For over 35 years, the two-time Grammy-nominated Perú Negro has been reinvigorating Peru’s rich black culture of all over the world via dance and music. Appointed as “Cultural Ambassadors of Black Peru” by the Peruvian government, they became the group to emulate by other bands in this genre. Founded by the late Ronaldo Campos, Perú Negro is now led by his son Rony Campos – who is exploring new routes for the ensemble. While Perú Negro was originally made up of 12 family members, today there are more than 30 individuals involved – many still family- and they have a school for their young group in Lima called Perú Negrito. Just in time to celebrate their latest CD, Zamba Malató (Times Square Records), released on January 22, the ensemble performed at the New York City Center on January 26 as part of their 46-city, three-month tour.

Perú Negro’s live show, which includes a 20-member ensemble, including dancers, band and vocalists, features material from their new album, Zamba Malató (which name refers to an old chant sung by black women as they worked on their daily chores). Starting out with an upbeat ritual dance called “Afro,” the dancers wore tan-colored cloths and danced with little wooden drums and machetes, moving to the pulsating rhythm made possible by the African wooden goblet-shaped hand drum – the djembe. The show started to pick up momentum during the second half when they performed classics such as the party favorite, “Pancha Remolino,” and the Peruvians in the audience clapped joyfully and tapped along with their feet.

Lead vocalist in the show as well as the album, Mónica Dueñas, sang the well-known festejo, “Una Negra y un Negro,” getting some audience participation by asking the crowd to repeat the lively chorus “Eso no se dice” but she lacks the inner vocal strength of Afro-Peruvian legends like Eva Ayllón and Susana Baca. Right after came another classic, “Toro Mata,” made famous worldwide when Celia Cruz recorded it back in 1978. Perú Negro successfully brought this landó (a slower paced and more sensual version of the festejo) back to life. Dressed in stark white colonial-style ruffled outfits, this dance mocks European slave-owner dances that slaves used to observe in the 1500’s in Peru.

The melodic closing song “Bailarás,” composed by Allan Phillips, is a more modern take of an Afro-Peruvian song that resuscitates tradition with the kikongo chants – the dialect spoken by many of the slaves in Peru when they first arrived. To sum up the performance, the dancers flooded the stage in different eye-pleasing costumes worn throughout the night. But they should have stopped before the excitement wore off, as the act got too repetitive and tiresome.

Overall, the costumes by Mercedes Campos and Soledad Ysusqui are colorful and theatrical, and the dancing and singing elegantly organized. However, the show is missing the roughness, sweat and soul of what is the essence of black Peru. Instead of giving off powerful vibrations that overflow into the audience, the performance is too neat and tidy.

For more information regarding African culture in Peru, click here.