Songs of Joy and Suffering from the Black Community

Peru’s black community lives mainly along the Pacific coast, in the capital Lima and in the region to the south of Lima, Ica, especially in the coastal towns of Canette and Chincha. 

The Afro-Peruvian population, comprising both blacks and mixed blacks, is about 300,000, making up less than 1% of the total Peruvian population. This figure is only an approximation, however, as the 2005 and 2006 censuses were politically manipulated under the presidency of Alan García. But the unavailability of precise figures does not hide the fact that the majority of Afro-Peruvians are extremely poor, and there are no specific policies in place to help them. Because of its small size and its origins, the Afro-Peruvian community considers itself more economically deprived and powerless even than the Sierra Indians. Both communities – one more urban, the other essentially rural – face similar problems of poverty, racism and social exclusion inherited from a common colonial past to which the present ultra-liberal model provides no solution.

El Carmen: Soul and Memory
The district of El Carmen in the province of Chincha is considered the historical and cultural centre of the Afro-Peruvian community, and it is in the small agglomerations of El Carmen, San José and Guyabo that the black population is most concentrated today. The abolition of slavery in Peru dates from the military campaigns of San Martín (1778-1850), an Argentine humanist, liberal and independence campaigner. He was the first to free the black men who had fought with him, as well as black new-borns. Incidentally, it was in the region of Ica, in Pisco, not far from El Carmen, that the Libertador, as he is called, disembarked with his troops in September of 1820 to march on Lima and liberate Peru from Spain. But it was Ramón Castilla (1797-1867), several times president of Peru, who some 30 years later gave the blacks constitutional freedom – though they had to have the means to purchase it! Traces of the black community’s painful history are still visible in El Carmen, at the hacienda San José, one of the last haciendas of the Pacific coast of Peru, today converted into a hotel.

The early slaves worked in the cotton fields and vineyards of the big latifundia. They mixed both Indian and Spanish elements into their rhythms and songs, but the “African” stamp of their music persisted and  their descendants today continue to vehicle this identity, as illustrated by the festejos and landós recorded here, styles that are still very popular. There also still exists a specifically Afro-Peruvian dialect, the replanaI, and the typical oratory duels, or cumanana, have also survived.

Various influences and cross-overs characterise this relatively unknown heritage. It was probably through the meeting between the music of the early African slaves, the lundu, and the music of the Indians that the lundero arose, which later evolved into the landó.

Similarly, the marinera, which at the beginning of the 20th century became the emblematic dance of the white farm-owners and of the higher social classes, has its direct origins in the popular zamacueca, which developed out of the Peruvian blacks’ lundu and the Spanish jota. In turn, the middle classes’ marinera travelled back to the blacks’ palemques (workers’ living quarters), and became, accompanied by one or several cajones and by characteristic playing of the guitar, the tondero negro and, in Lima, the marinera limenia, two typically Afro-Peruvian styles of music.

As for the festejo genre (from the Spanish fiesta, or festival), represented by several recordings on this CD, and the torrid dance form of the same name, they are emblematic of the Afro-Peruvian community. They are related to the coastal sugar-cane culture, legend having it that the festejo was created by somebody drunk on cane alcohol. But another legend, more realistic and probably complementary to the first, attributes the origins of the festejo to love-making gestures and the symbolism of desire. The festejo has unquestionable sexual connotations and simulates games of seduction between lovers. The dancing is very rhythmical and consists essentially of the man using a small torch to set alight a cloth tied to his partner’s buttocks, while she, in a very short skirt, manoeuvres out of the way using passionate hip-movements (vacuneo) to excite his desire…
The festejo exists in many variations, but all of them, whether sung or danced, are seductive.

The Cajón
In their state of deprivation, the slaves substituted boxes and crates used in harvesting and fishing for their traditional percussion instruments, and thus created the principle of the cajón. The Peruvian cajón has a natural resonance in virtue of its being entirely of wood, which gives a special sound, somewhere between a pair of drums’ and a bongo’s. Some Western-made cajones contain metal parts to make the timbre keener. The cajón is about 50 cm high and 30 cm wide and deep, with a hole at the back of about 10 cm in diameter to allow the sound to escape. The cajón is placed between the legs and played in a sitting position. The sounds it produces differ according to the parts of the front of the instrument hit with the hands, the higher tones being produced on the upper parts and the lower tones on the central and lower parts. After spreading through South and Central America, the cajón was introduced to Europe, amongst others in Flamenco music, from the 1970s.

The Yoruba Agüe group is made up of professional musicians largely from the black and mixed-black, but also from the Indian, communities, reflecting the particular cultural mix of this part of the Peruvian coast. As often happens in economically deprived communities, the musicians in these areas, in order to survive, generally follow the tastes of an audience under the spell of often low quality mass-market radio and television programmes. In this context, and considering the brutal social and racial inequalities in Peru, the identity approach of the Yorube Agüe group is significant by its contribution to renewing Afro-Peruvian traditions. 

In parallel to her fight for the recognition of Afro-Peruvian culture and identity, Patty Chumbianca also works as a cabaret singer, enjoying success with the local population. Recordings made in July 2007 in El Carmen and September 2008 in Pisco.  

CD tracks

  1.  Vamos a bailar landó  (landó) - "Let’s Dance the Landó"
    "Here, this is the black rhythm of the
    landó for you to dance to, Sir."

  2. A tu manera (festejo) - "Your Own Way"
    "Our grandparents danced it,
    Today you and I dance it,
    And in the future our children will.
    Long live folklore!"

  3. Negra fea  (zamacueca) - "The Ugly Black Girl"
    "Juana Rosa’s daughter, Juan Miguel’s fiancée,
     her face is uglier than a chimpanzee’s…"

  4. Negrita Filomena  (festejo) - "Filomena, Little Black Girl"
    Negrita Filomena is very coquette, the song tells us. She likes to party but she refuses to comb her hair... Poor little head, poor Filomena!

  5. Negro soy  (festejo) - "I’m Black" 
    "There’s one colour on Earth
    That never fades or rubs away.
    We the black people are
    A very sublime race"

  6. Festejo Chinchano (festejo) - "Festejo of Chincha"
    La Violeta is a very coquette woman, but nobody likes her because she’s free and easy!  The song is an invitation to come and have fun in El Carmen and in San José, where the mixed-race and black women have got it all…

  7. Ritmo Negro (festejo)  - "Black Rhythm"
    Song dedicated to Afro-Peruvian rhythms and

  8. La Natividad chinchana (panalivio y habanera) - "Christmas in Chincha"
    "A child is born; freedom shines in its little half-moon mouth."

  9. Ven a la fiesta (festejo) - "Come to the Party"
    A man incites his wife to do herself up for the party.

  10. Chincha, perla negra (festejo) "Chincha, Black Pearl"
    "Chincha, pearl of the South
    Land of the festejo and of the landó…"

  11. Saca la mano (festejo) - "Raise Your Hand"
    "Raise your hand and move your feet,
    Raise your head, or you will lose it"

  12. Mi alcatras (festejo) - "My Pelican"
    The slaves have been freed. At the ensuing party, the beautiful Soledad calls one of them to dance with her. The choir wonders whether he will give in to temptation…
    "¿Quema que no?"
    "Will he burn or won’t he?"

  13. Yoruba (festejo afro)  
    "Let us unite to defend our traditions."

  14. Ingá (festejo)
    A mother is cooking, taking care her child doesn’t burn itself.

  15. Lucio Gotito (festejo)
    This song tells the story of Lucio Godito, who was born in El Carmen and used to be a slave in San Regis and San José. Now Lucio Gotito farms his own land and lives with his family, a free and happy man. 

  16. Libertad chinchana (panalivio – fuga de festejo) - "Chincha’s Freedom"
    An ode to freedom regained, in recognition of president Ramón Castilla who abolished black slavery and Indian tribute-money in 1854. 

  17. Decimas
    Poem dedicated to Chincha and its population, praising its sportspeople, its education, the beauty of its women, etc.