Afro-Peruvian Music: Another Side Of Peru

Posted by on August 14th, 2012

One of the great benefits of living and traveling in South America has been the chance to learn more about its incredibly varied music and dance traditions.

On one warm summer evening in Lima, Peru, I attended a party hosted by a vacationing Peruvian family. Laughter and lively conversation emanated throughout the house, but it was the haunting, melancholy melody of the music that was playing that caught my attention.

When I inquired about the singer, I learned that she was Susana Baca, one of the queens of the Afro-Peruvian musical genre. The song, Maria Lando, begins with an enticing description of the morning hours in Peru, but as it develops, it introduces us to Maria Lando, who was an African slave girl during Peru’s Colonial era. For Maria, there is no dawn and no moon. There is only lack of sleep as she works for others.


While I always associated Peruvian music with Andean instruments such as guitars and pan-pipes, I would soon learn that the music of Peru is as diverse as the country itself. Different regions have different musical styles. The Chincha region, for example, situated on the Southern Coast of Peru, is the birthplace of Afro-Peruvian music, a genre that blends Caribbean rhythms and Spanish elegance with North American blues and jazz. The audience is expected to clap their hands or dance one of the local dances. Resistance is futile: Afro-Peruvian music captivates the body and the soul.

The El Carmen District

If you enjoy ethnic music and plan to travel to Peru, the El Carmen District is a must-visit destination. This colorful district houses a variety of traditional bars and clubs that host Afro-Peruvian peña parties for locals and travelers. Peña parties feature Afro-Peruvian music, comedy and skits. Audience interaction is encouraged. On the surface, a peña party might seem like a joyous occasion, but the origins of Afro-Peruvian music date back to a devastating period in history for the ancestors of the musicians.

Cajon in El Carmen, Peru It Began With Slavery

The Chincha region was originally settled by Spanish conquerors, who brought industries such as mining, sugar cane and cotton to the area, along with African and Caribbean island slaves to do the labor. The slaves were supposed to work in the mining and agriculture sectors, but since they were unable to tolerate the cold of the Andes Mountains, they were sent to the coastal haciendas of Chincha, Ica, Cañete, Zaña and Piura.



Afro-Peruvian Drum Music

Drums played an essential role in the African and Caribbean music culture, but the authorities, fearing that the drum music would invoke a slavery revolt, prohibited them. The African slaves, not to be deprived of their musical heritage, created alternatives. Instruments included :

  • The Cajon: A box-like drum, which in 2001, was declared part of the cultural heritage of the nation of Peru.


  • The Cajita: A small box, modeled after a church collection box


  • La Quijada de burro: The jaw of an ox or donkey


The End of Slavery, The Evolution of a Musical Genre

With the abolition of slavery, the former African slaves discovered that they were free to reinvent their own culture and revive their musical heritage without the unreasonable restrictions imposed by the state. A new musical genre evolved, but it remained relatively unknown until the 1950s, when renowned musician and musicologist Nicomedes Santa Cruz began recording Afro-Peruvian music albums.

The genre got a boost internationally in 1995 when David Byrne, co-founder of The Talking Heads and a fan of world musical traditions, heard Susana Baca sing “Maria Lando.” Captivated by it, he decided to create an album called The Soul of Black Peru, featuring stars of the Afro-Peruvian music world, including Peru Negra and Eva Ayllon.

Curious about what became of Susana Baca, I googled her name. Apparently, on July 28 2011, she became the first black cabinet minister of independent Peru when she was sworn in as minister of culture. From slavery to ministry: nothing is better than this!

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