their ties with Africa. Until then, all things African were conveniently buried under the mantle of “Indigenous.” Slavery systematically squelched tradition, and this forced invisibility did its best to sound African culture’s final death knell.
Three artists are universally credited with rediscovering and promoting black culture for all Peruvians. Nicomedes Santa Cruz was a black poet, journalist, historian and musician, who, in the ‘50s, inspired by movements for African lib