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BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 April 2006, 14:04 GMT 15:04 UK
Novalima: Afro-Peruvian Blues
Novalima singer
Novalima aim to capture the sound of Peruvian's African roots
Peruvian band Novalima helped kick off Newsnight's Inside Latin American week with a performance on Monday's show.

Here, in a piece written by the band, they explain the roots of their sound.

Outside Peru, most people are still unfamiliar with the country's rich black cultural tradition.

When they think of Peruvian music, many think of the Andean folk style, with its mournful flutes and panpipes.

They couldn't be more wrong.

The music of black Peru is not ethereal, but firmly entrenched in its earthy tribal roots. It's the Peruvian equivalent of the North American Blues, of the Brazilian Samba and of the Cuban Son.

100% Peruvian

Afro-Peruvian music was created by black slaves who arrived in Peru in the 16th century from West Africa to work the cotton and sugar cane fields in the valleys scattered along the Peruvian coast.

Forbidden to own instruments by the Church and the Spanish rulers, these slaves managed to secretly create music from everyday utensils.

Novalima player
Afro-Peruvian blends African, Spanish, and Andean traditions
A box designed to carry the harvest was used as a drum (the 'Cajon') and is today Peru's national instrument.

Unknown for many years beyond Peru, it is not unusual to find it today in Brazilian, Cuban or even Spanish flamenco groups. The famous Spanish flamenco guitarist and composer, Paco de Lucía, has been using the cajón in his band for the past decade.

And ironically, today, many people think that the instrument is Spanish. It is in fact 100% Peruvian.

Humble instruments

Another famous Afro-Peruvian musical instrument is the cajita, a little wooden box with a top that is rhythmically opened and closed.

The cajita was adapted from the wooden boxes that Catholic priests used every Sunday in church to gather the weekly collection.

But probably the strangest Afro-Peruvian instrument is the quijada de burro. A real jaw bone from a donkey, with loosened teeth which vibrate when struck and which can also be used as a scraper by running a stick along the teeth.

One rarely sees more humble musical instruments used so effectively.


After long working days in the fields, black people used music and dance to express their intense suffering, but also to celebrate or simply to mock the Spanish master, using African dialects and chants, often spiced with erotic sensuality.

Novalima are taking their music worldwide
Hence, instead of eradicating the old rituals and rhythms, considered the devil's work, the Church and Spanish authorities unwittingly helped create a new genre: Afro-Peruvian music- the music of black Peru, and one of the most vibrant styles on the continent.

Given its geographical and historical context, Afro-Peruvian music resulted in a unique blend of African, Spanish, and Andean traditions.

Lyrics are mainly sung in Spanish (spiced up occasionally with African words), and the guitar is used as the main musical instrument.

The Andean influence is felt through the melancholy of certain musical forms.

But predominantly, it is the all-pervading African roots which drives the seductive and visceral tribal rhythms and chants, passed down from generation to generation through dance and word-of-mouth in these small coastal communities.

Afro-Peruvian music

Although Afro-Peruvian music is 400 years old, it has only recently become widely recognised in the 20th Century through the work of historians such as Nicomedes Santa Cruz, Caitro Soto and Rosa Mercedes Ayarza.

The core members of the Novalima collective
The core members of the Novalima collective
They decided to track down, compile and put down on paper the lyrics and music of songs that where known only to the oldest patriarchs of black families, thereby reconstructing and resurrecting Afro-Peruvian music.

Today, this music is the pride of Peru, and has attracted the creative talents of the country's best contemporary musicians, who have furthered the evolution, growth and spread of this music beyond the country's borders.

In the mid 90's, Susana Baca was the first artist to popularize Afro-Peruvian music at an international level, and in the past few years, Novalima have been the first to take it to worldwide clubs and dance floors.

A sound that had been shielded for the listening pleasure of just a few communities has now reached a wider audience more than four centuries after its inception.

The secret is now out there.

You can see Novalima at Cargo in London on April 28

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