Alright, so I’ll grant that the complete moral hypocrisy of slavery was settled long ago, but in colonial-era Peru it was taken to particularly brazen heights.
Cotton barons who apparently had no qualms about taking fellow human beings from their families and forcing them into lives of servitude were outraged–outraged!–by the pulsating African rhythms and dances they saw slaves performing after long days in the fields.
So they did what any sensible tyrant would do: They banned “skinned” drums like congas–the source of the unholy gyrations–and wiped their hands of the whole matter.
But as any viewer of the movie Footloose would know, you can’t place a ban on the human spirit. You can’t ban dancin’! The slaves began playing chairs, boxes, donkey jaw bones–heck, anything they could find that made a nice noise. And out of this, a new form of music, Afro-Peruvian music, was born.
I became fascinated by this joyous, pulsing, utterly unique musical form after a visit in February to a Noche de Percusión at La Noche jazz club in Barranco. The monthly celebration of Afro-Peruvian beats is put on by Rafael Santa Cruz, an internationally-known legend of the genre. It features musicians from throughout Peru, but mostly from Chincha, the cradle of Afro-Peruvian music that served as the epicenter of Peru’s slave plantation culture more than two centuries ago.
I’ve been going religiously ever since, and am continually amazed by the volume, intensity and sheer spirit that can be wrought from the simplest of instruments.
Take the cajon. It’s little more than a hollow box, but performers played it with such intensity that it has become the undisputed national instrument of Peru. Its tinny high taps and deep bass slaps are like listening to the heartbeat of a nation.
Or the quijada, which is literally the jawbone of a donkey. Just this week, I sat transfixed at a monthly Noche de Percusión by a performer playing a quijada solo. Imagine a packed room going silent as a man plays a donkey jaw, and you’ll begin to better understand Afro-Peruvian music.
Truly, it’s some of the best live music I’ve ever seen, and I can’t really say I’m surprised. It seems throughout the world, oppression and pain breeds the best art.
Why is food better in poor, ethnic neighborhoods? Why does new music originate from the most poverty-stricken communities? Why do the best paintings come from the most troubled minds?
Maybe its because when others try to inhibit the human spirit, it only finds new avenues to come forward–stronger, bolder and more defiant than before.