Interview: Heidi Feldman, Afro-Peruvian Feature Story
|Interviewers:||Wills Glasspiegel and Simon Rentner|
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Heidi Feldman. She is the author of the award-winning book, Black Rhythms of Peru: Reviving African Musical Heritage in the Black Pacific (Wesleyan University Press, 2006). It’s a fascinating journey into the history of black Peruvian culture, one that raises larger questions about the role of tradition and performance in all modern cultures.
W.G.: Let’s start with the basics – please tell us about your own personal introduction to Afro-Peruvian music.
H.F.: I was in graduate school studying ethnomusicology at UCLA and I had heard a bit of Afro-Peruvian music. I heard Caitro Soto’s performance of Toro Mata on the radio and I really liked it. But what was the turning point was that I went to a concert by Susana Baca, who had recently been “discovered” by David Byrne and promoted in the United States and Europe as a world-music diva of Afro-Peruvian music.
So, I went to a concert by Susana Baca at UCLA and just really fell in love with the musical sound of Afro-Peruvian music — the music is compelling at a gut level and I was just so fascinated with the parallels between what Afro-Peruvian artists have done to re-create their own music and the work that ethnomusicologists do when we seek to understand and sometimes recover musical legacies and genealogies from cultural memory.
I found the history of the revival so fascinating. The more I learned about it, the more interested I became. So, it was a combination of that scholarly interest and loving the music at a gut level.
W.G.: In your book, Black Rhythms of Peru, you talk about Peru as a part of the “Black Pacific.” I think this is a great way for our readers to understand the geography and history associated with black music in Peru. Where does this term come from and what does it mean?
H.F.: I talk about the Black Pacific with specific reference to sociologist Paul Gilroy’s important book published in 1993, The Black Atlantic, where he talks about this transatlantic culture that connects Africa, Europe and the Americas and this metaphor of ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean and bringing forms of culture back and forth between people of African descent in all of those places.
The Black Pacific is a way that I conceptualize the African Diaspora in Peru. I think of the African Diaspora in Peru as being a second diaspora in the Americas, in that Africans were enslaved and brought to the Atlantic coast and sold into slavery there. But in Peru, the forefathers and foremothers of Afro-Peruvians had to make a second journey. If they survived the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean and made it to the Rio De La Plata area or to Cartagena in Northern Columbia, then at that point they would cross by land over to the Pacific Coast. So, they were separated in a sense from the core of the African diaspora.
The citizens of the Black Pacific world on the Pacific coast were isolated to a large extent from these Black Atlantic cultural forms. More had been forgotten. The population of African descent was so much smaller than in places like Brazil or Cuba, where you have a greater perpetuation of African-descended cultural traditions.
In Peru, you did not have that to that extent. You had a lot of slaves brought illegally who maybe had been in other areas. You had a smaller number of slaves. And even the metaphor of water that Paul Gilroy uses to talk about the way that the Black Atlantic forms a kind of world that shares certain cultural expressions—the citizens of the Black Pacific were cut off from that ocean, that metaphor of ships going back-and-forth and bringing culture, as well as bodies and commerce.
Before the 1950s and ‘60s, there was not really a sense of diasporic consciousness. Scholars believe that to be in diaspora, it’s not just the physical separation from your homeland; you have to actually have a state of mind that connects you to your homeland. A longing to return. A sense that you are in diaspora, that you have been separated from your homeland. That’s something black Peruvians didn’t have at that point.
W.G.: Let’s talk more about the history of blacks in Peru.
H.F.: One of the reasons that so much black music is congregated along the coast in Peru is that there’s this history of the descendants of Africans and the descendants of Europeans living primarily in the coastal areas. Because that is where the Spaniards settled and where they brought most of the enslaved Africans who worked a lot in domestic households but also in some rural plantations that tended to be much smaller than the plantations that you found in other parts of the African diaspora.
In terms of some of the numbers, when you asked how many people of African descent are in Peru, it’s kind of difficult to answer that question. At one point in the 16th century, blacks actually constituted about half of the population of Lima. At a point about 100 years later, they actually out-numbered whites in the country. But we have to remember that this is a country that has a huge indigenous population, so they were a very important part of the population only in the coastal cities and in a couple of the coastal / rural regions near there, like Lima and its surroundings.
So, in terms of what it’s like to be black in Lima and what happened to this relatively large population of blacks in Peru—not large in terms of numbers, because the numbers that I’ve seen are, at the highest point of volume there might have been something like 95,000 people of African descent brought to Peru, which is much, much lower than other parts of the African diaspora, like Cuba or Brazil.
But, basically what happens is that eventually Peru becomes independent. They withdraw from the slave trade, but they continue in the 19th century to import enslaved. Africans from the Americas, so you get these very enculturated people of African descent. Perhaps slaves who were born in slavery in the Americas to African parents or enslaved Africans who had already learned to speak Spanish in Spain or in the Antilles region.
Then you get abolition in 1854 and 1855, and fairly rapidly the black population assimilated into what is called the criollo, or the creole, culture of coastal Lima and other cities along the coast in Peru. The way that many people put it to me when I just learning about this, when I made my first journeys to Peru, was that the black population had disappeared. This is kind of the great myth about what happened to the population of African descent and their culture and customs in Peru. By the early 20th century, you had a population of African descent that considered themselves, by and large, to be creoles along with the descendents of Europeans in Peru that shared a set of cultural practices, like foods they would eat, ways of cooking foods, music genres and the habit of getting together in social gatherings called jaranas that would last several days to make particular kinds of music called música criolla, or creole music and to dance the accompanying dances.
There were particular types of humor considered to be the embodiment of criollo culture in Peru so that being criollo was a cultural category instead of a racial category. It was one that both the descendants of Africans and the descendants of Europeans subscribed to. Although, the descendants of Africans were not afforded the same social privileges as white criollos in Peru.
Marisol De La Cadena, who is an anthropologist who studies largely mestizo culture in Peru, talks about something called “silent racism” that exists in Peru. This is very much what happens to the descendants of enslaved Africans who become criollo in Peru. They share a set of cultural practices that are thought to be descended from Europe, but they are not afforded the same social privileges.
For example, you did not have people in positions of social prestige, you did not have people in business, politics or other positions of social prestige who were of African descent in Peru until relatively recently. It was largely the Afro-Peruvian revival of music and dance in the mid-20th century that paved the way for other efforts to address the lack of civil rights and dignity for the descendants of enslaved Africans in Peru.
In terms of numbers, the last time racial data was taken in any census in Peru was 1940. At that point, the Peruvian population was designated as 0.47% of the population of the entire country, so this seems very, very small.
In fact, the black population is definitely a minority in Peru. And definitely much smaller than it is in other parts of the African Diaspora, especially along the Atlantic coast in the Americas. However, this number can also be misleading because when the census taker comes around—and we just went through this in our own country fairly recently—and says, “What race are you? What ethnicity are you?” you make a choice.
W.G.: How is the perception of race different in Peru than it is in the US?
H.F.: In Peru, ethnicity and race are something that one is not necessarily just born into. The notion of whether you’re black or white or any one of the numerous adjectives that can describe skin color and racial or ethnic identity in Peru is something that can come with the process of enculturation, with education, with whether or not you subscribe to the cultural mores that are attributed to that group of people.
If you achieve higher social status by being white or being criollo than you do by being black, then you’re less likely to designate yourself as black when the census taker comes around. So, this is one thing in terms of percentage of the population. It is true that many people of African descent did die because they were forced to fight in wars for the Peruvian country or because of the hardships of slavery, so many, many did disappear in that sense. But, the entire black population of Peru and their customs did not. In Latin America in general, the idea of race is very different than it tends to be in the United States. In the United States, at least ideologically, many people still believe in what was referred to as the one-drop rule, which essentially held that anyone of African descent was considered black in our country. Many people still perceive people in this way.
In Latin America, and in Peru as part of Latin America, that’s not really the case. Racial and ethnic designations are more cultural than biological, so that one could be born of African descent but not consider oneself black. One can change one’s racial or ethnic designation throughout the period of one’s lifetime. There is a greater degree of fluidity, is how best to describe it, in the way that race is conceived and ethnic identity is conceived in Peru and in the rest of Latin American in general. This is why before the Afro-Peruvian revival, Raúl Romero, a Peruvian scholar who wrote an article on the Afro-Peruvian revival that was published some years ago, talked about the notion that before the Afro-Peruvian revival, blacks were not perceived as a separate ethnic group in Peru. By and large, they did not consider themselves to be a separate ethnic group—at least in the period of the 20th century when they perceived themselves as belonging to the criollo culture that they shared with the descendants of white Europeans.
Now, what’s tricky about this is, while you would think that perhaps leads to a situation where there’s less racial prejudice or less discrimination against people of color, in fact, that’s not the case. Because, despite the fact that blacks in Peru and in other parts of Latin America might strive to become criollo or to become “less black” than they might be because of their parental heritage, they still are treated differently than people with lighter skin color [who] tend to be treated better than people with darker skin color—even in recent years. There was a recent case where a restaurant in Peru was found not to be admitting people of color. There have been complaints for a long time that establishments where people go dancing in Peru do not admit people with darker skin. So, the types of racial discrimination that you see all over the world against people of color definitely exist in Peru, despite this notion that one can become “less black” during one’s lifetime. The other thing that I need to mention is that there has been a high degree of inter-marriage between the racial and ethnic groups in Peru, producing people who consider themselves to be mestizo, who consider themselves to be a mixture of different racial and ethnic groups. So, things are not really quite as cut and dried in terms of race and ethnicity in Peru as they might be in many parts of the United States.
W.G.: In your book, you talk about “jaranas” as a center for black and criollo culture in Peru. Tell us more.
H.F.: I’ve never actually been to one of the jaranas before the Afro-Peruvian revival, but I can imagine with you what it might have been like. One of the important things about imagining that we’re at a jarana of old days in Peru—at least the way that they are remembered as a symbol in the Afro-Peruvian revival—is that they tended to take place in places called callejones, which were basically communal living areas that would have multiple residences built around a common outdoor hallway that had, maybe, one tap that had running water and a common laundry area.
It formed a community and these callejones, which existed in old Lima, tended to be in neighborhoods that had many residents of Afro-Peruvian descent, as well as white criollos and criollos of other ethnic origin—people of Asian descent and other ethnic groups who share this criollo culture in the 20th century.
At the callejones or even in private dwellings, scholars who’ve written about the jaranas talk about how they would go on for between four days and a week. They would close the door and no one was allowed to leave during the time period when this was happening. Basically, you have a celebration of this criollo culture going on in the callejones or in the private dwelling for days on end where people are playing música criolla.
They’re playing valses, which are the Peruvian creole version of the European waltz. They’re playing the marinera which is one of the musical genres that people who subscribe to this criollo culture consider to be kind of a national dance for them or a national form of music making — the quintessence of criollismo, or the essence of being criollo.
Then there are certain dances that go with these musical genres that you will be performing. If you’re not playing music or dancing, then you are performing the particular handclaps. If a marinera is being performed and it’s in a triple-meter, everyone who is not doing something like dancing or playing music or singing, is clapping along with a special hand clap that goes along with the beat. It goes three-one, three-one, three-one [claps].
W.G.: That sounds great! What else defines criollo culture in Peru?
H.F.: There is comida criollo, the style of cooking that has evolved over the years through this mixture of racial and ethnic groups along the coast that is also an embodiment of música criolla. There might be displays of humor and jokes.
Ultimately what happens is that if you’re at this jarana, you are coming together with people who share your culture of criollismo. You are celebrating it through these cultural attributes: music, dance, food, humor, drink. And you’re coming together to not only celebrate this culture, but to perpetuate it through these musical and other cultural practices at the jarana. And I don’t mean to say that jaranas don’t exist any more because they do. People still hold jaranas in Peru.
But I think that if you go to hear any of the great performers of música criolla in Peru or in this country—because they tour through this country all of the time and often perform at venues in Peruvian communities in the United States. So, if you hear people like Lucila Campos, Oscar Aviles, Arturo Zambo Cavero … if you hear Eva Ayllón who lives in this country as a great performer of música criolla — many of these performers also perform Afro-Peruvian music.
I’m thinking about a night when I lived in Los Angeles and was doing a lot of field work in the Peruvian-American community there. I attended an event by Lucila Campos, who is not only a great performer of música criolla but also was the vocalist for the group Peru Negro during their golden age and is a great performer of Afro-Peruvian music.
She gave a performance that evening that alternated between Afro-Peruvian music and música criolla attended by largely white Peruvian criollos, mestizo Peruvians who subscribe to this criollo coastal culture who are now located in Los Angeles. The sense of patriotism of love for their country was so thick, you could cut it with a knife in the air.
This spirit is communicated through some of the lyrics which are very patriotic. The heightened sense of emotion in the singer’s voice is sometimes part of it. The way the criollo guitar players learn to play. The jarana style of playing, I’ve often been told by Peruvian guitar players, is to pluck your instrument really, really strongly because picture yourself: you’re the guitar player at this party surrounded by all of these people singing at the top of their lungs, dancing and you need to be heard. And there’s no microphone.
So you make your guitar sound like an orchestra. Oscar Aviles, a great criollo guitar player, can sound like he is several people playing the guitar at once. It’s because of necessity that criollo guitar players have evolved this style of playing, so that’s part of it—part of hearing the sound of the jarana. Then the participatory aspect is really important, too.
W.G.: What’s the philosophy behind this culture?
H.F.: There’s this sense of romanticism about the music. That might have a sense of patriotism to it, as well, because the patriotism that I’m talking about is really a sense of love for the shared culture that is being practiced. So, the lyrics don’t have to be about Peru, necessarily. They can just conjure up images of colonial Lima.
This is important as we get toward the Afro-Peruvian revival in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s as Lima is changing. As the Lima where this criollo culture grew up amongst the descendants of Europeans and Africans and other racial and ethnic groups on the coast is being swallowed up by these tremendous migrations of Andean peasants, of indigenous and mestizo people from the highland regions of Peru who are bringing their culture, who are extending the boundaries of the city of Lima and tapping into electricity and creating, not only an enlarged city, but also a changed cultural environment.
So, the lyrics of the songs and the shared culture of performing these songs and dances together, in a sense, preserves the Lima that no longer is. The Lima that is remembered: colonial Lima and the Lima before the Andean waves of migration.
W.G.: How does Afro-Peruvian music emerge from the jaranas and from criollo culture?
H.F.: When I would talk to people about, “Well, what started all of this? What began the Afro-Peruvian revival?” everyone would talk about this show that happened in 1956 by the Pancho Fierro Company at one of Lima’s most important theaters, the Municipal Theatre of Lima, which has since burned down.
Then what was even more interesting was that when I did a little bit of research about this show, I found out that the show was actually directed and conceived and produced by someone who was not Afro-Peruvian at all, but a white criollo folklorist and scholar named José Durand. He was a frequent participant in the jaranas, whose family connected him to this criollo culture and who knew some of the great jaraneros, the great musicians and singers and perpetuators of this culture.
José Durand was a scholar, but he really believed that the culture that these elderly jaraneros held in their minds and in their practice was as important as what could be learned from books. Jose Durand had a tremendous collection of books. I went to the Jose Durand Collection at Notre Dame in Indiana where they have his collection of thousands and thousands of books.
He was a scholar of the colonial era and he loved the colonial era. So, during this period when Lima was being transformed and colonial Lima clearly was going to be no longer by the 1950s, at this point, there was not really a sense amongst many Afro-Peruvians that there was something called Afro-Peruvian culture and Afro-Peruvian music. In fact, the term “Afro-Peruvian” was not even used until later in the 1960s—we’re talking about the 1950s now.
There had been a few shows, a few efforts, to collect what might have been left of black or African descended music and dance in Peru prior to the 1950s. There was a show in the 1930s by a company called the Ricardo Palma Company that included a few of what might have been termed at that time “old black songs,” songs that maybe some of the few families of African descent in the rural areas outside of Lima still remembered and practiced.
So, there were these fragments that were out there, that were remembered. But they were not really shared publicly or publicly acknowledged because there wasn’t a sense that there was something that was separate from criollo culture that was called black culture at that time in Peru.
W.G.: What motivated Durand to do this?
H.F.: Jose Durand, during this period was motivated by what I tend to think of and have termed as “criollo nostalgia” for the era before the Andean waves of migration when criollo culture was kind of invented in Lima. He wanted to get together a bunch of black Peruvian musicians and dancers and actors. Young people, largely, from these kinds of royal families that had maintained and preserved Black Peruvian culture in the form of music and dance. He wanted to put what they could remember together and celebrate the origins of criollo culture and old, black songs once again.
So, he put together this show that involved members of these few Black Peruvian families who remembered bits and pieces. Porfirio Vasquez had come down to Lima from Aucallama and brought a family here that became one of the leading families in Afro-Peruvian music and dance. And Porfirio Vasquez remembered the art of writing décimas. He knew black Peruvian music and dance, and he was hired in the ’40s to teach in one of the folklore academies that was established by the government at that time. He was a leading culture bearer.
He became a consultant to Jose Durand and worked with Jose Durand and all of these other black Peruvian families to come up with a show that put together skits, largely depicting plantation days and times of slavery. Songs also often depicting what slave life was like in colonial Lima. And this was a show that was presented for over 1,000 people.
The company existed for just about two years. The first show was in 1956. They played shows, they toured in Peru a little bit and then they had a disastrous tour in Chile in 1957. It was actually on the tour in Chile that Nicomedes Santa Cruz joined the company. Nicomedes Santa Cruz became the next leader of the Afro-Peruvian revival after this period with José Durand when he formed his own company.
Nicomedes Santa Cruz was brought on at that point as a decimista and he wrote his famous décima, “Black Rhythms of Peru,” or Ritmos Negros del Peru” for the show in Chile. But, by 1958, the tour to Chile had been a total financial disaster and for various reasons, the Pancho Fierro Company fell apart. But it gave birth to all of these companies that spun off of the Pancho Fierro Company.
So, you had numerous companies that tended now to be led by Black Peruvians. And you had the second phase of the revival. José Durand had started the practice of trying to revive these old Afro-Peruvian songs and dances.
El son de los diablos is the example that I talk about in my book, where he combined the methods of art and ethnography to come up with the missing pieces of what was left out of cultural memory and what cultural memory didn’t recall of Peruvian music and dance.
El son de los diablos is an interesting model for the process that came to infuse the Afro-Peruvian revival, the process for taking a music that is remembered in fragments and creating enough to put on stage as a representation of Afro-Peruvian culture, music and dance.
Diablos means “devil.” Son is a generic term in Spanish for “song” or “musical sound.” And el son de los diablos was descended from the Corpus Christi festivals of Spain. It was an old tradition that started out in the churches and then was sent out into the streets as a kind of secular celebration during Carnival time.
El son de los diablos involved, generally, Afro-Peruvian performers who would go out in the streets during Carnival time, dressed like devils and accompanied by musicians— typically performing guitar, and we know from Pancho Fierro’s paintings that there was a large harp instrument used at one point, and the cajita, which is a smaller version of the cajón. It’s a wooden box, held around one’s neck and suspended with a rope, that has a lid that opens and closes and makes a percussive sound. It can also be hit on the side or the top with either one’s hand or a wooden stick.
So, you had these performers going out in the street during Carnival time dressed like devils and then performing choreography. Each group was a gang, or a cuadrilla, that went out in the street with its group and performed special dances. There’s documentation that there were figures that were performed—often the shape of a cross. Or devils would challenge each other to perform these incredibly acrobatic stunts where they were doing flips and twists in the air, and then coming down tap dancing, let’s say. A lot of zapateo, or Peruvian-style tap dancing was involved.
Well, Pancho Fierro had a painting of El Son de los Diablos that shows us what musical instruments were used. It also shows us that there was what looks like a chief devil or diablo major, who was larger than all of the other devils and wore a big, grotesque mask over his face. It shows a sense of acrobaticism about the dancing. It shows a particular costume that had tiered knicker pants.
These are the costumes that the Pancho Fierro Company used. It may be that those costumes were only used by one group of diablos that Pancho Fierro painted, but to this day, when “el son de de los diablos” is performed in Lima, they use that costume because that’s the documentation that we have historically.
José Durand also worked with some consultants who had previously marched in the streets performing “el son de de los diablos” during Carnival. He had a couple of former diablos from whom he learned the rhythms that were performed on cajita and quijada, the jawbone, which is also used in “el son de de los diablos.” They taught those rhythms.
W.G.: What about the guitar part?
H.F.: Vicente Vásquez was a very important guitarist in the Afro-Peruvian revival. He created many of the melodies that are now standards for the classic Afro-Peruvian songs that were revived. He also created the guitar melody that goes along with el son de los diablos.
Where did Vicente Vásquez get his melody for guitar? I don’t know if it was similar to any melody that was performed in the street, but it’s the one that was invented for the Pancho Fierro show and it became the melody for el son de los diablos, although variations of it are performed.
W.G.: And the dances?
H.F.: The dances that are performed today and that were revived by José Durand—a lot of zapateo, a lot of tap dancing. There’s been some creative choreography by groups that have revived this dance since then. But this was the first major show in the revival and there was only so far they could go with ethnography, with documentation. Some of it had to be filled in.
W.G.: And so what was Durand’s role? What did he add to the songs?
H.F.: José Durand said he remembered that his Aunt Catalina taught him how to walk to a song that she referred to as El Son de los Diablos. This song was similar to a children’s nursery rhyme. The lyrics are about this monkey, so it’s a nursery rhyme-like song that José Durand remembered from childhood.
Remember that José Durand comes from this family that is very versed in old musical traditions of Lima. So, José Durand, talking with the former diablos who were consulting with him about the way that the rhythms were played on cajita and quijada, determined that the sounds lined up exactly with the cajita and quijada parts that these former diablos showed him. He felt this was evidence that it was, in fact, the authentic song for El Son de los Diablos.
W.G.: What’s the big picture here? What are some of the over-arching themes behind the Afro-Peruvian revival?
H.F.: I’m not sure that the revivalist concern is exclusive to Peru. I think there have been revivals in many countries around the world. Revivals tend to happen at a time when it’s important to get something back that was lost. Or at a time when perhaps a particular group feels that its past is slipping away from it. Or perhaps at a time when conditions make it possible to revive something.
For specific reasons that maybe had to do with criollo nostalgia that was invoked by the waves of Andean migrants coming to Lima, José Durand wanted to revive black Peruvian songs as part of a way of reviving the colonial era. The agenda of Nicomedes Santa Cruz and Victoria Santa Cruz and Peru Negro and the next waves of the revival were very different.
It was more about reconnecting to the African Diaspora. And here I think it might be appropriate to touch upon what I term the concept of the “Black Pacific,” which is a way that I conceptualize the African Diaspora in Peru and perhaps a reason why there’s that sense of tugging at the chest about the music of the revival. Why it’s so important to come up with the authentic version. What’s the difference? It’s a show.
You can just create what you want. But no, it was very important to the leaders of the Afro-Peruvian revival to reclaim that past. I think it was exceedingly important for Peruvians of African decent.
Black Peruvians felt, first of all, when you think about Peru, you think about the great kingdom of the Incas. Many people both in and outside of Peru don’t know that there were ever people of African descent there. At the time when the leaders of the Afro-Peruvian revival were going to school, they weren’t really taught about their ancestors of African descent.
There was not really a sense of diasporic consciousness. Scholars of diaspora say that to be in diaspora, it’s not just the physical separation from your homeland; you have to actually have a state of mind that connects you to your homeland. A longing to return. A sense that you are in diaspora, that you have been separated from your homeland. That’s something Black Peruvians didn’t have at that point.
I think being part of this Black Pacific condition, there are many critics of the Afro-Peruvian revival. People that I met when I was doing my research in Peru who would say, “Why would you want to study that music? That was all made up in the 1960s. None of it is authentic.”
I think this is a way to trivialize the fact that traditions are invented. They may be more or less invented due to the circumstances that are faced by groups who need to have those traditions. More may have been forgotten about black Peruvian music than some of the musics in some of those other places. So, maybe Afro-Peruvian music is very invented.
But that very-invented music is still black Peruvian music and it really carries with it the unique way that black Peruvians re-imagined their past and identity that became the identity that elevated black Peruvians to the main stages of Lima in the 1960s. [It] really was the first movement to recognize that black Peruvians had ancestors that came from Africa who contributed to the culture of coastal Lima and [it] paved the way for groups that didn’t come along until the 1980s and 1990s that were the first movements for civil rights for blacks in Peru.
W.G.: They just invented a tradition and re-wrote a history that had been partly forgotten?
H.F.: Maybe it seems different to you because of the very invented quality of it, but there are traditions that are invented all over the world at different periods of time. I guess the situation with Afro-Peruvian music is just how, because blacks were, to some extent, socially invisible at the time of the revival, to have this repertoire that gradually emerged that speaks to a past that many people didn’t think of as having existed before that, is perhaps a little bit different or a little more unusual.
For me, the process of becoming more familiar with the details of the Afro-Peruvian revival—or at least the details that were remembered by my consultants who kindly shared their memory of the revival with me—it makes me look at and question a little bit more many of the traditions that we don’t think of as being invented in other parts of the world, those that we accept as maybe having been continuously preserved and that may have more invented qualities than we realize.
W.G.: Fascinating. What’s next? What happened after Durand’s company collapsed? Tell us about the next stage of the revival.
H.F.: Nicomedes Santa Cruz and Victoria Santa Cruz came along in the 1960s. Nicomedes Santa Cruz coming straight out of the Pancho Fierro Company and then Victoria Santa Cruz, his sister, joined him as leader of the company Cumanana in the early 1960s.
Their agenda was very different. Their agenda was inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States. It was inspired by the fact that there were African independence movements going on at this time in Africa where people of color and people of African descent were rising up against European colonialism and against prejudice against people of color.
Their first inspiration was the Katherine Dunham Company from the United States. Katherine Dunham was a very important African-American anthropologist, choreographer, dancer and Hollywood film star. She had a company that had gone through the Americas and [she] used what she called her “art to ethnography” method to celebrate the cultural traditions of the African Diaspora. She staged them as choreographed dances.
She came with her company to Lima’s Municipal Theatre in 1951 and Nicomedes Santa Cruz and Victoria Santa Cruz were in the audience. This, according to Victoria, with whom I spent three very intense afternoons in Lima when I was doing my research for my book, and also according to some things that Nicomedes Santa Cruz wrote, this was the moment when they realized they could do something. They were there in Lima’s Municipal Theater and they had never seen this kind of celebration of Black culture.
To see this in Lima was so inspiring for them. Victoria said to me this is when she realized, “We have to do something. We have to do something like this.”
One thing I should be clear about is that there were several years between the Katherine Dunham show in 1951 in Lima’s Municipal Theatre and the first show that Nicomedes Santa Cruz and Victoria Santa Cruz directed in 1960 in Lima’s Municipal Theater with their company, Cumanana.
Nicomedes Santa Cruz, in the meantime, had started to work with the Pancho Fierro Company in 1957 as a decimista. Nicomedes Santa Cruz was many things. He really was an incredible individual. If there had been no Nicomedes Santa Cruz, I can’t even imagine what black music would be like in Peru because it was his leadership that did so much for people of African descent and for the arts of the black community in Peru. He was a poet, first and foremost, a decimista.
W.G.: Tell us more about décimas.
H.F.: The décima is a form of poetry, involving 10-line strophes,that came to the Americas from Spain. Nicomedes Santa Cruz was involved in not only preserving the décima in Peru, but also converting it into a vehicle to talk about racism, international issues going on in the world and to politicize it. And also use it as a form on the mass media.
He had many, many books of his own décimas he composed that he published and he was coached and mentored in learning to write décimas by Porfirio Vaáquez, Don Porfirio, the very important consultant who was also used in the Pancho Fierro show whom I mentioned before. So, he was a decimista.
He also had a television program. He was a journalist. He had a weekly column in a Peruvian newspaper and he wrote occasional columns in other newspapers on themes from poetry to Afro-Peruvian history to criollo culture. He was a cultural critic essentially.
W.G.: Sounds like quite a guy.
H.F.: He was a producer, a musician, a folklorist and a community scholar. All of this and he had a grammar-school education. He was a blacksmith by trade before he started the Afro-Peruvian revival. Then he realized that he could make a living as a decimista and he became a decimista as a profession. Then he went on to lead the Afro-Peruvian revival.
So, Nicomedes Santa Cruz first starts the musical theatre company, Cumanana. And then a little bit later, he invites his sister, Victoria, to join him as co-director of the company. I believe Nicomedes started the company in 1958 and Victoria joined in 1959. They had their first show in 1960 and things are beginning to look very different now.
We talked about the sense of criollo nostalgia that infused José Durand’s Pancho Fierro Company and the show that they performed. It’s with Nicomedes Santa Cruz [that] “afro” begins to be used instead of the term “negro,” or “black” in Spanish. Now we have música afroperuana, Afro-Peruvian music, referring, of course, to Africa. So that instead of this sense of the black songs that were part of criollo culture in colonial Lima, now Nicomedes Santa Cruz and his sister Victoria are making an explicit connection to this Black Atlantic world that the Black Pacific is cut off from, to the rest of the African Diaspora, and to Africa, where independence movements have been going on.
Nicomedes and Victoria were both really important leaders during the 1960s in the Afro-Peruvian revival, but they had very different approaches. Nicomedes was incredible in the sense that he did incredible research with the tools that were available to him. He was a lay scholar. He put together theories about the origins of Afro-Peruvian music by reading what he could. He was very well read in terms of the experience of the African Diaspora and other places and the slave trade. [He put] together what bits and pieces were available to him, so he used the tools of folklore and ethnography, going and collecting bits and pieces of remembered décimas and festejos from elders in the community.
Victoria was very different. Nicomedes unfortunately passed away in 1992, so I didn’t have a chance to meet him. He died in Spain. Victoria Santa Cruz had just moved back to Lima when I began doing my research there. She taught at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh for many years, actually, but retired to Lima.
So, I had the opportunity to hear about all of this in her own words. Although, going to talk to Victoria is really quite an experience. She’s a cross between a philosopher and a poet and a sage. You can tell she’s a dancer as soon as you see her just by the way that she moves and the way that she sits. She is young beyond her years.
W.G.: Wow. Please tell us more about what it was like to meet the inimitable Victoria Cruz.
H.F.: She talked with me about this method she developed, and ancestral memory. Essentially, Victoria would do things like turn out the lights and light a candle. Then, she’d have everyone reach inside themselves and try to hear the silenced voice of their ancestors.
During the Afro-Peruvian revival, she re-created one of the most important dances that has lived on as a standard in terms of the genres that have come to embody and represent Peru’s African heritage, the landó. Victoria, according to what she told me, re-created the landó by remembering it with her body.
Rather than looking at books and talking to elders, Victoria looked inside herself to try and hear or to feel what had been silenced for many years and to go back and retrieve it as a continued form of communication with her ancestors.
This is a different way of referring to ancestral memory than, say, the way that the Negritude poets or people who refer to communicating with the ancestors in a ceremony of Afro-Cubans with Santeria might use it. It’s a very personal sense, the way she talks about ancestral memory. This was a very liberating and empowering thing for many of her protégées.
W.G.: So did you try it out? Did ancestral memory work?
H.F.: Oh, I didn’t do it with her. [laughs] Had I been able to take one of her classes at Carnegie Mellon, it’s possible. And if you have any listeners who’ve taken Victoria’s classes there, because she did teach for many years, but I don’t know to what extent she was able to pass her method along to those people.
At first, she really felt that the method she had developed was a method that was about African ancestry and remembering African origins and African cultural expressions. Then she reached this point where, she writes, that she realized the method she had developed was cosmic, that it was something that could be translated across racial or ethnic groups. So, she had a very strong interest in sharing.
Actually, Victoria is now working with a group of doctors on a way of fusing rhythm and healing—a project about health and rhythm she has. And she published a book recently about Rhythm: The Eternal Organizer that contains many of her philosophical sayings and the types of the things she would say to me when I was Lima.
Victoria’s very interesting. I would ask her questions about, “What did the landó choreography look like, exactly?” Then she would answer by talking about the cosmos and the solar plexus and these very philosophical, deeper meanings of everything.
The landó is so important in the Afro-Peruvian revival largely because of the symbolism that is has come to take on in the years since the revival. People often refer to the landó—if you talk about it with those who are familiar with Afro-Peruvian music—as the mother of all African rhythms in Peru.
What’s interesting is that this may actually be one of the most recently invented. Getting to the earlier question about whether the Afro-Peruvian revival is unique or different because of its high degree of inventedness … there was very little documentation about the landó at the time of the Afro-Peruvian revival. But Nicomedes and Victoria Santa Cruz did remember a fragment of a song that a relative used to sing. They remembered hearing this when they were younger, and that was all they remembered.
Then in the community, Augusto Asquez also remembered a very similar fragment. And Vicente Vásquez composed a guitar introduction that was basically very similar to the cadence of that fragment. They added additional instrumentation with the cajón. The cajón and the guitar, of course, are core instruments of música criolla, so the guitar and the cajón are used, as well as the bongó, the bell, hand claps and vocals to create the first recorded landó ever. It was created using these methods that José Durand had employed to recreate son de los diablos for the Pancho Fierro show.
So this combination of ethnography, or pulling things from cultural memory and elders in the community, and then elaboration because there wasn’t enough remembered to have a complete song. They put together the fragments and the musical arrangement with the help of Vicente Vásquez. And then Nicomedes Santa Cruz did something which he later apologized for and felt very bad about.
In the spirit of the day, in the spirit of rushing to say, “Look at us. Look at black Peruvians. We were here. We were in Peru. We have a history. Our ancestors came from Africa,” he composed a second verse that was not part of the “authentic” folklore that was being re-created in the revival.
The words of this second verse were words that he made up that sounded African. In one of his later publications, he calls them something like “arbitrary Afroid verbiage.” It goes into the second verse and all of a sudden you hear these words that sound very African if you don’t know any African languages.
What they accomplish is that they make the song sound more like it came from Africa, validating this past that Afro-Peruvians are desperately seeking to reclaim during the Afro-Peruvian revival.
Part of the agenda here is that Nicomedes Santa Cruz not only recreated the landó, but he created a whole genealogy of which the landó was the centerpiece. The genealogy essentially proved that música criolla was not just of European heritage but also of African heritage.
The way it did this was that Nicomedes Santa Cruz asserted that there was a couple dance called lundu that came from Angola in Africa. This dance had been disseminated throughout the African Diaspora and the Americas and [Nicomedes believed] that it had been the progenitor of over 50 couple dances, including things like the rumba, the kalinda, the samba and all of these different dances all over the Americas.
Then he said that the lundu in its form in Peru was the landó. So, the Peruvian landó had come from the lundu from Africa.
W.G.: What did this accomplish?
H.F.: Basically this asserted that música criolla had not just European origins, but also African origins. Because the marinera, the essence of criollismo, came from the lundu. It may have come from other places, as well, but one of the sources was the lundu, according to Nicomedes Santa Cruz, which eventually in the middle time period was the landó.
Now, scholars have searched in vain for documentation of this lundu actually coming to Peru or being related in any way to the landó. It’s actually believed that Nicomedes Santa Cruz had made a very influential trip to Brazil where there actually was a dance called the lundu, which was extensively documented by Portuguese chroniclers which did descend from an African dance.
So, some people believe that he knew there was something called land in Peru at one time and then he noted that those two words were very similar and thought, “Well, Brazil may have had some of the same ancestors from the same area as we did.” So, it’s difficult to say to what extent this theory is true. It’s never been proven definitively one way or the other.
But, more than any other scholars with college degrees, Nicomedes Santa Cruz, with a grammar-school education, was able to make his theory so popularized that many people will tell you today that the marinera came from the landó which came from the lundu which came from Africa.
In fact, there are people who have told me that that song is one of the strongest pieces of evidence of the persistence of African heritage in Peru. So, it is actually not very well known that this verse was invented by Nicomedes Santa Cruz in his eagerness to make the case that black people were here in Peru and that their ancestors came from Africa.
W.G.: That’s fascinating! Heidi, I would love to talk more with you, especially about the prolific band Peru Negro, the criollo / Afro-Peruvian cross-over appeal of Eva Ayllón, and the more recent innovations of Susana Baca, but alas, we’ll have to refer our readers to the Hip Deep radio broadcast and to your book (Black Rhythms of Peru) to find out more about the fascinating history of Afro-Peruvian music. Heidi Feldman, thanks for being with us.