PERU NEGRO ‘Zamba Malato’ by Juan Morillo

Six years ago the three-decade young Perú Negro broke into US cultural territory. Each visiting year the tours extended in time and space and the ensemble’s visibility in the American Performing Arts scene settled into a fixture. After visiting hundreds of universities and schools across the North American continent, audiences are still surprised to find out that the African diaspora extends to Perú. We know this new musical effort will contribute to enhancing that knowledge. When the group prepared for this upcoming album and tour, the creative juices splashed in different directions. Nevertheless, Perú Negro continues to represent the stalwart of Afro Peruvian music and dance and despite the injection of youth and modernity, it’s maximum ambition revolves around the preservation of a musical legacy, a heritage that receives mediocre support at home. I could write extensive notes on the history and the stories of the group, however I am choosing to concentrate on the music that you now find yourself listening to in your car, in the living room, or thanks to technology, at almost any unimaginable place. The stories and the history navigate all over that wonderful globalizing tool known as the internet. Also, we can finally celebrate the publishing of the first academic work on the subject, “Black Rhythms of Peru,” so professionally researched and written by our friend Heidi Feldman. The recording of the album spanned over a period of a year and a few months, partially due to geopolitical circumstances. What you have in your hands now is a musical product like no other that comes out of Peru where the recording industry succumbed to piracy and artists must struggle to phonographically archive their creations appropriately.

Lead by the Cajón, Afro Peruvian music embarked on the path of universal recognition and Perú Negro’s contribution to such effort must not go unrecognized. The cajón, theheartbeat of this music, a simple wooden box originally conceived as a musical instrument on the coast of Perú is now played around the world in a plethora of musical circles, opening borders to cultural integration.

What is left now is for you to make yourself comfortable to enjoy the music on this album, forget about time signatures, academic discourse, or vernacular translations, liberate yourself and enjoy the music, let it boost the palpitation of your heart and uninhibitedly dance it away. Perú Negro expects nothing else from you than to celebrate the music with them.

The Music of Zamba Malató

The repertoire on this album portrays a combination of classics of the Perú Negro performance songbook and a couple of new pieces. Of course most of the songs are best enjoyed watching the group perform and dance them on stage. The opening number Una Negra y un Negro is a festejo, the more festive of Afro Peruvian genres. The song relates a story of newlyweds who after a few mishaps finally consummate their love. So for those curious about the details, the chorus responds “eso no se dice . . .” (that cannot be told). This piece concentrates pure group effort without lead voices. The vocals you hear come from all the members of the company singing in unison . . . The title track, Zamba Malató is a landó, the more sensually captivating of Peruvian genres. Here is where I must warn you that literal translations can morph the original meaning of the song. Blacks in Perú were not socialized in similar experiences as their North American counterparts and the term zamba employed to refer to women of mixed African ancestry does not carry the negative connotations used in the United States. This song is better appreciated with the dance that recreates the relationships developed by women who performed laundry chores together . . . Cañete represents a tribute to the town known as the “cradle of champions” for its fruitful production of Black luminaries including the founder of Peru Negro, Ronaldo Campos de la Colina. . . Que Tiene Miguel is a zamacueca, a sibling of the landó however more upbeat. This song narrates the abuses to which slaves were exposed while working in the farms and haciendas of the Peruvian South. Chronicles tell the story that the liberator Simon Bolivar was an avid dancer of the zamacueca . . . Festejo de Ritmo showcases the percussive chops of the group’s rhythm section. This piece is also a ritual dance that energizes the execution of both musicians and dancers. At the enigmatic Dance Africa in Brooklyn the group performed this piece with the BAM/Restoration DanceAfrica Ensemble, a group of young female dancers from the Stuyvesant neighborhood and together literally brought the house down . . .

I first heard Golpe e’ Tierra on an old recording by Susana Baca and immediately fell in love with it. The musical and historical value of this song relies on its capture of the legacy of Afro descendants in the northern coast of Peru, a subject otherwise poorly studied. Here, as you can also hear on other tracks, we introduced the West  African djembe now featured as an integral part of the ensemble. Perú Negro was criticized in the 70s for the use of Cuban congas, we expect that thirty years later another effort to reconnect with the diaspora will not be frowned upon.  After the late Celia Cruz recorded Toro Mata, the song turned into the most recognizable from the Afro Peruvian musical landscape. The Toro Mata is a landó and in its dance form becomes a mockery of the minuet and other stiff European dances observed by the slaves in thehomes of their masters. The lyrics also offer double-entendre since the toro or bull embodies a significant symbol of Spanish culture . . . The Afro on this album comes from a compilation of ritual dances performed by the group and as projected by its name,
it pays tribute to African ancestry. On this Afro, the group plays the first part usingwooden instruments exclusively and switch on the second section to skin drums . . . I first came into contact with the artistry of Allan Phillips when recording the trailblazing album of Alex Acuña, Acuarela de Tambores. I lost touch with him for a few years untilone of our last tours took us to UC San Diego and there he was, attacking the piano, at a reception for us at the Faculty Center. The group joined him on stage for an evening of musical magic. That night he told me he had a song for us to record. What you hear now is Allan’s gift to the group, Bailarás, The arrangement asked for the group to be a bit more adventurous and we crossed the line of tradition nevertheless staying true to the roots. The result is this dynamic song that also brought another friend, singer Ricardo Lemvo to lay down Kikongo chants, the dialect spoken by a significant number of the slaves who were eventually taken to Perú. . . Pancha Remolino is an Afro Peruvian classic, also a party favorite. This festejo tells the story of a jarana, Peruvian slang for an informal festivity where musical challenges take place among the participants, part of the lyrics tell: “I moved my hips without asking my bones for permission.” . . .  Su Majestad el Cajón were lyrics that traveled in Rony’s mind for a while to honor the  companion that provides him a living . . . The last track on this album appeared somewhat accidentally. This is a piece we attempted to record and never got around to do it. Strangely enough during a break on this recording we left the lines open and did notrealize this impromptu performance ocurred until we opened up the files to begin mixing. Cajones is one of the signature pieces of Perú Negro that places the mystique of the cajón center-stage. We promise to record it again, this time intentionally and with all the guys in the studio.

Juan Morillo
Los Angeles, December 2007

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One Response to “PERU NEGRO ‘Zamba Malato’ by Juan Morillo”

  1. Prof. Nguia Says:

    The word “zamba” comes from West Africa – specifically the Mende and Vai languages of Sierra Leone. The original pronunciation is zambo/sambo. In the US, the word is “sambo”, and is used by African-Americans to denote “a shameful/disgraceful person”.

    In the Vai and Mende languages, “zambo/sambo” is a verb, and it means “to disgrace; to be shameful”.

    At the same time, “mulatto”, is derived from Spanish to mean “mule” or specifically, a cross-bred mule. As such, the word is deemed offensive to african-americans.

    I find it interesting that in many afro cultures throughout the americas, “sambo/zambo/zamba” and “mulatto” are very, very often paired together in traditional songs created by the ancestors. This tells us a lot about how they felt about the idea of enslaved Africans intermixing with their enslavers.

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