While my family and friends were freezing in their respective U.S. states, I stepped out of a plane and into the sunshine of a Peruvian summer. Having been pretty productive during December, I wanted to continue my productivity during the month of January. This wasn’t hard to do, especially when your roommates constantly bombard you with information that might be helpful for your project. It was through my roommate, Ibis, that I found out about Gabriel Alegria’s Afro-Peruvian Jazz Sextet.
Gabriel Alegria, a Peruvian trumpet player and Fulbright Program alumnus, forms part of a jazz sextet, which he directs. Alegria’s musical project interested me due to the group’s fusion of Afro-Peruvian rhythms and jazz. The evolution of Afro-Peruvian music has been one theme that I’ve been consistently interested in experiencing, and documenting, since I first arrived in Lima. So, when I read that a bus of the jazz sextet’s fans was heading to southern Peru for a concert, I decided to join them. The group’s concert took place in El Carmen, a small town in Southern Peru renowned for it’s Afro-Peruvian population and music. Although getting to El Carmen was quite an adventure, I wasn’t disappointed by any of the performances in the small town’s plaza. Not only did Gabriel Alegria’s Afro-Peruvian Jazz Sextet perform, other performers that night included Somos Ebano, a dance group from El Carmen, and Teatro del Milenio.
While part of the objective of my trip was to enjoy the musical performances of the night, I was also hoping to meet Gabriel and hopefully convince him to grant me an interview. Luckily I met one of Gabriel’s managers, and she was more than willing to introduce me to him. Through this small meeting I learned that Gabriel was actually about to start a week-long project, in Lima, with students from NYU. The purpose of this project was to document the lives of five Afro-Peruvian musicians, and, seeing as my topic revolves around Afro-Peruvian music, I was able to tag along and learn more. Working on this project not only allowed me to speak with musicologists about the significance and history behind this musical genre, it also gave me critical information I hope to incorporate in my research.
I found that speaking with musicologists about Afro-Peruvian music brought up several problematic themes. First of all, I was surprised to hear one scholar find the use of the term “Afro-Peruvian music” incorrect. Given my sociological background, and my interest in race relations in Peru, I found it hard to hear someone claim that this musical genre could not be branded as “Afro-Peruvian”. Prior to speaking with this scholar I had interviewed an individual who explained his concern that the link between Afro-Peruvian music, and the Afro-Peruvian population itself, was weakening due to the inability of Peruvian society to accept the positive contributions of Afro-Peruvians. My interviewee’s concerns seemed all too real as I listened to the scholar explain why he had come to the conclusion that Afro-Peruvian music could not be branded as such. Having to listen to someone who disagrees with your perspectives about the significance of music can be pretty discouraging. Instead of letting it get me down, I felt that having spoken with this man allowed me to gain a more complex understanding of the relationship between music and the communities it can have an impact on. At the same time this gave me another topic to discuss with musicians and community leaders.
My trip to El Carmen, and my week of musical experiences with Gabriel’s students, was only the beginning of what would soon become an intensive production phase for my documentary. After I was done helping translate for NYU’s musical project, I launched into filming interviews, rehearsal spaces, and other events which all captured the essence of Afro-Peruvian music. I was especially left in awe by the encuentro familiar of the Zevallos family.
When I first arrived in Lima I met Grupo JIZA, a musical group that incorporates zapateo and Afro-Peruvian music in an attempt to keep their cultural heritage alive. Soon after meeting them I was invited to an encuentro familiar. An encuentro familiar can best be described as a family reunion, although “family reunion” is quite an understatement. Instead this event is a time for the members of the Zevallos family to showcase their music and dancing skills through various competitions. The following are pictures of a zapateo face off:
Since my arrival in Lima the Zevallos family has played an integral part in my understanding of the importance of Afro-Peruvian music. Their dedication to keeping these musical traditions alive played an important role during my filming in January and I hope to take what I learned from them to prepare for a week-long trip of filming in Northern Peru!