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The songs and dances of a people are its heart's blood, and when they are performed with the fervor I saw last night at Brevard College's Porter Center, they inform as well as delight. Named as "Cultural Ambassadors of Black Peru" by the Peruvian government, the 22 singers, dancers, and musicians of Perú Negro have been recreating for more than 30 years the heritage of black Peruvians who were first forced into slavery in the 1500s. Their programming reflects a culture that began in bondage, found new roots, and absorbed new influences. The ensemble tours internationally and has been honored with two Grammy nominations.
The first half of the program alternated between songs and dances, presumably to allow for costume changes and rest for the dancers. The program began with "Afro," a ritual dance, performed by the ensemble's five male and five female dancers, costumed in simple brown sheaths. The barefoot dancers were crouched or bent over, often clasping hands behind their backs and whirling in angry circles in a dance of bondage to the accompaniment of five drummers. Even in this primitivistic opener, the precision in choreography and execution was stunning.
The following dance, "Ollita," was a festejo dance (the most popular and celebratory song or dance) featuring both playful face-offs of men vs. women and charming seductive sequences. Here the men were costumed in 17-18th-century-style jackets, breeches, and silk stockings and the women, in colorful dresses and head rags, the livery of house servants. The next dance featured the women in colorful short dresses with flat-heeled shoes, coquettishly flashing their fans while showing off their legs and ample petticoats.
The final dance of this half, "Festejo Ritmo," was a joyful ritual dance executed barefoot in a frenetic moto perpetuo. Interwoven with these dances were three songs sung by a female or male lead, or both — a landó (a slower and more sensual song), a tondero (a song from the northern coastal areas of Peru), and a festejo. The trouble with every vocal number was that all the performers were amplified to a deafening roar, including the various percussion instruments. Against this din, the singer sang in an amplified shout, and because there were no translations of any of the songs on the program, this incomprehensible exchange fell on deaf ears. Polite but faint applause followed each vocal, as one would expect from people kept in the dark.
The performances of the second half, more varied and nuanced, were highpoints of the show. The opening number featured the native percussion instruments of Afro-Peruvians: the cajón (drum made from a crate), the cajita (a small box drum with a lid, worn around the neck, which is both struck with a stick and the lid snapped) worn by some of the dancers, and the quijadas (jawbones). Following this was a zapateo, a stunning tap dance executed in soft-soled shoes by both men and women to the accompaniment of solo guitars. The "Zamba Malató" featured the women only, dressed in colorful polka-dotted dresses with red aprons and head rags, simulating the ritual of laundry with real tubs. The whole company returned in frilly costumes and buckled shoes for the "Toro Mata," a landó à la minuet that brazenly mocks the once-courtly dress and manners of their masters. At various times throughout this half, the vocalists engaged the audience by eliciting a call and response (from the audience) exchange. Several people got up to dance in the aisles.
I heartily applaud what Perú Negro is trying to do with these programs, as they are informative and exciting, but I question some of the Las Vegas-like show tactics, especially the excessive amplification of the performers. In a venue like the Porter Center, which was built for acoustic performances, even a solo instrumentalist or singer can be heard clearly, and when all the amps were turned off, such as in the beginning number of the second half of the program, we heard something much more akin to an authentic performance. When we go to international cultural programs, we neither need nor want to see so much of ourselves in the mirror.