January 2008

Perú Negro
January 22, 2008 Roy Thomson Hall Toronto
Cultural Ambassadors of Black Peru
Report by Lee Haas

In the afternoon before the show, I discovered that Perú Negro was to be on CBC radio's Here & Now with Matt Galloway. We were informed they had just arrived in Toronto the night previous; just imagine being thrown shockingly into the blowing snow we were then having, never mind snow at all. They did a few marvelous numbers on the radio; Monica, the singer, reminding me very much of Susana Baca. It was like an appetizer for the show to come. The show would turn out to be an experience from the heart of Afro-Peruvian culture, presented with style and grace by the skilled musicians and talented dancers of this legendary ensemble. The tokens they left us with were rich in colour and lively with the spirit of liberation. Bold yet delicately detailed and strikingly costumed, it all came together in a most exciting fashion.

Three congas, two cajóns, three guitars and a few extra percussion accoutrements were gracing the stage bathed in soft blue light. Finally entered five men with shaved heads (actually, all the men in the group have shaved heads), wearing loincloths and swords, doing what I assume is a dance representative of the challenges faced by the slaves. It was “Afro”, a ritual dance, accompanied by pulsating throbbing cajóns, bongos and congas, with three djembes in front — in the middle was the cutest kid (who I later found out is only 13 years old!). Five women joined in, wearing short, flowing, meant-to-be sack dresses with their hair up in tight buns. The interesting dance was quite different from the usual African or Cuban folkloric styles. Their circle seemed to tell of unity and the spotlight shone on flowing pulsating freedoms not yet attained. The drumming also was distinct, with patterns and rhythms different from any other, evoking a sombre and cautious time and truth. The bells were bounced with shekere in wait; all playing so tantalizingly tight and composed, such practiced symmetry as to be phenomenal. And this was just the beginning!

The lead female singer, Monica Dueñas, who is stunning, presented the landó song, “Taita Guaranguito”, with a smile exuding glamour and strength. Her voice is clearly melodic and she really shook her hips to ruffle her flowing dress. There was one moment reflective of the Cuban rumba, where the woman plays hard to get and the man follows after. The lead male singer, Marco Campos, joined her sweetness and light with his deep notes. They were well paired for this romantic duet.

For the festejo dance “Ollita”, the crowd went wild with clapping at the first notes. Festejo (fiesta) is a festive form of music that can be seen as a celebration of Perú's independence and an attempt to reinvent the Diaspora. It definitely felt like a story was being told here. The women wore slightly shorter versions of Dueñas' dress of pure white with ruffles at the bottom and across the shoulders, covered with black, brown, blue, green and red velvet crosswise like an apron. The men wore short pants and boleros of brown, mustard and black. You felt like these dancers were really enjoying themselves and not just wearing pasted smiles. This was especially evident in certain moments as in this dance when the woman in green was left alone and then knocked over the returning men like dominoes; to which the men proceeded to retaliate with an intimated 'oh yeah?'

Really outstanding was Dueñas' version of “Negra Presentuosa”, the tondero “Golpe e'Tierra”, a song made quite famous by Susana Baca. Baca is actually considered Tia (aunt) by the group. She had compiled many of these traditional songs at the request of David Bryne of the Talking Heads, so I was not alone in having a familiarity with some of the tunes. Many of the Afro-Perúvian musicians now do some of the same songs, as tradition is history, and it's of vital importance when you've gone through such a struggle as they have. Their story traces back to the 18th century, to the first black slaves who arrived in Perú. With their roots still in Africa, their musical connection was suppressed, and then banned outright. But the music didn't stop, and the drumming was adapted while maintaining strong ties to the slaves' roots, evolving and becoming a hybridization of African, Indian, Latin, and European music. There are, of course, many and mostly original compositions in this show, written by Jaime Ronaldo Campos Ponce (Rony), cultural director of Perú Negro, and Marco Campos, his brother. (You can actually tell they are brothers as they carry themselves with the same poise, and even have the same stance.)

Edu Campos, their very young prodigy, showed us just how much he has absorbed from this company school of percussion and dance. He has been traversing each type of drum, and at this juncture we find him on congas. One of the cajón players has moved to guitar, and the women have changed into different costumes of neon colours with full skirts, puffed sleeves and black bodices. They dance with one side of their skirts pulled up, waving folded-out fans, moving all together, all as one. We aren't meant to understand all the words, but the sentiments and gestures are easily understood. Woman is strong they sing, with her eyes and oh her lips, just listen to her, simply dance. The synchronicity of the players of the assorted percussion, and even the guitars, tells so much of discipline and attention. Though Perú Negro are no longer technically all from the same family it feels like they are.

The group, founded by the skilled arranger and creative choreographer Ronaldo Campos as a vision of support for indigenous culture, independent of political leanings, started as merely a family group, with only two degrees of separation within. When the music became a tad more commercially oriented, many of the branches of the families splintered off, each taking with them their own 'secrets' (I assume their specific compositions, rhythms, dances and contributions.) Ronaldo Campos was the originator of this format of music 38 years ago, and this group, in its original incarnation, was actually the formulator for these types of rhythms, especially those of the cajón as we hear them today. So it did start out as 'a family business', but now anyone can come join as long as they adhere to the strict training of the group in preparation of dazzling us with their united front.

The dance of “Baile de Mulatas” showcased the abilities of the skillful guitarists, and the festejo song “El Que no Tiene de Inga Tiende de Mandinga” spoke of the rhythm of here, and of then. "Este ritmo de negro, Este ritmo sabroso"; the movements of the ritual dance “Festejo Ritmo” reflected strength and grace, starting with humble beginnings and with the bare feet of the dancers, marching to a powerful end — ¡eso! (that it is!). Jumping foot to foot, a shake of the shoulders and a spin, they danced separately then paired together, shaking and swirling with energy unbounded. Ending in a fury of the women in long red dresses with bright red flowers in their hair and the men in red pants with white tops, we are left breathless from their spirited and energetic exuberance, needing the intermission.

Perú Negro has a lot of interesting things to say; the emotions they express are powerful and meaningful. Though there are similarities to other African, or even Cuban histories, that we know, and have seen often here through folkloric shows and presentations, it's not quite the equivalent counterpart, and has a unique sensibility. Also enamored of the show were massive groups of kids jumping for joy, tingling with the excitement of not only being here, but being here. The youngsters were invited as part of an arts and education outreach program, Share The Music, which gave them an opportunity to attend this performance they would not otherwise have. Watching the faces of these kids, leaning forward, fascinated with what was happening, was awesome.

Aptly titled, “Cajones” was the act that brought us back to the Perú Negro experience. Out into the spotlight came the young Edu Campos, lone drummer, on a cajón, just a box, and yet not. (The cajón is a wooden box or crate, which one sits on and bends down to strike with both hands, to create the intricate rhythms that form the foundation of most Afro-Perúvian tunes.) Followed by Rony and Marco Campos on cajita (a small church donation collection box that hangs from one's neck, and is played by opening and closing its lid with one hand, while the other is striking its side with a stick), and the quijada de burro (a dried-out and weathered donkey jawbone, used as a shaker by rattling the molars and by striking the sides with a stick, or beating the bone with one's palm). With exaggerated movements, sneaking in along the back are the five dancers with five cajóns, intimating hush, we are here with secret stories to tell. The rhythms continue on in a wondrous combo, shoes tapping the stage floor, hands tapping on cajónes, even plainly clapping for good measure. All of the percussionists were throwing off one to the other giving each their turn to play, then all playing collectively again; always keeping the beat, never faltering in their rhythms. The five gals showed up after some time, with their cajitas (church boxes) and large grins upon their faces, the quijada de burro (donkey jaw) was added to the mix and all on stage were in white and with red sashes. The players all came together now with a shaking, rattling, thudding, pulsating, pounding, entrancing heart beat. ¡Que Rico! (Outstanding!) Certainly, these are unusual musical instruments. Due to the complete ban on drumming placed on the slaves by their Spanish colonizers, Afro-Perúvian music developped a distinctive sound by having to get along with what was available.

“Zapateo Perúvian” (tap dance) was a jump, shuffle, shake, pause, and step routine. One lone gal waved off the others, doing her shuffle, then came back. One of the guys tried to drag her off but she wouldn’t go. Two gals joined her as back up, then two guys appeared beside them, then more two gals, each pushing the other back off and away, with flashes somewhat reminiscent of, though not at all associated with, West Side Story, they then paired off into swaying couples. “Pancha Remolino” (festejo song) was such a familiar guitar melody. They delve into full group musical at this point, with the two lead singers up front; he's talking, she's agreeing.

“Zamba Malató” (landó dance), is another traditional song, well-known for being sung by Tia Susana Baca. The women came out in red spotted frocks with red aprons and turbans, carrying baskets and being warned ¡mira! (look!) ¡cuidado! (be careful!). Landó features a slow, soft tempo and call and response vocalization, and is a dance of courtship with sensual movements. Their baskets were holding washing, but I've never seen anyone scrubbing fabrics with their hips swaying like THAT — spin and swirl, it's the cycle of the circle of united women working. And they didn't just bounce, they flew, momentarily hovering with their feet tucked back, moving non-stop, seeming to express just how much a woman's work really is never done (this was a definite and strong impression). Drawn out by the length of the piece, the effect was hypnotic, culminating in well-deserved, hyper-applause.

“Una Negra y Un Negro” (festejo song) has Monica Dueñas and brother-in-law Marco Campos performing again together on vocals amplified both sultry and witty. ¡es como se dice! (no really, see, its just like I told you!) Their smooth moves exhibit the nature of this unique Afro-Perúvian tonal sound. Their lively calls out to the audience of 'let me hear you' illuminate how the performers are the stage dressing in front of the basic setup of back riser and one solid super large backdrop.

“Toro Mata” (landó dance) is meant to mock the waltzes of yore when the slaves were forced to serve the pompous masters who danced these minuets. This would explain the men in the ruffled half smocks and wristlets and the women in the lovely floral halters with full skirts, their whites beautifully giving life to the colours of the iridescent deep blue and purple lighting, in their straight rows of matched couples lined up strikingly one behind the other for an effective display. A fine stance en masse. “Que Tiene Miguel” (zamacueca – handkerchief dance) again shows the brilliance of Dueñas' beautiful voice, which in conjunction with her backup vocalist Sandra Minaya, conveys an elegance that surpasses even this bolero styled moment. While watching her — and how can you not? - out of the corner of my eye, I see the young Edu Campos reach over from his cajón adding in an occasional strike to the conga nearest him. Every element is fully absorbing.

“Estuve Covando” (festejo dance) is enthusiasm at its finest. Even with one minor 'wardrobe malfunction', no one missed a beat, they just continued, enthusiastically stepping, stomping and strutting. The repetition really builds into this frenzy of levity, with Dueñas seemingly bearing her soul, telling a warning tale and recounting a struggle most stirring. The flying floating revolving dots lit upon the backdrop created a spiritual sky, in its late orbit, each of the ten dancers in one outfit from each of the dances. Whistles and commands to dance wrapped it all up — dance you all, dance! ¡Bailara!

We welcome your comments and feedback
Lee Haas
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