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  • Black Rhythms of Peru: Reviving African Musical Heritage in the Black Pacific
  • Joshua Tucker
Heidi Carolyn Feldman . Black Rhythms of Peru: Reviving African Musical Heritage in the Black Pacific. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2006. 306 pp. $50.00. ISBN: 0819568147/ 978-0819568151 (paper).

Afro-Peruvian music has received much international attention since the 1995 release of David Byrne's Luaka Bop compilation The Soul of Black Peru, and the resultant global success of performer Susana Baca. However, its history and its place within contemporary Peruvian society remain poorly understood. In Black Rhythms of Peru, ethnomusicologist Heidi Feldman provides a remarkably thorough history of the genre. Informative, engaging, clearly written, and theoretically provocative, this [End Page 315] book is suitable for undergraduates as well as graduate students. It should find a place in course syllabi dedicated to music, race, and African diasporic performance, and on the bookshelves of those interested in similar matters.

Feldman's account stresses the capacity of performance to rework local histories, stimulating new identity formations. Until the mid-twentieth century, Afro-Peruvian cultural traditions were deemed lost, absorbed by Peru's broader criollo cultural formation, and black Peruvians were in many ways socially invisible. Beginning with the style's emergence in 1956, and ending with its ambivalent adoption by the contemporary world music marketplace, Black Rhythms of Peru describes how the Afro-Peruvian revival played a key role in changing this racial formation. Exploring the "sites of memory" in which performers constructed a newly distinct Afro-Peruvian subjectivity, Feldman describes how performers creatively reinterpreted the material of other Afro-diasporic revivals, adapting them to local demands and to Peruvian criollo nationalism. The book thus complements the existing literature on Afro-Latin music and dance, with its emphasis on the "changing same" of Black Atlantic performance. Building upon Gilroy's analysis, Feldman theorizes her subjects' field of action as a distinct "Black Pacific" sphere, rhetorically subordinate to the more "authentically African" Black Atlantic. Using this framework, she brilliantly analyzes how local artists adapted ill-fitting Black Atlantic discourses of African history and aesthetics, while maintaining links to Peru's distinct social history.

The text focuses on influential performers, but it firmly situates these actors with respect to the societal constraints they faced. At various times, Afro-Peruvian performance was influenced and enabled by criollo colonial nostalgia, the international circulation of Afrocentric ideology, state-sponsored ideas of folkloric nationalism, the demands of tourism, and the representational demands of the world music market. Feldman shows how performers adapted to social and ideological demands, using a battery of techniques to "Africanize" and rework elements of criollo music and dance. These included ethnographic research, the elaboration of half-remembered scraps into new musical genres, borrowing from diasporic African styles to "fill in" the gaps, and recourse to a purported "ancestral memory" where documentation was impossible.

Bracketed by an introduction and conclusion, the heart of the book is organized chronologically into six chapters, each analyzing the activities of a key individual or group. After outlining the book's theoretical frame, the introduction provides an overview of Afro-Peruvian history. It also summarizes the factors that made Afro-Peruvian music and dance a key means of voicing difference, including the international rise of Afrocentric empowerment movements, Peruvian tours by African American performing [End Page 316] groups, the support of Peru's military government for nationalist "folklore," and the emergence of charismatic leaders from within the Afro-Peruvian community itself.

The opening chapter focuses on the 1956 debut of the Pancho Fierro Company in Lima, the first notable attempt to acknowledge Afro-Peruvian elements of Peru's national culture. Feldman situates the company within a prevailing atmosphere of criollo colonial nostalgia. At the time, indigenous Andean migration was challenging the dominance of Lima's elite, and criollos looked to the past, defensively documenting and celebrating the roots of criollo culture. Under the directorship of white intellectual José Durand, the troupe sought previously anonymous black performers who, refigured as key culture bearers, connected limeños with the African strand of criollo history. By focusing on "lost" traditions such as the son de los diablos, Durand and company endorsed a vision of Afro-Peruvian...