call-and-response movements: Peru Negro.
and the Rhythms
Mae G. Banner
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
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
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.