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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 music.

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.

cajon legend:



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 7417)

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.

© Alex Pertout. All Rights Reserved.