Prior to the coming of the Spanish in the 16th century, Peru was home to the sophisticated civilization of the Inca empire. Although the Inca had managed to subjugate their various neighbours and raise exquisite cities, they quickly fell to the Spaniards due to gunpowder, disease, and deceit. Once the conquistadors had sated their lust for gold, it was time to start settling the territory, and since they had pretty much exterminated the local crop of potential slaves they had to rely on importing Africans like everyone else.
As has been the case throughout the Western hemisphere where Africans were used as slaves, the African population in Peru brought with them their own traditions, including music. However, unlike North America where it became one of the key foundations for popular music, in Peru their music, like their population, has remained segregated from the mainstream. African Americans in South America are routinely second class citizens, and anything associated with them is considered inferior, including their music. So, aside from sporadic recognition from outside performers like David Byrne's The Soul Of Black Peru released in 1995, little Afro-Peruvian music has been heard outside of its own community.
In 2001 four young Peruvians, Ramon Perez-Prieto, Grimaldo Del Solar, Rafael Morales, and Carlos Li Carrillo, from outside the Afro-Peruvian community formed the group Novalima as a way to experiment with their appreciation for both Peruvian and modern music, and in 2002 released their first disc, Novalima. They had invited various musicians from the Afro Peruvian community to participate and created a disc that mixed both traditional rhythms and contemporary sounds. When the disc went platinum in Peru, they realized they were onto something and in 2006, they released Afro internationally, and firmly establishing Afro-Peruvian music on the world scene as it spent ten weeks at number one on the US Collage Music Journal's Latin Alternative and New World charts.
The band has now expanded to include permanent Afro-Peruvian musicians; Juan Medrano Cotito, Mangue Vasquez, Milagros Guerrero, and Marcos Mosquera, as well as renowned Peruvian drummer and percussionist Constantino Alvarez. It's this group, plus a variety of guest performers from the Afro-Peruvian music community, who can be heard on the band's forthcoming release (January 13, '09, US and Canada and Jan. 16 for the rest of the world) Coba Coba on the Cumbancha label.
On first listen the disc was almost overwhelming with its seemingly inexhaustible supply of rhythmic variations. My first impression was of one continuous song whose sole purpose was to enable me to forget it was minus twenty out and I was trudging through ice and snow. It was only once I had recovered from the initial exhilaration that the music inspired, and was able to listen to the disc with something approaching a critical ear, that I began to discern the distinctive elements of each song. For although all the tracks share a common foundation, what's been built up around it gives them each unique characteristics.
The opening track on the disc, "Concheperla" (Mother of Pearl or Pearl Shell) is a traditional Peruvian dance called a marinera that dates back to the 1800s. These "mariner" dances were composed as patriotic tributes to Peru's navy and were originally performed by brass bands. Originally transcribed and arranged by the great grandmother of band member Rafael Morales, it's a perfect example of how the band reaches back into their country's history for inspiration without getting stuck in the past. While the trumpet you hear is a nod to the military bands of yesterday, the rhythm and beats are the sound of today and a recognition of the band's African roots.
"Concheperla" is a fitting overture to the rest of the disc in the way it successfully combines traditional, or older, melodies with modern musical technology and a variety of musical influences. While in this instance the foundation is a song from the dominant culture's history, some draw upon Afro-Peruvian songs for their inspiration and others the folk music of various regions around the country. However, regardless of a song's provenance, they are all subject to a creative process that gives them added depth and dimension by adding new layers of rhythm and different musical textures.
"Ruperta/Puede Ser", the fourth track on the disc is a great example of this as it takes an older song, "Ruperta", combines it with "Puede Ser" by the Cuban hip-hop duo Obesion, and mixes it all together in Jamaican dub style inspired by the likes of Mikey Dread (known for his dub work with The Clash). The result is something really spectacular, as the dubbing techniques serve to tie the two songs together rhythmically, without being overbearing or dominating the melodies. I have to say that normally I find dub music tedious and and annoying, but that's not the case here. Instead of making the song sound like someone with speech a impediment who was forced fed Quaaludes like dub normally does, here the dubbing is used to accentuate the beat like an additional percussion instrument and gives the song an extra spark of life.
In fact, one of the most impressive parts of the disc is the manner in which they have combined the old and the new. Far too often when you hear of these types of projects you end up with little idea of what the original music sounded like as it ends up buried under the bells and whistles of the modern technology. Novalima never lose site of the original music and keep it front and center all the time. They understand that you can't replace, or simulate, the power and passion of these songs with studio tricks or programmed beats. What they have done is use the technology to give the original music a platform on which it can be shown off to its best advantage.
It's not often you get to hear a funky bass line accompanied by traditional percussion instruments like the jaw bone of an ass or cajon (a hollow box with a resonator hole like a guitar's) like you do on "Tumbala", or hear the words to a poem describing the history of Afro-Peruvian music turned into a song like you do in "Africa Lando", but Coba Coba is replete with moments like that. Not only does this disc shine a spotlight on music that has been neglected for far too long, but it does it in such a manner as to make it appealing to a wide variety of people without diluting any of its passion or diminishing its integrity.
Novalima sets the standard for all other bands wishing to bring modern technology into play when adapting traditional music. This is brilliant stuff that will not only keep you dancing, but will hopefully open some eyes to the ongoing discrepancies in Peruvian society.