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.
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.
As the four continued to record new material, they found themselves wanting to put a cajón on each track. "Suddenly," says del Solar, who controls the electronic beats when playing live, "we noticed, sort of unconsciously, that all we were doing were Afro-Peruvian songs. So we decided to make an album of it."
To fulfill their vision, the founding members began to corral primarily Afro-Peruvian musicians who, in addition to the drums and cajón, played instruments such as the "quijada de burro" (donkey jaw) and the "cajita," meaning "little box," which is played by hitting its side and slamming its lid.
"Afro-Peruvian music is like a hidden treasure that no one has done anything about," says Corrillo.
Sitting on the studio's sofa, Guerrero, feet barely touching the ground, reflects on hearing Novalima's hybrid version of Afro-Peruvian music five years ago. "It was real interesting because it crossed boundaries," remarks the singer. "I was used to doing more traditional music, but I was open to investigating what this sound was about."
Percussionist Marcos Mosquera, who has played with Novalima for two years, had been slightly more hesitant. "It's not traditional Afro-Peruvian music, although it uses the traditional instruments. But little by little, I liked it," he says.
They formed a musical collective, resulting in 2006's critically acclaimed "Afro," popular among European DJs and played on US radio stations such as KCRW, KEXP, and WFMU.
"On the first and second CD, Novalima was a collective," says del Solar, standing in front of a small mountain of wires, speakers, laptops, and soundboards. "Now we are a band, and you can hear it."
Indeed, each new track plays like an electronic collage of exuberant, off-kilter rhythms fused with Dub, House, and R&B beats along with a splash of Cuban influences and reggae.
Novalima's mix of races harkens back to an earlier time when artists of different races – including singer Chabuca Granda – played together in small music clubs called peñas. But a wider legacy of racism still lingers.
"The racism in Peru is dangerous because it is not confronted directly," says Mr. Salcedo, the photographer. "Many black people live day-to-day; they see no future for their kids – they don't have the same opportunities as blacks in the USA."
"It's really beautiful," says Cotito, reflecting on Novalima's racial and economic mix, "but it's natural, not forced. This generation seems to be more open."
Although all members agree racism is a problem in Peru, whether it's against Afro-Peruvians or Andeans, they all appear reluctant to cite Novalima as any kind of example for bridging racial and economic divides. Most just shrug their shoulders or stare blankly when asked about the band as a kind of symbol, almost as if an interracial couple had been asked if their marriage had any kind of political agenda.
But del Solar finally concedes that the band has made a difference to his own life. "The racial mix on stage is not that unusual anymore," he says. "I would say that more unusual are the friendships we all have, [with] there being a lot of racial and economical differences. But, as they say, music is the only worldwide language, and it does not discriminate in any way."