Latido Negro, Peru’s African Beat
directed by Rafael Santa Cruz
written by Fernando Barreto Arce
choreographed by Lalo Izquierdo,
review by Rosalind Lacy
Break down the barriers. Let fusion reign. In GALA’s world premiere of a new musical Latido Negro: Peru’s African Beat, intoxicating rhythms of African drums blend with echoes of sweet-and-sad Andean or Spanish flamenco-like melodies. Forget the story. It doesn’t matter anyway. It’s a frame for the poems, and songs, music and dancing passed down from the Afro-Peruvian soul.
Internationally famous Lalo Izquierdo, who plays the lead character Nelson the choreographer, is the charismatic choreographer and performer from Lima, Peru, who started the parent company, Peru Negro troupe 38 years ago.
Nelson, rehearsing his dancers for an international tour in a Washington DC loft, tells everyone he needs to marry Graciela (Zonaly Ruiz) to get his residency permit. But there’s a big problem: Graciela, already spoken for, wants nothing to do with Nelson. That’s about as far as the plot line goes before the blend of syncopated salsa beat from the cajon (the box drums originating from fruit crates) and the swell of the guitar and bass take over.
Nelson wants to exalt the purity of the African heritage, unadulterated by other influences. An intellectual argument ensues over what is pure African and what is not. What’s African music? Can the Andean Indian melodies be isolated? Is the music jazz, country or Afro-American? What’s Peruvian? None of the dancers can agree. “Peruvian is not fusion; it’s confusion,” one performer laments.
Directed by Rafael Santa Cruz, the company of dancers, Lalo Izquierdo, Zonaly Ruiz, Daniel Leyva, Victoria Leyva, Pancho Gonzalez, Abby Charles, Quynn Jonson, and Susana Tarabochia break out into furious dancing numbers to resolve the questions. The format is based on the call-and-response of native Peruvian culture. These are songs from the streets, from the countryside, from the fields.
To appreciate the questions, some background history helps: To prevent revolt, colonists brought slaves to Peru from all parts of Africa and prohibited animal skin drums for signaling and unity. So the slaves improvised on boxes and chairs to keep a diaspora together. That scattering of people created problems with passing on rituals, language and culture, so the slaves made up their own. And what happened? Out came a contagious, friendly attitude for anything goes. Bits and fragments of refrains come together from different sources and fuse together for one happy, foot stomping celebration of life.
The expression of African culture in Peru came close to extinction until the 1950’s when poets Nicomedes Santa Cruz and his sister Victoria, whose songs and lyrics are featured in Latido Negro, revived the Afro-Peruvian style. The world discovered music with erotic flavor and free spirit, which had been suppressed by colonialists and the church. The black pride movement in the 60’s fanned the flames.
The Latido Negro characters continue their search for a musical identity. “They Called Me Negro Girl,” by Victoria Santa Cruz, represents racial protest against the color line and class prejudice. It’s a celebration of: Hey, it’s okay to be dark-skinned. On the stage apron, the five female performers sing out the call: “Am I black?”…. “What’s a black woman to do? Powder her face, straighten her hair?” Then comes the response: “No, I can stop straightening my hair and powdering my face.”…. “We are all discriminated against. We all have African roots.” So, let’s dance and have fun.
And that’s what happens in “Zapateo.” Izquierdo, as Nelson, and Quynn Jonson, as Ann, partake in a fantastic foot stomping duel. Nelson starts a soft-shoe dance and Ann comes back clogging in her hard soled shoes. Who wins? I vote for Ann.. It doesn’t matter. They dance together at the end.
The search for identity goes on. Act II takes us to Peru. The 19th century painter Pancho Fierro’s watercolors capture and preserve the rural customs, the colorful costumes, foods and street festivals. And resonant-voiced Vicky Leyva brings the street vendor’s song to life in “Chicha Vendor“as she sells healing powers in the purple corn Chicha drink.( Lyrics by Victoria Santa Cruz.)
Strong influence from the church is seen, such as “The Devil’s Dance,” a mockery of street processions with effigies. Masked dancers dance in the aisles, incense soothes our senses, accompanied the “quijada de burro,” the jawbone of a donkey that produces an eerie shushing sound. (The side of the jaw bone is slapped or a stick is scraped across the teeth.) The priest’s collection box, the cajita. is hit with a stick or opens and shuts like a large castanet.
The courtship dances are fascinating. The erotic “Alcatraz, (Pelican) Dance,” mocks Spanish dance, with undulating hips, and candles. The dancers enter in ruffled skirts or brilliant color, and twirl above bare feet. Hips undulate, teasing the male dancers who hold the candles. The woman, a tissue tied to her back, swings her hips wildly to get away. The men dance around and try to set the women on fire. When a woman’s tissue ignites, she falls to the floor.
The “Lando,” based on a wedding ritual originating from Angola, is more dignified. “Zamacueca” or marinera, a flirtatious, friendly dance of undulating body movements accompanied by waving scarves, originated in Peru in 1824 and spread into other Latin American countries and California.
But stop the music. What holds this eclectic performance together? Nelson finds that “while searching for purity in tradition….fusion is all they found.”
The surtitles over the stage that translate the Spanish lyrics to English are necessary and helpful so sit further back if you’re not somewhat fluent in Spanish. The logic of the scenes sometimes seems confusing. But hey that’s okay too. Isn’t that what Afro-Peruvian music is about? Fusion of the confusion?
Latido Negra is an upbeat finish for the theme season,“Her Work, His Staging,” that included darker plays, like Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, Griselda Gambaro’s Las Paredes The Walls, about Argentina’s disappeared.”
Running time: approx 1:45) Performances continue in Spanish with English surtitles, Thursdays through Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 4:00 p.m. until July 1, 2007, Tickets: $34 on Friday and Saturday, $30 on Thursday and Sunday. Students, senior citizens (65+) and military, $26 (Fri/Sat), $20 (Thurs./Sun.). Additional discounts available for groups of 10 or more. Tickets available at TICKETplace or the GALA box office. Call: 202-234-7174/(800) 494-TIXS, or visit the website. PARKING: Discount parking in Giant parking lot behind the theatre on Park Rd. METRO: Green Line to Columbia Heights.