AFRO-PERUVIAN PERCUSSION The Cajon
African slaves were brought over to the Spanish
colony of Peru in the 16th century to work mainly in the gold and silver
mines of the high Andes. However their physique was not suited to the high
altitude and they died by the hundreds. Their Spanish or Creole (descendants
of European settlers in Latin America) masters sent them to work in the
milder climate of the desert coast, where they laboured in the large haciendas;
private farms. It was in their small huts, on the packed dirt floors of
the courtyards overrun with animals and in the fields of cane and sugar
cane that Afro-Peruvian music, song and dance were born.
The beginnings of slavery in Peru were different
from the rest of the Americas. Although in Brazil or Central and North
American countries it was common to import large groups of slaves from
the same African tribe, only small and geographically dispersed ethnic
groups were brought to Peru. This was meant to discourage rebel movements
around the tribal chiefs, and as such, made almost impossible the preservation
of communal traditions. Without a common language or tribal authority to
remind them of their roots, Peruvian slaves were progressively integrated
into the culture and language of their new country. As a result Afro-Peruvian
music is a unique blend of Spanish, Andean and African traditions.
Centuries old, this music started to gain recognition
in Peru about forty years ago and it has became popular in the last twenty-five years.
It was born in the coastal barrios (suburbs) and towns and was reconstructed
and resurrected thanks to the work of a few artists and historians. Because
the Africans were forbidden from playing their own instruments, percussion
instruments developed out of the simplest household appliances; spoons,
kitchen chairs, table tops, boxes, handclaps, until it reached this century
with the creation of the cajon as a specific instrument to play
The cajon which
is a wooden-box in which the player sits on to play, is thought to have
originated in Peru. The cajon is made out of hardwood with
the front cover being of a very fine layer of plywood. The cajon has an open circle cut at the back of the instrument. The player sits and
plays two main strokes as well as a few other variations. The main two
consist of: the tone of the box which is played with the full palm in the
middle of the 'head' (this stroke is usually a bass or palm sound on a
variety of African derived hand drums found around the world) and the slap
which is played on the edge of the 'head' of the instrument (this sound
also part of the technique used in many hand drums around the world).
Other percussion instruments found in the traditional
styles include the cajita and the quijada. The cajita is a small wooden box played with a stick in the right hand while the left
hand opens and shuts the top in rhythmic time. The quijada is a
donkey's jaw that is played by striking the wide part of the jaw with the
fist to obtain a rattle sound (an instrument called a vibraslap is a copy
of this instrument), and is also scrapped with a thin stick.
Some of the popular Peruvian rhythms include the marinera,
lando and the festejo. The marinera in 6/8 time
is an intricate and elegant dance of courtship accompanied by guitar, cajon,
accordion and handclapping by onlookers. Other important Afro-Peruvian
rhythmic styles include the lando, which comes from an African fertility
dance called the landu, and the festejo which is a celebration
song and dance in a fast 6/8.
The Peruvian cajon is popular worldwide. The connection and the development of the flamenco cajon had its beginnings in the 1980s after a South American tour by the Spanish master guitarist and composer Paco De Lucia. Soon after, the percussionist in his ensemble incorporated a cajon in the sound of the ensemble. Since then, the cajon has became 'the' percussion
instrument of Spanish popular music. Every flamenco ensemble incorporates
a cajon player. In 1994 I visited Madrid and to my amazement
every music shop sold cajones, they even had fibreglass ones!
In conversations I had with musicians and shop owners I was informed that
the cajon had became an essential part of the flamenco style.
The Afro-Peruvian style and instrumentation is
unique among the African derived styles found in Latin America. According
to Fietta Jarque (liner notes: Afro-Peruvian ClassicsThe Soul Of Black Peru cd 1995) "this is
secret music, it has been hidden for years in the coastal towns and barrios of Peru, it's not the guys with flutes and woolly hats, it's music of the
black Peruvian communities. This music survived barely within the
black communities, and was not accepted outside of those communities until
the spark of black pride, ignited in the 1960s caught fire in the 70s
and 80s. Now in the 90s, this music is the pride of Peru, cassettes
are sold on the streets alongside techno, Megadeath and Andean folk groups. And while it maintains its roots, it has attracted the creative talents
of the best contemporary musicians, writers and poets who have furthered
the evolution, growth and spread of this music. It's not a secret
anymore and it's yours to dance to."
Highly recommended recordings include:
▪ Afro-Peruvian Classics
The Soul Of Black Peru (Luaka Bop
WB 9 45878 2)
Peru's Master Percussionist (Lyrichord
Musica Negra (ASPIC X 55515)
De Canto Y Baile (Messidor 115936)
Andadas (Green Linnet GLCD 4009)
For further information including an audio sample please click here.
© Alex Pertout. All rights reserved. No part of this article
may be reproduced without the prior written permission from the author. This article was first published in Drumscene magazine.