The dancers in dark pink and aqua-blue flamenco dresses startled the crowd when they dashed down the aisle of chairs on the Sub Level 1 floor of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.
Following them, a boy in his aqua-blue top, dark pink waist-tie and black pants shuffle-stepped among the dancers—his arms outstretched as if he were mimicking the movements of a plane.
These dancers were a highlight of an Afro-Peruvian Rhythms and Dance performance the Museum of African Art and Smithsonian Latino Initiative Pool presented Saturday. The headliners were Peruvian singer Vicky Leyva and her five-piece band.
This is the second event this year I’ve seen at the Museum of African Art. Last month, I saw MATCH + WOOD, a performance by poets Ernesto Mercer, Sami Miranda and a 10-piece band that explored the dynamic connections between Latino, African and American cultures.
Saturday’s event was a thread in an ongoing narrative of the Afro-Peruvian experience that started when the first slaves arrived in Peru in the sixteenth century, according to World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples – Peru: Afro-Peruvians published by the Minority Rights Group International. “By the nineteenth century, slaves formed the heart of Peru’s plantation labour force,” the publication noted.
And though the Peruvian government abolished slavery in 1854, Afro-Peruvians didn’t regain their ethnic identity until the 1950s. That’s when Afro-Peruvians created dance and theater groups to reaffirm their African identity.
“Inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s, social groups formed to trace their African roots,” according to the publication. “Although these groups were short-lived, other groups have taken their place, including the Asociacion Cultural de la Juventud Negra, the Instituto de Investigaciones Afro-Peruano, and the Movimiento Negro Francisco Congo.”
During Saturday’s performance, Vicky Leyva’s Afro-Peruvian pride showed in her brown micro-shoulder-length braids, her wood-beaded cuff and her one-piece cheetah-print jumpsuit.
Even her smart phone exuded an Afro-Latina vibe. When it rang during sound check, the early attendees looked around to see who was blowing a wooden flute and smacking claves.
Leyva kicked off her set with a percussive-heavy number to which she stomped a foot and rolled her hips. The audience nodded and tapped their feet as the rhythm sped up. She jumped into another number that required crowd participation in the form of clapping. Leyva drove the crowd wild when she started winding her hips. She danced to each musician’s solo—even to that of the bass guitarist and electric keyboard.
This style of dance and accompanying music is festejo, according to afropop.org, the companion site for the radio series Afropop Worldwide, which served as a portal for Americans to learn more about Africa and the world for 22 years. The site is a network of researchers, writers, field recorders, photographers, videographers, audio engineers, producers, bloggers and on-air personalities.
According to the site, “The festejo is the most joyous of Afro-Peruvian music styles.” Vocalist Susana Baca, one of the site’s researchers, traced the dance and music to slavery in Peru. “After independence in Peru and the abolition of slavery,” she was quoted as saying, “people who were slaves only wanted to forget that part of their lives, to erase all memory of that stage of history.”
She continued: “Erasing memory signified erasing melodies, erasing songs, erasing dances, and erasing traditions.
There were times in the early part of the 20th Century when an African descendant would be asked if he or she could remember a slave song. This person would say that they could not remember, but they remembered.”
Over time, the festejo became competitive among men, who gathered in a circle with their cajones (or box drums) and beat out “a series of fighting rhythms,” according to afropop.org. The festejo now incorporates sensual and undulating movements, the body’s way of talking. The percussionists are puppet masters whose rhythms trigger the dancer’s movements.
Vicky Leyva’s body interpreted the sounds and rhythms of cowbells and congas. The crowd jumped up and applauded when her body matched the violent rhythms of a cajone player whose box drum doubled as his stool. During that exchange, Leyva’s movements were as fluid as the underwater light patterns that rippled on a wall behind the performers. “I’m enjoying that,” she said after her dance. “Are you enjoying it?” We all yelled, “Yeah!”
Then Leyva performed a piece by a famous Afro-Peruvian poet to drums and hand claps. The poem, whose name escapes me, is about a little girl in Peru learning to embrace her African heritage. The little girl’s reluctance is the result of the current marginalization of Afro-Peruvians. According to the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples – Peru, the Afro-Peruvian movement in Peru was weaker than those in Brazil and Columbia.
The publication also found that the Afro-Peruvians in rural areas live in extreme poverty without basic services or social programs. As a result, “anti-racism working groups have been formed in Lima, and organizations such as the Asociacion Palenque and the Asociacion pro Derechos Humanos del Negro have managed to make their voices heard.” However, the Peruvian press reports show continued discrimination that included a club in Lima barring entrance to people of African descent.
The little girl in the poem’s reluctance comes from the fact that despite a strong presence of African group identity, black Peruvians have no special collective rights since they’re not officially recognized as a distinct cultural group.
Though Leyva performed the poem in Spanish—a language I learned, but was never close to speaking it fluently—it was clear for me that the back-up singers’ chants of “Negra!” started as a taunt.
But once the girl embraced her African roots, she turned the taunt into her affirming chant: “Negra!”
And Vicky Leyva’s performance was just as affirming, especially when the dancers in dark pink and aqua-blue flamenco dresses came out. We clapped for the dancers moving the top layer of their dresses from side to side while they spun to the percussion. We shouted while the boy stepped to the cajone, congas and cowbell.
Leyva smiled while watching all this, and I wondered if she was once that little girl in the poem; if that was why she picked that poem to perform. I didn’t wonder long when Leyva, amid applause for the dancers who dashed back through the aisle, came back to the mic for her last affirmation. “I feel this music,” she said as we cheered. “African roots are in my veins. They’re in the veins of everyone here.”