Say this about Rhythms of Black Peru, the latest in a series of Peruvian-themed compilations to come from Secret Stash Records; it makes little effort to be the definitive document on Afro-Peruvian music. For the unfamiliar (as I was until I received the album), Afro-Peruvian music has a lineage spanning as far back as the sixteenth century, when Spanish conquistadors brought West-African slaves to Peru. Without going into too much dry, historical detail, Afro-Peruvian music is the product of West-African slave culture mingling with native Peruvian culture. The resulting music takes instantly recognizable Latin melodies and fuses it with African polyrhythms.
Sounds like a genre worthy of a balls-out, triple-disc anthology to me, and yet Secret Stash records has distilled this sprawling, cross-cultural movement into a meager eleven song album that runs a grand total of thirty-seven minutes. Don’t get me wrong; those thirty-seven minutes are plenty enjoyable, but such a rich and interesting fusion of styles merits a more expansive treatment.
But let’s talk about what’s here rather than what’s not. South American music is the dominant element here, particularly on tracks that feature light, or even non-existent, percussion. In particular, “Pobre Vez” by Chabuca Granda is a lonely ballad, featuring nothing more than vocals and acoustic guitar. It’s beautifully performed, but doesn’t feature a hint of African music that I can trace. The same could be said of Granda’s “El Puente De Los Suspiros,” which appears earlier in the album.
Rhythms of Black Peru is more successful when it skews to the rhythmic, as the title promises. “Mama Luchita (Festejo)” builds from a simple bassline into a festive blowout of claps, shakers, guitars and call-and-response vocals. “Prendeme La Vela” thrives just as well with an incredibly similar structure.
Most impressive are the songs that reveal their African influences in more subtle ways. At first, “Samba Malato (Lando)” sounds like pretty standard South American fare, but repeated listens and a late-song rhythmic breakdown highlight just how many components are at play. Rhythms of Black Peru could stand a few more moments like this. Aside from the earlier gripe about the length, the biggest problem with this compilation is that it often fails to make the essence of Afro-Peruvian music clear. The intersection of the two disparate cultures is only rarely apparent. Secret Stash may have been merely attempting to get the listener started on their Afro-Peruvian education, but they could have presented a more compelling idea of what’s in store should the listener decide to persist.