The Soul Of Black Peru: Lima’s Música Criolla

Arturo "Zambo" Cavero
Arturo “Zambo” Cavero

Three high double-stops from the guitar announce the song’s opening.  Two trills and a rapid slide down the neck, and the crowd explodes into whoops and cheers.  A series of meditative, arpeggiated chords.  A pause.  Then the guitarist launches into a fast waltz rhythm, percussive and full of manly swagger, in which he’s joined by a percussionist seated atop a cajón—a wooden box turned drum—and another holding a cowbell.  The singer belts out a piercing “¡Ay!” as the audience rushes to the dance floor.

The jarana is underway.

Jarana, if you’ve never been to a Peruvian peña, means “party,” specifically a party of música criolla, the Afro-Peruvian musical tradition with roots in Peru’s colonial past.  Part neighborhood sing-along, part bacchanalian blowout, it’s one of the glories of Lima culture, but one that’s frequently hidden—even from many Peruvians.

For the uninitiated, here’s a brief intro to the world of criollismo.  Hit up the venues below when you’re in Lima: it’s a party you’ll never forget.

Slaves and Superstars

Creole music, otherwise known as música negra, got its start in Peru in the 16th century, when black slaves were first imported into Spain’s colonies in the New World. Back then, entertaining the masters was all in a day’s work for captives on a hacienda, who had recourse principally to the native rhythms and dance they’d brought with them from Africa. Over time, these traditions fused with Hispanic and indigenous elements to create something new, a vibrant coastal sound that expressed Peru’s motley, multi-racial soul.

Flash forward 300 years. As the 20th century dawned, Lima’s upper crust was busy aping European fashions. Meanwhile, the rhythms of Afro-Peru had survived in all-night parties held in the alleys and tenements of the barrios populares, the slums that housed the city’s workers. Three, four, five nights a week, amateur singers and musicians would meet to clap, shout, drink, and croon about fickle sweethearts, hen-pecking wives, lost bets at the racetrack, and the cruelties of fate. Cheekily, they even incorporated upper-class forms like the waltz into their repertoire—not, however, without “creole-izing” them, i.e. adding plebian instrumentation and ironic lyrics.

The result? An art form that truly was of the people.

Of, but not solely for. With the advent of radio in the 1930s, impresarios realized there was money to be made off this criollo effervescence, and commercialization began. Concert venues sprang up around Lima, and some of the early stars of the genre made classic recordings that increasingly cut across class lines, appealing to Peruvians of all strata.

A once-despised genre had suddenly become the rage. Even the government added its seal of approval: in 1944, October 31st was officially declared to be día de la música criolla.

The golden age came in the 50s and 60s. Arturo “Zambo” Cavero, Lucha Reyes, Los Morochucos, Chabuca Granda, Oscar Avilés: all contributed compositions that have now become standards. Starting in the 90s, the tradition has been further extended by artists like Eva Ayllón and Susana Baca, who have infused the criollo mainstream with elements of pop, jazz, and other world beats.

Far from the limelight and the producers’ studios, however, the neighborhood tradition continues, as limeños from the capital’s humblest barrios continue to meet and celebrate just as their grandparents did: caleta (Peruvian slang for “unnoticed”). Their art—alternately rueful, ironic, and joyous—is the image of Peru itself, in all its complexity and contradictions.

The Tradition Today

Those who visit Lima today have two options for experiencing música criolla: peñas and cultural centers. The former are more commercial, a kind of smash-up between a concert hall, dance club, and dinner theater, with the best located in Barranco, a seaside neighborhood near Miraflores. The atmosphere runs from raucous (Del Carajo!) to more intimate (De Rompe y Raja), but on nights when the jarana groove is on, you’ll find all of them vibrating with the sheer exuberance of the criollo mayhem.

By contrast, cultural centers are rawer, more soulful, closer to the authentic spirit of criollismo. There’s no show-business glitz, since frequently there are no “shows” at all. Rather, informal troupes of amateur musicians come together to drink and laugh, striking up impromptu jams that quickly pull in everyone in the room. It’s like attending a private musical party, only in public—a club where dyed-in-the-wool aficionados come to do what they love most: talk, sing, and play.

Some Peruvians fear the criollo heritage is dying out. However, if the last 400 years are any indication, great popular traditions don’t need social media, PR, or even societal approval to flourish. A guitar and a single listener will do just fine.

Suggested Artists:

Oscar Avilés, “Cuando Llora Mi Guitarra”
Chabuca Granda, “Fina Estampa”
Arturo “Zambo” Cavero, “Contigo Peru”
Andres Soto, “El Tamalito”
Peru Negro, “Zamba Malato”
Eva Ayllón, “Regresa/Mi Propiedad Privada”
Susana Baca, “Toro Mata”

Peñas:

Peña Del Carajo!
Catalino Miranda 158 (Barranco)
222-3790

Peña De Rompe Y Raja
Calle Manuel Seguro 127 (Barranco)
247-3271

Cultural Centers:

Centro Musical Domingo Giuffra
Av. Manco Cápac 1537 (La Victoria)
252-7488

Centro Social Musical Breña
Jirón Olmedo 452 (Breña)
995-871-039

Centro Social y Musical Tipuani
Jirón Carlos Zavala 160 (Cercado de Lima)
454-9211

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Mike Gasparovic

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Mike is a freelance travel writer based in Lima, Peru. In addition to writing several book-length guides about his adoptive hometown, he’s traveled throughout the Americas and written extensively about history and culture.

View all posts by Mike Gasparovic