By Natalie Wyatt
Grids of low houses painted with colorful graffiti define the landscape of the Peruvian town of El Carmen. Many are adorned with images of black women holding babies and musical instruments. Located three hours to the south of Lima in the region of Chincha, El Carmen sits in the middle of one of the nation’s most verdant pockets of land. On the road to and from the city, acres of cotton plantations sprawl out from all sides dotted with bundles of white. It is a vista I cannot help but associate with the American South, and by extension, with slavery. The similarities are hard to avoid.
Much like in the United States, the history of Peru cannot be divorced from the labor and lives of black people. In 1521, enslaved Africans arrived with the Spanish Conquistadors in the land that would become Lima. Soon after, Conquistador Francisco Pizarro established a trade route for importing slaves that began on the Western Coast of Africa, stopped in Cartagena, and ended in a forced march over the Andes into Peru. Throughout it all, these enslaved Africans resisted the institution of slavery through the creation of a culture that is still recognizable to this day in food, dance, and, most obviously, music. What makes Afroperuvian music so distinct is its blend of up-tempo, syncopated West African beats with Peruvian instruments like the guitar.
No instrument better captures this music, and the history surrounding it, than the cajón. The cajón is a box drum. “Something you would find in the field,” musician and dancer Camilo Ballumbrosio explains. Enslaved Africans were forbidden from playing music on the plantations for fear that they would use the sounds to communicate revolt. And so they created an instrument that looked inconspicuous, a box drum that would become one of their most important creative modes of survival.
Andrés Arevalo, a cajón player in Lima, explains to me over coffee that “[Afroperuvians] created, invented things, such as the music of the cajón, based on their talents, based on what they had heard when they were little. It was a process or recreation,” one that was passed along from generation to generation of enslaved Africans in Peru. However, that oral, folkloric tradition all but disappeared after emancipation in the late 19th century. Andres explains that a painstaking reconstruction occurred once more beginning in the 1950s. “There’s a vague memory, a potential memory. A memory of ‘maybe that’s how it was once.’”
It was this faint memory that highlights the startling erasure of black culture in Peru. Much of this erasure is intertwined with the politics of Peru’s mestizaje culture. As Andres explains, “We have Andean migrations, Amazonic migration. The Limeños are comprised of mestizo people. Yet, we Afroperuvians are few.” In part, this community’s minority status reflects the rise of interracial marrying and the lightening of skin over time. As our cab driver in El Carmen explains, “everyone was black thirty or forty years ago in this town. Now everyone is mixed. No more black.”
Unlike in the United States, many people of partial African descent are classified as no longer black, a status generally deemed favorable to social mobility. Thus, for those eager to preserve and share cultural artifacts like Afroperuvian music, this inevitably creates challenges.
As Arevalo explains, “we don’t know our ancestral memory. There’s a need to say that we are from Africa and that we have an African past. There is a need to recognized that…and so we assume postures to say that we are Africans: we play African instruments, and we involve them in our music to say that we are black. I put on the tunic because I am black.”
This pride is evident as well when visiting El Carmen’s most famous site, the home of the first family of Afroperuvian music, the Ballumbrosios. Camilo, one of the sons, explains that his family’s history “is very connected to music. When [my father] was a small child and fell into a river close to El Huanco, his family interpreted it as a sort of baptism; his mother dedicated him to dance after that.”
This particular style of dance, a mixture of tap dancing and other rhythmic West African styles, has “an ancient history from before the times of slavery to after the first days of freedom.” But, as Camilo explains, “The zapateo is also a form of protest,” because during slavery dance and other forms of artistic creation were prohibited.
The Ballumbrosio home has become a sort of cultural space for Afroperuvian music. Stickers and graffiti decorate the front of the house with slogans like, “Black love”, “I am proud to be negro,” and even Camilo Ballumbrosios’s bracelet, which reads in English, “I love being black.” When I ask him about the bracelet he grins and explains that it is emblematic of how he was raised. Reverence for and participation in the cultural production of his black community was expected.
There is an openness that I did not expect. The house his family lives in is left unlocked to encourage visitors of all races and nationalities to stop by. He answers my questions thoughtfully, but is quick to ask me about Trayvon Martin and “what is going on in the United States.” Camilo’s conception of his own blackness feels expansive and generous. He explains, “I do not believe in ‘I am black, and everyone else can go to hell…but instead ‘I am black, you might not be black but we are all standing in this world together.” He adds, “I see that [this opinion] is more advanced in Latin American than in other places.”
That being said, Ballumborsio acknowledges, “When people call me black in the streets they’re not just calling me that because of the color of my skin but also because of the history of my ancestors…I carry all those past woes and sufferings and stories, but I do not carry that resentment.” Instead, through music, he performs and teaches his culture to all audiences—white Peruvians and tourists included.
As musicians have revived and redefined the Afroperuvian genre, they have brought the distinct sounds of the cajón to a global stage. The Grammy-nominated group NovaLima is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon with their electronic Latin rock sound. Guillermo del Sol, the band’s guitarist, attended high school in Peru but spent much of his life abroad. He explained that the band—few of whom are Afroperuvian themselves—“Heard Afroperuvian music all our lives. It was more like party music. Not something on the radio…it’s celebration music. No one initially listened to it really seriously.”
But it was once again the cajón that drew the band mates into the style. Today, they embrace a sound that draws from instruments from all corners of the world. Del Sol believes that the power and resurgence of Afroperuvian music is in part due to a larger phenomenon, “In the past 15 years, Peru has started looking at its history, its food, its music. We’ve started now appreciating what we have….people don’t know that there are Afroperuvian people in the world”
Ultimately, Del Sol believes passing down these traditions is crucial. “We’ve done a lot of work in Chincha, in El Carmen. We do a lot of outreach there and send instruments to them, teach them how to play them.” He adds with a grin, “And the parties are great. All the people go there.”
When asked why this particular style of music matters to Peru, and to the world at large, Del Sol remarks that “a lot of those lyrics still make a lot of sense and hold a lot of power.” He adds, “We [Peruvians] want our music to have real roots.”
The roots of Afroperuvian music have been painstakingly retraced and relearned within the past half century. It is a reconstruction that Ballumbrosio is thankful for. Ultimately, after relaying the challenging history of his family, he explains, “In spite of all this struggle, there is a wonderful thing,” pausing with a smile, “and that is music.”
Nat Wyatt is a junior in Davenport College majoring in African American Studies. Feel free to contact Nat at firstname.lastname@example.org