Peru Negro dancers convey music, rhythm of forebears

The 26-member ensemble Peru Negro will meld African polyrhytms and Spanish melodies when it performs
Couples dance in a performance by Peru Negro, a 26-member group that moves to African polyrhythms and Spanish melodies.
Couples dance in a performance by Peru Negro, a 26-member group that moves to African polyrhythms and Spanish melodies.

A wooden carton, a tithing box and a donkey’s jaw. That’s all Peruvians need to re-create the boisterous sounds of their African ancestors.

Those crude instruments, overlaid with a little guitar, vibrant singers and dancers, make Peru Negro. The 26-member group is considered the ambassadors of coastal Peruvian culture. It’s a well-deserved distinction, as this Grammy-nominated ensemble has drawn this convivial song and dance out of the homes of Lima and shared it with the world.

Without Peru Negro, this singular music that melds African polyrhythms and Spanish melodies would have gone unnoticed. And, as company manager Juan Morillo sees it, the stylized folk art would probably remain dismissed by Peruvians too.

“The music and dance was never fading,” said Morillo, whose South American company will perform on Friday night at Proctors. “It just wasn’t public. The music and dance was a family affair, something done within the black family, at birthday parties and weddings. Peru Negro preserves and promotes the culture.”

The origins of the song and dance are humble. Consider the instruments. They were all the African slaves could get their hands on. Forced to give up their drums, they hammered on the wooden fruit boxes used on the plantations. Known as the cajon, the crates shape the central beat.

Centerpiece of beat

“The cajon is the centerpiece of all Afro-Peruvian music. It’s the timekeeper for the dancers and the musicians,” said Morillo.

The musicians added the slam of the lid on the church tithing boxes and the rattle and scrape of the teeth in a dried-out jawbone to complete the characteristic sound.

Though they incorporated the melodies of indigenous Peruvian songs, the rhythms were true to Africa. So, too, was the loose, spirited dance. Performed close to the ground, the head, shoulders, arm, legs all pump independently to the various rhythms.

“There are a lot of commonalities between African dance and black Peruvian dance,” said Morillo. “There hasn’t been a lot of academic study. But the link is strong.”

Black Peruvians have developed their own idiosyncratic dances. They spoof the minuet and spar in the devil dance. There is also the Zamacueca courtship dance in which eager men pursue coy women. Most Peru Negro shows end with the invigorating Estuve Covando, where the dancers hop while shaking every inch of their flesh.

“They are very colorful,” said Morillo of the dances. “From the standpoint of music and visuals, it is pleasing.”

The group got its start in 1969. Its founder, Ronaldo Campos, was playing cajon in a Lima tourist restaurant. With encouragement from the restaurateur, Campos focused his repertoire on black music and dance. He recruited members of his family and Peru Negro was born.

During the early years, Peru Negro was composed of 12, mostly related to Campos. It included his children, a cousin and a couple of friends.

Soon after, Peru Negro won the grand prize at the Hispanoamerican Festival of Song and Dance in Buenos Aires, Argentina. That was followed by appearances in theaters around the region. The group’s ascent was stalled in the 1980s, however, when guerrilla warfare and economic woes plagued Peru.

Staying at home

The ensemble quietly slipped back into the nightclub scene. There was some opportunity to tour, but Campos refused to break up the group into smaller, more affordable touring units. So the group stayed close to home in South America.

When Campos died in 2001 his son, Rony, took over. That same year, Peru Negro released its first album “Sangre de un Don.” Its second release in 2004, “Jolgorio,” was nominated for two Grammys, Best Traditional World Music Album as well as Best Latin Album.

A third album is expected out soon. And the Proctors show will showcase many new songs. “It’s different from anything anyone has heard,” said Morillo. “It’s Latin music, vibrant and melodic, but the musicians and dancers concentrate on the rhythms. It’s surprising.”

Peru Negro

WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday

HOW MUCH: $30 to $20

MORE INFO: 346-6204 or www.proctors.org

Categories: Life and Arts

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