Black Rhythms of Peru. Reviving African Musical Heritage in the Black Pacific
Reviewed by Claude Chastagner
On an apparently very specific, almost obscure subject, Heidi Feldman has managed to write a dense, handsome, little book, elegant in its simplicity, and of far reaching scope. Obviously, it is quite captivating as such to read about the development of what she calls, after Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, the Black Pacific, i.e., the scanty traces—but fascinating evolution—of an African culture on South America’s Pacific coast. Feldman focuses on dance, poetry, and music, a heritage I assume few readers were aware of (or shame on me if I was the only one to ignore the presence of a strong Black culture in these parts of the world). To do so, she summons (though at times a little superficially), in a jargon-free style, the best of the relevant literature on the subject, from Paul Gilroy, James Clifford, Michel Foucault or Arjun Appadurai to Pierre Nora, David Scott or Ulf Hannerz. But beyond the subject of Afro-Peruvian culture per se, many of the issues tackled here open interesting insights for the students of African-American, postcolonial, or, more generally speaking, “dominated” cultural practices.
As she explains, rather than writing an “authoritative history” of Afro-Peruvian music, Feldman offers a survey of the different versions, stories, and explanations of the development of this music, a “compendium of vestiges of the remembered histories that endure in today’s cultural memory and archival artifacts” . Hence the emphasis on contemporary illustrations, ancient photographs, lengthy interviews, lyrics (both the original in Spanish and the translation), scores, and excerpts from Feldman’s own diaries. Hence, too, the decision to organize the book around the key figures of Afro-Peruvian culture and the key strategies they implemented to revive these cultural practices (though, try as she might, she can hardly escape a chronological structure). Eventually, Feldman’s mosaic, her juxtaposition of different versions of identities and the political agendas that created them provide a clearer, more honest image of the music than a definite answer would have.
For the hurried reader, a close reading of the book’s introduction could almost be sufficient, so dense it is, packed with both facts and suggestive remarks about Afro-Peruvian music, and the people behind it. Peru’s black population, alternatively described as thriving or almost extinct, depending on the criteria used by census makers, politicians, researchers, or the community itself, reached the Pacific coast after crossing the width of the continent, a second migratory displacement which bears heavily on the fate and nature of its culture. The first slaves arrived in 1529, as a replacement for the fast disappearing local (Indian) work force. They worked in mines, in farms, in urban homes and felt closer to the white masters than the indigenous population (hence the near disappearance of the group in the first half of the XXth century’s censuses, since many refused to consider themselves as an ethnic group). The watershed was in the fifties, when several community leaders, sometimes not even Criollos themselves, tried to revive the cultural artifacts (music, dance, and poetry) of their ancestors. The impetus for the movement was both the Black rights movement of the time and the Peruvian military revolution of the late sixties, which tried to resurrect the local lore to counter US cultural imperialism.
Different figures symbolize the fight, each embodying a specific conception of Afro-Peruvian culture, a specific strategy to revive it, each being devoted a chapter of the book: José Durand, the founder of the Pancho Fierro company, resorting to criollo nostalgia; the brother and sister Nicomedes and Victoria Santa Cruz advocating Afrocentricism; the Peru Negro company turning to folklorization, and, finally, Susan Baca embracing world music. The first attempt dug its roots in criollismo, the nostalgia for an idealized past found in the traditions of the multiracial working-class communities. Durand founded his company with the avowed intention to resurrect this past, its dances and songs, using ancient instruments such as the cajon or the quijada. His company met with success, but there is some reluctance today among Black Peruvians to credit the birth of the Afro-Peruvian revival to the efforts of a White folklorist. Feldman wonders if this could “reveal a frustration with Durand for minimizing the agency of his black cast and taking too much personal credit”, and if in the process he has not “cleaned up” the dances and in fact killed the tradition, a comment often heard about the effort to “sell” black art to a larger—i.e., white—audience.
The Santa Cruz family resorted to Afrocentricism for their various musical, poetic, and theatrical endeavors, a development similar to the international negritude movement exemplified by Leopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire. Feldman underlines first Afrocentricism’s connection with Nora’s “lieux de mémoire” (not necessarily topological sites). She further suggests that “Santa Cruz’s Afrocentric re-creation of Black Peruvian dances as sites of memory challenged the Peruvian discourse [i.e., Durand’s] of criollismo”. The suggestion is on a par with much of today’s theories on creolization and hybridity. The Herskovitsian Afrocentric perspective Santa Cruz adopted clashes with more recent perspectives that insist on the importance of the Middle Passage, and offer the hypothesis that more than a mere preservation of some African traits, the Black culture of the New World constitutes a unique form developed as a response to slavery. Santa Cruz’s “ancestral memory,” which she locates in the body, is based on a geographically unspecific, generalized sense of African ancestry, and, as Feldman argues,
One of the major issues raised by Feldman is that of the museumification of the world . Chincha, the best known Afro-Peruvian district, has become a tourist spot, where local traditions (private, domestic dancing, religious parades and ceremonies) are now followed by travelers eager to go behind the scene, in the “back regions,” and get a feel of the authentic practices of a deprived, isolated Black community. Like New Orleans’ downtown for jazz, or whole regions like Oxford (Ms) for blues, entire districts are currently being turned into living museums, often with the eager approval of the locals who hope for economic opportunities. Which leads Feldman to ask, “is Chincha an authentic center of African-derived culture, a staged back region, or a playful display of post-tourism?”. Whether Chincha is an authentic pre-modern cradle of African-derived music, or an artificial response to the urban need for an authentic cradle of Afro-Peruvian music, Feldman’s honestly answers: “I cannot say” , before granting that though authenticity is indeed socially constructed, it still matters to many tourists and locals.
This leads her to the last stage of her exploration, the transformation of Afro-Peruvian music into “world music” as a result of the promotional efforts made by rock star David Byrne in favor of Afro-Peruvian artists. This is particularly true of Susan Baca, a singer Feldman describes as “a cosmopolitan artist on the cosmopolitan periphery of the Black Pacific” , evading fixed notions of nationality and national identity. Once again, through the study of a specific style, we are confronted to the more general issues of authenticity and our Western craving for exotic sounds, what Timothy Taylor calls “sonic tourism.”
Along with captivating micro-analyses (the Dance of the Laundresses, the Festival of the Virgin of El Carmen), these far-reaching questions give depth to Feldman’s book and make it a stimulating read even for those who bear only a remote interest to the music of this part of the world. It provides an excellent, illuminating example of what Gilroy calls “double consciousness,” (the self-identification as both “Black” and a member of a Western nation). It also reflects on the issue of the center versus the periphery. Feldman’s claim that she wants to avoid a notion of cultural property that would clearly distinguish what is and what is not Peruvian  is indeed substantiated. All the more disappointing then, the absence of maps, a confusing bibliography which mixes books, articles, and CDs, and a few spelling mistakes on French words, an unacceptable though common shortcoming with British or American scholars.