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Afro-Peruvian Jazz, a Child in the Family of Latin Jazz

Afro-Peruvian jazz is part and parcel of Latin jazz, a mixture of traditional Afro-Peruvian rhythms and inclination to improvise, with the New York jazz scene of the 1980s and beyond.

Guitarist Richard Zellon is generally credited with introducing this particular form of jazz to the United States. Another important figure is trumpet player Gabriel Alegria. Both of these, as well as most other musicians playing this music are Peruvian but are not of African descent.

For Peruvians of African descent involved in jazz, you would want to look at the singers Susana Baca and Eva Ayllon.

But maybe we should start at the beginning.

Most people agree that jazz is a musical form that grew out of the experience of Africans in America, an experience that included slavery, discrimination and other hardships; but in contrast to the blues, jazz has a generally optimistic outlook on life. It is vibrant. It is often joyful. It is fun.

In addition, rhythm and improvisation are key elements in jazz. And if you accept that jazz grew in large part out of the black experience, then it is clear a lot of those rhythms came from Africa.

Originally, jazz was considered something that “belonged” to the United States. It was thought of as being an “American” form of music, where “American” referred to the United States of America.

But since the late 1940s, when Dizzie Gillespie, working with Chano Pozo and Mario Bauza, introduced the world to Afro-Cuban jazz, jazz became more international. More and more musicians began combining the sound and rhythms of traditional Latin American beats with (north) American jazz. Afro-Cuban jazz was soon joined by Cuban jazz, Puerto Rican jazz, Afro-Brazilian jazz, and then Afro-Peruvian jazz. All of these taken together are what is now known as Latin jazz.

Again, each one of these forms of Latin jazz seem to have started when musicians from Latin American countries came to New York and started making music with New York musicians, transforming their traditional music into a new form of jazz.

Thus it was that in the 1980s and especially after the year 2000, Peruvian musicians in New York began developing Afro-Peruvian jazz out of the traditional music of Peruvians of African descent. This traditional music is lively, has complex rhythms, allows for improvisational riffs, and has contributed several important percussion instruments to the world, including the quijada de burro (the jawbone of a donkey) and the Peruvian cajon (as distinguished from the Cuban cajon).

I find it fascinating that the musicians who are the major proponents of Afro-Peruvian jazz are not themselves black–in other words, are not people of African descent.

This is not true of singers, however. Several well-known singers from the Afro-Peruvian community who were brought up with their traditional songs have now begun to include jazz in their repertoire. These include most importantly the women we mentioned above, Susana Baca (who is not only a fine and well-known singer, but for a few months in mid-2011, was the Minister of Culture of Peru) and Eva Ayllon (lead singer of Peru Negro, one of the oldest and most prestigious Afro-Peruvian performing groups).

The connection between Afro-Peruvian jazz and Afro-Peruvian traditional music is important, and that traditional music deserves to be more widely known in the United States. In addition to groups such as Peru Negro, several individuals stand out for their work in preserving the tradition and making it better known.

In Peru itself, Amador Ballumbrosio and Caitro Soto are among the best known, although they approached it from very different perspectives. Amador Ballumbrosio, a dancer and violinist from the town of El Carmen, was primarily concerned with maintaining the zapateo (footwork used as percussion) and the dance and music involved in something called the hatajo de negritos, traditionally performed on December 24 in honor of baby Jesus. Caitro Soto, a fantastic drummer from Lima (Peru’s capitol), was more concerned with Afro-Peruvian music in general.

In terms of making the tradition known internationally, in the current period, Lalo Izquierdo is especially important. He is an exceptionally fine percussionist and dancer who has given master classes and performed throughout North and South America, as well as Europe, to bring this tradition to the attention of the world. In recognition of his talents and contribution, he has recently been appointed to be the Director of the Institute of Cultural Expression of the Afro-Peruvian Studies Division in the National Afro-Peruvian Museum.

It is our belief that it is vitally important to maintain this traditional music and the dances that accompany it. That is both because of their intrinsic value, and also because they are a source of inspiration and an essential element in the richness of Afro-Peruvian jazz. And that form of jazz, the offspring of traditional Afro-Peruvian music and the New York jazz scene, is a worthy addition to the family of Latin jazz!

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