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The Justice (March 15, 2005)

Grammy-winning Perú Negro gets crowd groovin'

by Amit Shertzer

As the lights dimmed in Slosberg Recital Hall last Wednesday evening, the stage was bare. Seconds later beats started pounding from the back of the auditorium. The surprised audience turned around to see where the intense rhythms were coming from, and slowly, the entire Perú Negro ensemble entered the hall using their instruments, voices and bodies in a performance that was as stunning visually as it was musically.

Perú Negro, who call themselves the cultural ambassadors of black Peru, perform a style of music accredited to the descendants of African slaves in Peru. The ensemble is known for its exhilarating Afro-Peruvian style, but is also influenced by Indian, Latin and European music. Perú Negro's artistic director is Ronaldo "Ronny" Campos, whose father, Ronaldo Campos, together with the Cuban drummer Jesus "El Niño" Nicasio, was largely responsible for the revival of Peruvian music in recent years.

The ensemble alternated between beautifully-executed dance and musical routines that often contained deeper cultural significances. In its opening number, "Afro," the band played hard African rhythms as the dancers-the men donned white uniforms while the women wore red dresses-danced enthusiastically in pairs, circles, rows and other arrangements that were dazzling in their complexity and flow.

This dance, called a "zamacueza," carried a courtship theme, as the men and women compared dance moves and tried to impress each another. The dancers were given a chance to show off their talent and passion for the music, which was expressed through the involvement of their entire bodies in the dance, the visually rich costumes and the sheer joyfulness of the background music.

Among the performances containing cultural meaning was "De España," a song based on Cesar Calvo's poem of the same name and performed with beautiful, deep vibratos by soloist Monica Duenas. It expressed the contradictory effects of the Spanish colonization of Peru. During that period, Spain enslaved the natives, but also introduced Catholicism to the new world. Today, around 90 percent of Peru is Catholic.

In "Toro Mata," the dancers-dressed in ruffled colonial garb-mocked the rigidly-performed minuets and waltzes of Peru's old slave masters by dancing with a sensuousness and explosive rhythm that the original waltzes surely lacked.

During the cheerful and melodic "Toque de Violín," a few dancers performed in "demon costumes," wearing red masks with elaborate and colorfully-striped outfits. While some "demons" interacted with the crowd-sitting next to spectators, playing with their hair and otherwise causing a ruckus-others challenged each other to "zapateo" duels-Peruvian tap-dancing matches-which slowly coalesced in a complex dance routine.

The highlight of the performance was "Cajones," in which dancers used traditional cajóns, drums made from wooden shipping crates. The drummers produced perfectly synchronized beats with incredible speed and accuracy, at times complementing their pummeling with hand and body gestures.

"Jolgorio," which means "a state of celebratory frenzy," best captured the spirit of Perú Negro's performance. During the song, the audience rose to its feet and sang and danced with the performers, following the instructions of the singers and dancers. As the excitement finally climaxed with a long, standing ovation, it became clear that Perú Negro had justified their reputation as the world's best Afro-Peruvian act.

CSK MCC