The Other Side of Peruvian Music

When most Americans think of Peruvian music, they think of the high Andes Mountains’ Quechuan music, marked by the fluttery sound of the bamboo zamponas pipes, the trebly, 20-string miniature guitar known as the charango, the bombo drum, and the recorder-like quena flute. This style was best exemplified by the great bands Inti-Illimani and Urubamba, the latter of which accompanied Simon & Garfunkel on “El Condor Pasa.” The music’s worst representatives are the bane of New York subway riders to this day.

But there’s a lot more to Peruvian music than that, as this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. proves. No zamponas were to be seen, but there were plenty of cajons. This Peruvian invention, a hollow box on top of which the musician sits, has become a favored rhythm instrument throughout the world. Portable and easy to construct from leftover plywood, the cajon became a favorite of Afro-Peruvians who wanted to capture the rippling syncopation of African polyrhythms without overwhelming the delicacy of the nation’s folk musics. It’s evidence of the syncopated rhythms that dominate the nation’s coasts and the selva, the jungle that surrounds the mountains.

In the capital city of Lima and on the dry lowlands of southern Peru, a large population of former African slaves has created the nation’s most popular homegrown sound—Afro-Peruvian music. And in the country’s northeastern corner, where the Amazon River is already flowing through the jungle before it ever gets to Brazil, the locals have married rumbling drums and chirping electric guitars into a sound called selva-rock. Terrific examples of both were on display at this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival in the shadow of the scaffolding-encased U.S. Capitol Dome.

The Folklife Festival was launched by the Smithsonian Institution in 1967 and has since offered free demonstrations of music, dance, crafts, and cooking from around the U.S. and the wider world during the last week in June and the first week in July. At its height in the ‘90s, each festival presented four themes: a U.S. state, a foreign country, a profession (such as carpentry or lawyering) and an aspect of folklore research. It produced a handsome paperback book on each year’s themes that was sold at cost.

The result was a thrilling extravaganza for residents of the Baltimore-Washington area and for tourists who timed their travel just right. The festival took one into the secret locations a lone tourist might never find: a Santeria voodoo ceremony in Haiti, a Cajun dance hall in Louisiana or a slack-key guitar party in Hawaii. But with shrinking arts funding and battles with the National Park Service over use of the Mall’s lawn, the 39th annual festival has been reduced to no book and one theme: Peru. But I heard more and better Peruvian music on the festival’s opening day last Wednesday than I did during my two-and-a-half-week visit to Peru in 2004.

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