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Vibrant call-and-response movements: Peru Negro.

 Slaves and the Rhythms
By Mae G. Banner

Peru Negro

The Egg, March 10

It’s not only Incas in Peru. Under the Spanish colonialists, blacks from West Africa were enslaved in the 1500s and set to work as cargo loaders on the Southern coast. As in other slave systems, drums were forbidden to them (they might be sending messages; drumming was un-Christian). So, like other displaced African communities, they invented other means of percussion, turning wooden packing crates into cajons (box drums) and Catholic tithing boxes into cajitas (small box drums).

Of course, they perfected the body- slapping and clapping rhythms known as “hambone” in the Southern United States, and they learned the flute from Andean players and the guitar from the Spanish. Meanwhile, they kept their own dances and songs, and created new satires and laments out of their contemporary experiences.

The music the black Peruvians saved not only sustained them for generations; it led to the founding in 1969 of Peru Negro, a company of 22 dancers, singers and musicians, and their subsequent naming as Cultural Ambassadors of Black Peru by the Peruvian government.

Peru Negro—many members are children or grandchildren of the four founding families—have polished the old dances to a high gleam, while keeping their spirit fresh. At the Egg last Friday, the young troupe, now directed by Rony Campos de la Colina, put on a varied, well-designed show that ranged from joyous festival dances to a funny-scary Devil’s dance for carnival time, to a crisp male zapateado (flamenco-like heel-work) and an openly sexual samba.

The audience of about 500 included many Peruvians (apparently, there is a sizeable community in the Albany area) who cheered and held up the red Peruvian flag. They were the first to follow lead singer Munica Dueoas Avalos in several audience-participation songs, but her ebullience and the choice to turn on the house lights got the whole audience to join in happily on the chorus, “Eso no me dice.”

In this colorful, involving show, the most memorable part for me was Dueoas Avalos’ song “De Espaoa,” a lament in the tondero rhythm, in which she sings of how “Spain brought us ‘Cristo y tambien el patron’ (Christ and also the slave master).” Accompanied only by a single line on the guitar and muffled beats on the cajon, the rhythmic song was moving and powerful, with a cry in the singer’s voice.

The wildly comic Devil’s Dance followed, a timeless and sophisticated choice after such deep sadness. Little devils and big ones (a man on another’s shoulders) were cloaked in red satin capes and wore red masks. Under their flying capes, they wore pinata-striped blue, yellow, and green jump suits that were eye-popping and scary at once—a delight for children who like to be scared. Seven devils kicked their feet and jiggled their heads, linked arms to do a backward/forward kick line, did a follow-the-leader hambone, and finished in a big, bright pyramid that scared the tall devil off the stage. This was sublimely silly.

The Toro Mata dance, like the cakewalk in the plantation South, is a rapier-sharp satire on the finicky manners of the Spanish colonialists. The dancing couples wore shreds of the masters’ formal costumes: white lace cuffs and neck ruffs, pared down blue and red satin jackets or pannier skirts, and black shoes with silver buckles. Commenting on all this finery, their backs were bare. The dance began with formal bows and delicately raised fingers, as in the minuet, but soon enough, the dancers’ gyrating hips overcame these polite constraints until the whole stage vibrated with their gorgeous rhythms.

A courtship dance reminded me of the Cuban rumba in which the man aims to catch the woman, while she deftly swivels out of his grasp. The women in their straw hats and swingy ankle-length skirts and the men in grass-green shirts with red sashes waved red and white scarves in counter-rhythm with the drums, all dancing with color, style, and innocent sexuality. Finally, each man caught a woman and wrapped his sash around her, just below the hips, which led to a high-stepping promenade.

Most dances began with the men on one side of the stage, the women on the other, performing a vivacious call-and-response that brought them to the center as couples. The women would flirt with their ruffled skirts and the men shook their shoulders in reply. Upstage, a row of drummers—on cajon and also Afro-Cuban timbales, congas and bongos—two guitarists and two singers kept the rhythms changing.

Dances alternated with songs, which gave the dancers time to change costumes for yet another lively dance. The singer, Dueoas Avalos, couldn’t help but be a dancer, too. She swayed her hips and traveled the stage, bringing out the inner rhythms of every song.

The Peru Negro show never faltered. So far, it stands as one of the best dance concerts of the year.

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