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In Peru, Novalima bangs the drums of change

By updating traditional Afro-Peruvian music, the band is mainstreaming black culture in the racially divided nation.

By Nina RobertsContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / January 11, 2008

Frenetic rhythm: Novalima's Marcos Mosquera plays the congas in a studio. Later, the band will splice and loop parts of songs and add other new elements to the recording.

Nina Roberts

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Lima, Peru

Inside a wisely soundproofed studio, where Afro-Peruvian group Novalima is recording a new album, frenzied hands beat congas, bongos, and a drum set with cowbells. Sitting atop cajóns, percussionists pound on the crate-like instruments in between their legs, singing into microphones. Elsewhere in the cramped space, musicians behind laptops, keyboards, and mixers concoct bass-heavy beats as singer Milagros Guerrero bobs to the music, microphone in hand. Her velvety voice may have a melancholic gravity, but it floats effortlessly above the boisterous rhythms.

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What's wholly remarkable about Novalima's music is both the unexpected fusion of traditional Afro-Peruvian music and electronica, and the effect it's having on this multiethnic, yet polarized, nation. Afro-Peruvians have long been largely marginalized – blacks comprise just 3 percent of the population – and accounts of racism are common here. Yet, Novalima, a nine-piece that also includes musicians of European and Chinese descent, is giving Afro-Peruvian culture a very public face both at home and abroad.

"The value of Novalima is that young people see hands of all colors playing Afro-Peruvian rhythms," says photographer Lorry Salcedo, who has extensively documented Afro-Peruvian culture. "Novalima is making this incredibly creative music accessible to young people, and that is very positive."

Afro-Peruvian music shares the same roots as nearly all black music in the Americas: It originated with African slaves. But in contrast to other countries with a strong black musical history, Afro-Peruvian music is not well known outside Peru. (Unlike in neighboring Brazil, the black population here doesn't receive government subsidies to promote its culture.) Inside Peru, most people have been exposed to and respect Afro-Peruvian music regardless of race or class, but it's not particularly popular among the young, who tend to listen to cumbia, salsa, reggae, rock, or hip-hop.

"Traditional Afro-Peruvian songs are sad songs with lamenting words," explains Juan Medrano, a.k.a. Cotito, a sought after cajón player and singer whose glasses and outfit gave him a hip, professorial look. During a break from the recording – a jovial session full of competitive posturing as to who should take the solo – Medrano notes that despite the genre's sobering lyrics, with direct or indirect references to slavery, it employs happy and vibrant rhythms.

Novalima is modernizing the genre. In large part, it's because the group was formed by well-traveled non-Afro-Peruvians inspired by electronica groups such as England's Groove Armada and AIR from France. Grimaldo del Solar, Ramón Pérez-Prieto, Carlos Li Corrillo, and Rafael Morales, the primary producers, began to experiment with computers and digital recording and released their first, self-titled CD, a collection of Latin American-infused electronica – including several Afro-Peruvian tracks – in 2003.