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Donkey jawbones, laptops mix up Peru’s new music

As a Quechua Indian quintet plays a solemn Andean muleteer’s march on harp, clarinet and violin, their notes spring up as wave forms on a computer screen in an ultra-modern recording studio.

In a dark and smoky rehearsal room across town, a sound engineer tweaks a console, weaving electronic beats and bleeps between the thumps and slaps of a sweating conga player.

The mention of Peruvian music often brings to mind images of poncho-clad highlanders blowing breathily into wooden pan-pipes to the tune of El Condor Pasa — the song made famous by a 1970 Simon and Garfunkel cover version.

But as a wave of musical fusions crosses Latin America, Peruvians are using high tech to give traditionally acoustic local genres a novel electronic jolt.

”The music of the Andes represents a vision of life that is not Western,” said former 1980s rocker Miki Gonzalez, who has grafted electronic rhythms and bleeps onto music from Peru’s highlands for his latest CD, Inka Beats.

”A lot of people tell me ‘I don’t like Andean music, but I like it this way,”’ he said.

Peru’s music, like its geography and ethnic mix, is a kaleidoscope, including black rhythms originally tapped out on fruit boxes and tropical mutations of Viennese waltzes that were once popular with the 19th-century European elite.

The new electronic hybrids — in the line of similar fusions of traditional Mexican, Argentine and Brazilian music — are just as varied.

Out of Africa

In a rehearsal studio in a cliffside Lima neighbourhood, a black female vocalist belted out a driving Afro-Peruvian waltz as the rest of the band, called Novalima, rattled the walls with clashing percussion and a heavy bass-guitar line.

Inspired by music African slaves played after the Spanish conquest, Novalima’s album Afro uses samplers and sequencers as well as ancient percussion instruments like donkey jawbones and wooden boxes once used for church alms collections.

”The electronic part is just another instrument,” said band member Grimaldo del Solar, hovering over a laptop, its screen glowing in the dark room, as he took an occasional sip from a bottle of whiskey the band was sharing to loosen up.

Vastly different and often instrumental or sung in Indian languages, the music of the highlands dates back to Peru’s former Inca rulers, with hundreds of styles that change from village to village.

Recording live samples for a new album in his Lima home studio, Gonzalez miked up Quechua musicians from the chilly highland town of Jauja, one aged 85, to a digital console.

A haunting Muliza — a march based on the clip-clop of highland muleteers’ beasts through mountain passes — scrawled across multicoloured track lines on his Macintosh computer.

Waltz chillout

At Sunday dances in the seaside Miraflores neighbourhood, smartly dressed elderly couples twirl to scratchy recordings of romantic waltzes jangling from an outdoor sound system.

The accompanying creole or criolla music blending guitars, voices in harmony and a wooden box drum or Cajon was born when local musicians made their own versions of 19th-century European waltzes popular with the elite.

No Lima taxi ride is complete without a tinny waltz chiming from the radio and the genre is a restaurant crooner’s staple, but younger Peruvians thought it old-fashioned — until jingle producer Jaime Cuadra began making remixes of the music.

The resulting album — Cholo Soy — Peruvian Waltz Chillout — which spices up the genre with heavy beats and samples, now wafts through the gourmet restaurants and lounge bars popular with Lima’s trendiest.

Despite the new trend, electronic-based music is still a relative novelty in Peru, and the traditional musicians who give the new hybrid genres their soul say there is still no replacement for playing the real thing — unplugged.

One Friday night, hundreds of Peruvians crowded into bustling Don Porfirio’s — one of Lima’s most famous Penas, or traditional taverns — where criolla and Afro-Peruvian music is played and danced to.

As a band played Afro-Peruvian rhythms with no computer or sequencer in sight, driving dancers into a frenzied blur of gyrating hips to screams of applause, Novalima’s percussionist Mangue Vazquez took his place at the congas.

”The crowd incites you to play,” he panted afterward, pouring with sweat. ”There is nothing like playing live.” ‒ Reuters

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