One of the greatest living exponents of Peruvian musica criolla (creole music), Eva Ayllon, performed at the Sydney Opera House on September 25. Finding my seat, I felt as if I’d walked into an exuberant family gathering full of animated conversation, laughter, waving and group photography.
Eva’s six-piece band — piano, cajon (“wooden box”, originally an upturned fruit box), bass, Spanish guitar, congas and backing vocals — took the stage. A momentary hush settled over the auditorium, then Eva herself appeared and the audience erupted with wild cheering, whistling and applause.
Like a charismatic curandera (folk healer), she doused the already-charged atmosphere with torrents of positive energy.
Eva’s 90-minute set was a glorious musical statement celebrating Peru’s egalitarian multicultural ideal of — many races and cultures, one shared destiny.
That’s the Peru that Eva was referring to when she sang and sauntered her way through the opening number “Enamorada de mi Pais” (“I’m in love with my country”). Other highlights included sultry extended renditions of the folk song “Toro Mata” and Chabuca Granda’s “Caballero de Fina Estampa”.
Musica criolla owes a special debt to West Africa, whose descendents now make up 10% of Peru’s population. Oppressed in body but not in spirit during the days of slavery (which ended in 1854), the slaves drew on their musical roots to create distinctive dances and rhythms such as the upbeat festejo and the bluesy lando.
Spanish and Andean influences also combined to make musica criolla what it is, a uniquely Peruvian art form expressing the loves, the sufferings, the joys and the lamentations of an entire people.
Creole music with its complex African-derived polyrhythms and alternating Flamenco/Andean cadences is all about the fusion of the various cultures that have merged in Peru. There have been many tragic developments in Peru’s history but also much to celebrate in terms of cultural achievement.
Peruvian folk culture was thriving for at least 5000 years before the Spanish conquest in the 1500s and it continues to thrive today in resistance to the homogenising tendencies of US-driven cultural imperialism. Expert say Peru is still home to more than 1500 musical genres and 3000 popular festivals. As Eva has said: “My country is my body and my music is my blood.”
Along with other legendary Afro-Peruvian performers such as Lucila Campos, Susana Baca and the late Arturo Cavero (who died in 2009), Eva has done much to bring Afro-Peruvian music to the attention of an international audience.
Once a suppressed underground art form associated with coastal Afro-Peruvian communities in Chincha and Canete, it is now taking its rightful place as one of Peru’s most emblematic musical styles.
Eva has been nominated for a Grammy three times before and will probably win one some day. But she is very clear that music industry awards are not what motivate her to sing. “The fact that the bus drivers of my country, the children in the schools, the housewives, the people in the market listen to the music that I interpret means that I am recognised enough already”, she said in an interview last year.
After the Sydney show, Eva stayed around to sign autographs and have photos taken with hundreds of audience members, showing why she is one of the most loved and admired icons of Peruvian musical culture, now celebrating the 40th year of her singing career.
Despite the international stardom which has seen her sell millions of records and pack concert halls around the world, Eva’s proudest achievement is her solidarity with the people of her beloved homeland and of Peruvian diaspora communities worldwide.
At its heart Peruvian Creole music is more than great music: it’s a quest for ethnic harmony, inclusiveness and social equality. Today that quest is more relevant than ever.
Peru is still a nation beset by profound social, economic and racial injustice. The hope for the future is that Peru’s indigenous, African, European and Asian communities will forge a new political reality that does justice to the cosmopolitan promise of this music.
Then the generous, inclusive, life-affirming spirit of the people of Peru will prevail over the forces of divisive racism and corporate neo-colonisation.
At times Eva had us in stitches with her earthy tell-it-like-it-is humour, at other times we were misty-eyed with a lump in the throat. Her concert was the sort of event that takes you out of yourself and leaves you in a better place. Judging by the uncontrollable hand-clapping exuberance of the audience they felt the same way too.
The phrase “magnificent stage presence” hardly does justice to such an incandescent talent.