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Hugo Medrano’s first brush with Afro-Peruvian music left him with more than a lasting impression. It left him with a lifelong ambition.
“I was living in Peru in the ’60s, and everybody was talking about this new choreography, saying it was a must to go see this show. It was so fashionable,” says the 64-year-old Mount Pleasant resident and Gala Theatre artistic director. “Since then, I have always wanted to do something with Afro-Peruvian music, to bring that kind of excitement and rhythm to D.C.”
Medrano, who moved to the United States in 1971, hopes to finally capture the vibrant Afro-Peruvian flavor with the original musical Latido Negro: Peru’s African Beat, which opens Thursday, June 7, at the Gala Theatre at Tivoli Square. Latido Negro comprises the song, dance, and poetry of Afro-Peruvians—citizens of Peru who descended from African slaves. The performance will feature traditional Peruvian dances such as the lando, the festejo, and the son de los diablos alongside contemporary choreography that aims to show the shared musical heritage of Latino, Afro-Latino, and African-American communities.
“What is really interesting to me about Afro-Peruvian music is that it’s still developing constantly,” says Medrano. “They’re still experimenting and combining things from other rhythms and cultures.”
For Peruvian-born director Rafael Santa Cruz, the play is all about that fusion. “It’s not Cuban. It’s not Brazilian. It’s not Jamaican,” says Santa Cruz. “Afro-Peruvian music is a mix of so many things, so when you say ‘How does it sound? What does it look like?’—it’s very difficult to answer.”
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While living in Peru in the ’60s—inspired by the newfound independence of nations such as Jamaica and the Congo, the resurgence of black pride, and the general air of cultural revival—Santa Cruz’s aunt and uncle, Victoria and Nicomedes Santa Cruz, founded Cumanana, an Afro-Peruvian cultural association. Through associations such as Cumanana and Peru Negro (co-founded by Latido Negro choreographer Lalo Izquierdo), Afro-Peruvian song and dance were refined and standardized, and the general population in Latin America was introduced to a type of music that previously could only be heard in Peruvian ghettos.
“Being accepted by the larger community was important to the revival of our culture. It gave Afro-Peruvians an avenue of expression into mainstream culture and a real, official base,” says Santa Cruz. “As slaves, [Afro-Peruvian] history had been erased by the government. Memories of dance were some of the only things that remained.”
Izquierdo agrees: “A lot of the dances incorporated actions and movements that we saw in our neighborhoods. We gathered these movements together, like a movement scrapbook,” he says. “That was our history.”
Like the choreography, many of the instruments specific to Afro-Peruvian beats were assembled extemporaneously. “Some religious groups prohibited certain dances and instruments for slaves, so they had to improvise,” says Santa Cruz. Discarded fruit crates became the cajon, a makeshift drum beaten by hand. Church collections boxes were pressed into service as the cajita; the musician claps the lid open and closed while beating the side of the box with a stick. The most improbable instrument is the quijada del burro, a dried-out donkey jawbone, teeth included. The musician drums on the side of the quijada, which results in a clear, resounding rattle.
“I tried to take [the quijada] through the airport, and security stopped me,” Izquierdo laughs. “They didn’t believe me that it was an instrument. So I took it out and played it a little for the guards.”
Latido Negro: Peru’s African Beat runs at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 4 p.m. Sunday, to Sunday, July 1, at the Gala Theatre at Tivoli Square, 3333 14th St. NW. $30n$34. (202) 234-7174.