For audiences at “Peru Negro” this past Wednesday and Thursday night, the exuberance of Afro-Peruvian singing, drumming and dancing provided an unusual break from the week’s monotony. Sponsored by the Yale Repertory Theater and the World Performance Project at Yale, the Lima-based music and dance ensemble brought an exciting taste of traditional Black Peruvian culture to the University Theater.
The show featured a variety of Black Peruvian song and dance, from the landó, a slow and sensual song, to the festejo, which expresses exuberant happiness through its music and choreography. These traditional forms had been nearly lost by the 1950s, but were rediscovered in the course of an Afro-Peruvian revival from the 50s through the 70s, according to program notes by Heidi Feldman, a lecturer in the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego.
Peru Negro, founded over 30 years ago as part of this effort to preserve Black Peruvian heritage, proudly presents these once-forgotten musical genres at the hands and feet of ten dancers, three vocalists, five percussionists, two guitarists and a bassist. The program consisted of alternating songs and dances, with music provided throughout by the guitarists and drummers.
The songs were reminiscent of something one might encounter in a Latin American nightclub. The lead singer, in a voluminous white dress and six-inch white heels, approached the front of the stage and belted her ballads right at the audience as if they were watching her at a table over a glass of wine. During a few songs she duetted with a man dressed in white with a red sash around his waist, and the two bantered back and forth in perfect 1940s style.
The songs contrasted nicely with the dance numbers, which were wildly energetic and combined seemingly disparate elements of Peruvian culture. The choreography was evidently Afro-Peruvian, with bold steps, sharp movements and plenty of hip motion on the part of the women. But the dancers’ costumes reflected the more formal element of Peruvian culture — one dance had the men in vests and the women in full skirts, while another piece presented male and female dancers in white ruffles with open backs. The difference between the performers’ movements and what they were wearing was a reminder that this was a people transplanted from Africa, yet still very much engaged with the culture of the Spanish colonizers.
The choreography also made a strong statement about black female strength and beauty, pitting the female dancers as equals in competitions against the men. The word “negra” was often spoken in a completely positive, appreciatory context. Although the women’s dance moves were much more sexualized than the men’s, the traditional costumes meant that their bodies were mostly covered — a striking change from the tight-fitting leotards of classical Western dance that helped present female sexuality as a source of pride rather than objectification.
The highlight of the evening was a pair of consecutive pieces which highlighted the performers’ amazing percussive abilities. First the drummers showcased their talents on the cajón, a drum made out of a square wooden crate which the percussionist also sits on. This was followed by a thrilling performance of zapateo, or traditional tap-dancing, first just by the men and then as a battle of the sexes — here, in fact, was the one area where the men had a clear dancing edge over the women.
In rhythm- and choreography-heavy pieces such as these, there was much for non-Spanish speakers to enjoy, regardless of the language barrier. Still, it was clear that there were some important jokes and contextual information the gringos missed. At one point, the two vocalists encouraged the audience to sing with them “Eso no se dice,” which as far as I know means something along the lines of “This is something one does not say.” This was the only part of the song I understood, which was rather confusing at the time and vastly decreased my motivation for singing along.
Despite occasionally provoking the feeling of missing something important, though, the performance was on the whole extremely rewarding. “Peru Negro” skillfully and enthusiastically treated the audience to a new cultural experience, presenting in the process the complexity and vivacity of the Afro-Peruvian tradition.