Musical Highlights from Traveling With a Band
I have returned from a ten-day trip with Gabriel Alegría and the Afro-Peruvian Sextet. Alegría, who has a doctorate in jazz studies from USC, started the group in 2005 with a few of the best musicians in Peru. Since then they have recorded two CDs, and performed at over 400 concerts and events. The group fuses traditional Peruvian percussion (which doesn’t include congas) with jazz, exploring the common African ancestry of both, and creating a new form of Latin Jazz in the process. Along the way they’ve gathered a legion of fans, many of who will help out at concerts and in other ways.
After starting the band and beginning to perform quite a bit, Alegría realized that though they were touring a lot, they weren’t touring in Peru very much, a country with a relatively small base of jazz fans. His solution was to create Tour Peru and invite fans to travel to Peru with the band. He arranged for some unique tour experiences, as well as a tour of Machu Picchu, and started the fan/band tours in 2008. One participant in the 2008 tour was so inspired that she opened a restaurant, The Tutuma Social Club, which serves Peruvian dishes and features jazz, including the sextet. You can read a review I wrote of the sextet’s performance at the club here. You can see a video of a performance at the club here.
As anyone who has experienced the reality of returning from a remarkable trip can attest, it takes a while to process everything that occurred. Nevertheless, I do want to acknowledge some of the musical highlights.
The first was an outdoor concert in the square at El Carmen, a small town that was hit by the earthquake of 2007. The stage was located in front of a beautiful little church. The opening act was a dance troupe that portrayed the bondage and emancipation of African slaves that were brought to Peru. The closing act was a dance/acrobat troupe called Milenio. They evoked Stomp!, The Blue Man Group, and other highly percussive dance companies. They did a pantomime of a soccer game that was hilarious, complete with over the head kicks, fights, and more. In between the Afro-Peruvian Jazz Sextet did a 45-minute set that had the audience clapping and singing along, and yelling for more as their set ended.
Another highlight was a performance by a panpipe band in Cusco, the “belly button of the world” according to Incan lore. Mauk’Allalta is a four piece band using two different kinds of flutes, a guitar, a 10-string charango, a large, cow skin covered drum, percussion, and three different sizes of pan pipes, the largest of which was about four feet long. Two members of the band are Incan shamans, and they explained the relationship of their music to the Incan belief system. Consequently, a song that evoked thunder, wind, and rain had more context knowing that Incans believe in living in harmony with mother earth. The next day during a tour of Machu Picchu, we heard more about the Incan belief system and their relationship to the world. I don’t have the space to go into the details, though I can say that the belief system, and its relationship to the music of panpipers, is much more complex than you might imagine from hearing this music on the streets of your city, or in new age gift shops.
The day after we went to Machu Picchu, the shamans of Mauk’Allalta invited us to their house for cleansing and healing ceremonies. The ceremonies took place in a low ceilinged room that contained vintage stereo consoles and radios, as well as a small table for preparing herbs, flowers, and other accoutrements for the ceremonies. Members of the sextet and about eight of the sixteen fans went through the ceremonies while the music of the Incans was being played. The sextet and the fans all came from a variety of belief systems – Hebrew, Catholic, Protestants, agnostic. Nevertheless, we all agreed that the ceremonies, combined with the music, made for a moving experience. Afterwards, we all shared chicha, a fermented corn liquor. This was definitely not a stop on a usual guided tour.
We had three different drum sessions, in which the sextet’s Peruvian drummer, Hugo Alcázar, taught us about the cajón. The lessons allowed us to learn about the Peruvian national instrument, and what it takes to create its one of a kind rhythms. The cajón was created out of necessity, when plantation owners would not allow any Africans to own instruments. So the African slaves picked up drawers or crates and began pounding out rhythms. A half dozen of the tour participants even played cajón during the last song of the sextet’s performance one evening. The sound was thunderous and the results joyous. It is more than ironic that the cajón once a symbol of oppression, is now a national symbol for Peru.
We also had zapateo lessons from the sextet’s percussionist, Freddy “Huevito” Lobatón. Zapateo is a form of percussive dancing done to accompany the rest of the band. Lobatón, a master of Afro-Peruvian percussion, is also a three time national Peruvian zapateo dancing champion. While only a few people mastered the basic steps he was teaching, we all gained further insight into Afro-Peruvian music.
We heard the band do eight sets over the course of a week or so. Familiar songs took new turns each time out, but the audience always responded enthusiastically, clapping in syncopation to the rhythms, and singing along. By the time of the last song for the last set at The Jazz Zone in Lima, the band had three drummers on stage, along with Huevito on cajón, and Tonio Beeches doing zapeteo dancing.
Finally, we went to two additional peñas besides the one at Don Porfirio. One was held at Don Pepe de Villalobos, in the La Victoria section of town. In my previous post I wrote about the afternoon session full of warmth, incredible singing, good food and drink. The final day, some of us were able to go to a private event, where literally dozens of musicians and singers hung out. It was an event for a group of students from NYU who are documenting Afro-Peruvian music. Alegría, who is Associate Director for jazz studies at the school, arranged the event, so we were invited along. It was a perfect ending to a highly unique, musical vacation.