"Now I Believe In The Pachamama"

Olivia, our guide for our three-day trek in the Colca Canyon was never really a spiritual or religious person…until about two years ago. “I would drop some chicha or beer on the ground and say something about it being an offering to the Pachamama,” she says, “but I did not truly believe that this was anything more than a ritual. Now I believe in the Pachamama.”

The Pachamama is a goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes. Pachamama is usually translated at “Mother Earth” but a more literal translation would be “Mother World.” In Inca mythology, Pachamama is a fertility goddess who presides over planting and harvesting and is responsible for weather – both good and bad -- as well as earthquakes and volcanoes. Many Peruvians and almost all indigenous people of the Andes believe in the Pachamama.

Olivia is a single woman in her early 40’s from Arequipa who earns a good living as a tour guide. The Colca Canyon is the world’s second-deepest canyon and is the biggest tourist attractions in southern Peru. She speaks English pretty well and can communicate in Quechua, as well. She is friendly and talkative and on our way to a three-day trek of the Colca Canyon, we sat together in the back row of our van. Our rambling conversation somehow got on the subject of Andean spirituality and she told me the following story:

“About two years ago, I was taking a group through the Colca Canyon and at some point near the end of a trek I fell down on the trail and I could not get up. One of my clients helped me up and my leg felt numb, almost paralyzed. I limped back and that night I could not move it. My leg was paralyzed for a few days and I was really scared. Without knowing it, a friend of mine got some herbs from a shaman she knew and made a tea for me. The next morning, I was perfectly fine.”

“A few months after that I suddenly became ill with headaches and fever and I didn’t know what was wrong. I went to my doctor, who couldn't figure out what was wrong either. He prescribed some pills but they did nothing. I felt this way for almost two weeks and I decided to visit the shaman that my friend went to. I met with him and he asked a lot of questions and he talked about the power of the Pachamama and told me that he would gather some things and come to my house later that day.”

“He came over and brought some herbs from Bolivia and a dried llama fetus (see photo), as well as some incense and small bottles. He set up a small shrine in my family room and was ready to begin. He talked about how the Pachamama was everywhere and he just needed to get me into the right state of mind to allow the healing process to happen. He chanted and hummed and talked some more about the Pachamama for almost 45 minutes. I was very relaxed throughout the process and then I suddenly felt very tired. I told him I was tired and wanted to go to sleep. He led me to my room and I don’t remember anything else except waking up in the morning and feeling 100% better.”

When Olivia finished this story, I asked her if her life was in any way different now that she believed in the Pachamama and she said, “No…my day to day life is the same, but now I feel like I’m a part of something bigger. Now, I believe in the Pachamama.”


Stealing Fat: Peruvian Pishtacos

A CNN article recently reported Peruvian police arresting four members of a gang that allegedly murders people and then sells their body fat. Apparently, European laboratories are paying $15,000 per liter for human fat to be used possibly for cosmetics and in cosmetic and reconstructive surgery. The four men were arrested in association with the disappearance of at least 60 people in two mountainous states in central Peru. Authorities are calling the suspects "pishtacos," which are Andean mythological creatures. The lead prosecutor Jorge Sanz Quiroz acknowledged the uniqueness of the allegations. "We are not making this up," he said. "They have confessed to this. That's what's coming out now."

In Maria Vargas Llosa’s 1996 book “Death In The Andes” he follows two Lima detectives as they travel to Andean Peru to investigate the murder of three people in a local village. While everyone seems to think that the murders were done by the terrorist group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), when they talk to the locals in the village they get a different story. The locals place the blame on the pishtacos. Vargas Llosa describes pishtacos in the book: “A stranger. Half gringo. At first glance you didn’t know what he was because he looked just like everybody else in the world. He lived in caves and committed his crimes at night. Lurking along the roads, behind boulders, hiding among haystacks or under bridges, waiting for solitary travelers. He would approach with cunning pretending to be a friend. His powder made from the bones of the dead was all ready, and at the first careless movement he threw it in his victims’ faces. Then he could suck out their fat. Afterward he let them go, emptied, nothing but skin and bone, doomed to waste away in a few hours or days. These were the benign ones. They needed human fat to make church bells sing more sweetly and tractors run more smoothly, and now, lately, to give the government help pay off the foreign debt. The evil ones were worse. They not only slit their victims’ throats but butchered them like cattle, or sheep, or hogs, and ate them. Bled them drop by drop and got drunk on the blood”

A few months ago, as we were driving back from a trip to an orphanage, Señor Alcides, the director who also has 27 years of police experience, pointed to a village on the road about 20 minutes outside of Cusco. He told me of an unsolved crime in that town, which was supposedly full of brujas (witches). The crime involved a murder where some of the victim’s organs were missing. Señor Alcides said that everyone in town suspected pishtacos. After a year of no leads in the case, the police hired some brujas, who “guaranteed” they could help solve the case. The witches held séances with the policemen present and everyone heard eerie voices during these sessions. Despite the voices, no progress was made on the case even though the brujas were continuing to get paid. One day during a séance, one of the policeman, a turned the light on when the voices started and a small boy, who was making the voices from behind a bookshelf, ran out of the room saying that his mother, one of the brujas, made him do it. The brujas voluntarily gave the money back, the case was never solved and no pishtacos were ever caught.


Spanish In The House

One of our objectives in choosing to spend quite a few months in South America was to ensure that the kids would learn to speak Spanish conversationally. My wife has always been frustrated living in California, where 30% of the population speaks Spanish but our kids have been unable to say more than “Buenos Dias” to the gardeners. Budget cuts at California schools mean that in our school district, daily Spanish classes don’t start until the 7th grade. Considering that most experts agree that languages are best learned at a much earlier age, this has been a problem.

For the past 5-6 months in Cusco, our kids have learned a tremendous amount of Spanish, but in public they are often reticent to speak. They have daily lessons from 8 am to 1 pm with Patty, our profesora who comes to our house, but we decided that we needed to take it to the next level. We initiated the “Speak only Spanish in the house” rule. I’ll admit that this has been challenging. We started out with a point system: anyone who speaks English in the house gets a point and the person with the most points has to give the other family members a massage at the end of the day. Initially, the kids really got in to this and any utterances in English were greeted with a rousing family chorus of “PUNT-O!” (“Point!”) This worked well at times, but we ran into problems when the kids kept the tally. Our son and daughter are 18 months apart and extremely competitive with one another and even the mere possibility of one sibling uttering a syllable in English would send the other scurrying to the scorecard to record a point. If we heard “PUNT-O!” from the other room, we knew we were in for an argument.

From this punitive method we migrated to a more incentive-based approach…yes, I’m talking cold, hard cash. Go all day with less than three utterances in English and you get a couple bucks…between four and six mistakes, you get a little less. Our reasoning was that this unique opportunity to learn Spanish had a limited shelf life and when we got back to California, we’d be paying $50 per hour for private what’s the big deal with a couple bucks a day? This has been the method that has worked best thus far.

Occasionally, there are some things that just can’t be communicated in Spanish, like a math or science homework explanation or something very complicated. During these times one of us prefaces an explanation with, “Voy a hablar en Ingles.” (I’m going to speak English). Once the quick English explanation is over, it is back to Spanish. Another challenge with speaking only Spanish in the house is disciplining the kids. Nothing gets their attention like a quickly barking out, “Stop screwing around and get on with your homework!” Trying to say this in Spanish with the right tone, force and curtness is difficult and slowly fumbling through the grammar just defeats the purpose. When I’m trying to be angry in Spanish and I’m halfway through a sentence and the kids are trying to suppress a giggle, I know that it is time to revert to the mother tongue.

Overall, we’ve done a fair job speaking Spanish in the house, although my wife’s fear is that we are creating our own brand of Spanglish that only we can speak. About a month ago, we passed a milestone of sorts. The kids have started to correct my grammar in public. Ordinarily, this might be kind of annoying, but I honestly love the fact that they know their stuff.


Tiempo Peruano

Most of what we’ve learned about tiempo Peruano (Peruvian time) we’ve learned from our kid’s activities. We’ve gotten to the point where if someone tells us a las cuatro (“at four O’Clock”) we can probably show up at 4:40 and if someone says cuatro punto (“Four O’clock sharp”) we can probably show up at 4:20.

Juan, our daughter’s basketball coach, is a great guy but we’ve learned to significantly pad his practice and game start times. For her first practice, he told us 8:00 am on a Sunday morning. Just to be sure, we showed up at 7:55 am and waited for him to stroll in at 8:40 am. Once he was there the other players quickly rolled in and everyone was there and practicing by 9:00 am. It was if everyone was in on the joke but us gringos. When I asked the mother of one of the players why no one arrived at 8:00 pm, she smiled and shrugged and said “tiempo Peruano.” For each ensuing practice, we arrived a little bit later until we had found the right formula. Likewise for our daughter’s first game; when Juan said "seis punto" we dutifully showed up at 6:00 pm but the game did not start until 6:20 pm. Thereafter we padded the basketball game start times by 20 minutes.

The kids’ afternoon volunteer jobs at Colibri are supposed to start at 4:00 pm, but the first few times we dropped them off, there door was locked and no one was there. Thereafter, each day we left 5-10 minutes later than the day before and finally settled into a 4:45 arrival slot. The kids’ nightly swim practices are scheduled to start at 6:30 and every time we ask Coach Cristian it is reinforced as such, but a practice has never started earlier than 6:45 pm. In fact, the other swimmers roll in between 6:45 pm and 7:15 pm, seemingly oblivious to any schedule.

We are thankful for these experiences, as it gives us insight into how Peruvians view time differently than we do. By experimentation, we’ve arrived a formula that works for us and gets our kids to their activites “on time.” No one can explain to us why 4:00 pm really means 4:40 pm…they just shrug and say “tiempo Peruano.”


Cusco Characters: Coach Cristian

We’re eternally grateful that Coach Cristian allowed our kids to join his nightly swim practices at Cusco’s only indoor heated pool. Cristian has been gracious, friendly and willing but a variety of factors have caused our swim team experience to be a lesson in “going with the flow”.

Cristian is a handsome man with thick, tousled black hair in his late 20’s and is the swim coach and P.E. teacher for one of the local colegios (combined middle school/high school) in Cusco. At practices, he walks around the pool with a jock-like swagger as he barks out instructions to his swimmers. I often see him exhort his swimmers to take larger strokes by animatedly stretching out an arm, with fingers pointing to the sky and his back arched. His swimmers like him: at a recent all-comers meet, he swam freestyle in a master’s event and dozens of his swimmers wildly cheered him on. The fact that he participated in the meet also speaks well of him; his enthusiasm for the sport and his swimmers outweighs the ego of a former competitive swimmer past his prime.

On our swim team back home in Marin County, any and all information about the swim season is readily available: meet schedule, practice times, heat sheets, etc. are all on the team web site. In Cusco, none of that information is available and Coach Cristian, our sole source of information, doesn’t always have it himself. There is no web site and the schedule doesn’t seem to be known by anyone until a week or two in advance.

Because of this we never quite seem to know what is coming up week to week in the swim season. Coach Cristian’s communication style doesn’t help, either. Whenever we’re confused about a practice time, the date of an upcoming meet or what stroke the kids will swim, we’ll ask him directly and we never seem to understand the answer. Learning a language is like detective work; based on the context and sleuthing out significant verbs or nouns in the response, one can glean the meaning and communicate. For example, I’ve asked “What time is practice tomorrow?” several times in the past few months and I often get a one or two sentence response with no times or even numbers in it. The question requires a second or third iteration before I can understand the answer. Amidst this occasional confusion, Cristian smiles and carries on in a friendly manner, oblivious to my befuddlement. To be fair to Cristian, many external things have transpired to cause a delta between our expectations and reality: for example, the TransAndina Youth Games in Bolivia were canceled because of a Dengue Fever outbreak and a swim meet in Arequipa was canceled because of the Swine Flu epidemic. My wife and I think that since he only speaks Spanish, he is not used being in the shoes of someone speaking a second language and accordingly uses a lot of slang and doesn’t slow down his speech.

Along with teaching our kids swimming, Coach Cristian has taught us to not worry if we don’t know what to expect from day to day or week to week. Just go with the flow.


Cusco Characters: Señora Melvyn

Approximately 60 years ago, a Peruvian couple was anxiously awaiting the birth of their child and in the days leading up to the delivery, they had yet to pick a name. That night, they went to a Lima movie theater to see a Hollywood movie and to relax. To this day they can’t remember the name of the movie but it starred an enchanting actress who was paired with a well-known Hollywood leading man. They loved the actress’ performance so much they decided right then that if they had a girl, they would name it after the actress. Unfortunately, they left the theater hurriedly and didn’t get the actress’s name and a few days later they gave birth to a baby girl.

When it came time to name the baby girl they had a lasting memory of the actress’ performance but not her name. Under pressure from the doctor who was filling out the birth certificate, they did the next best thing. They named the girl after the film’s well-known leading man: Melvyn Douglas. At that time, Melvyn Douglas was one of America’s finest actors and would finish his career with two Oscars, a Tony and an Emmy award. He won best supporting actor awards for “Hud” and “Being There” during an acting career that spanned six decades.

This is how Señora Melvyn got such an interesting name, not to mention a perfect icebreaker at social events and business meetings. Señora Melvyn’s works at the CTTC and spends most of her time working on preparations for a textile convention next year. She is extremely affable and warm and makes friends quickly. She seems to know everyone in town; when we walk across town for a business appointment, we often have to stop multiple times to briefly chat with business acquaintances, extended family members and friends. After every stop I remind her that she should run for Mayor of Cusco.

Melvyn and I became fast friends back in June when we first started sharing an office. We discovered we shared a joint love for the 40’s Cuban bandleader Perez Prado and I offered to make her a CD of his greatest hits from my digital library. She was thrilled and spent an inordinate amount of time making a detailed and intricately decorated CD case for it. Melvyn thrives on details and she will often spend a good part of her day organizing her office belongings, alphabetizing the business cards of her business contacts or re-writing meeting notes.

Melvyn thrives on interaction with people and is very good at getting the information she needs in order to push her project forward. I often hear her on the phone setting up appointments and often, after introducing herself on the phone, there's a pause and she launches into an abbreviated version of how she got her first name. From there the conversation becomes animated and she usually gets what she needs from the person she's talking to. Señora Melvyn has made the most out of a very unique name.


Peruvian Fusion: Día de Los Muertos

We knew that the Día de Los Muertos (Day of The Dead) was a big holiday in Mexico, but we weren’t sure to what extent it was celebrated here in Peru. When I asked people at my office, they talked about tantawawa (breads shaped in the figures of babies and horses) and lechon (roast suckling pig) but when I asked about visiting a cemetery, I was told that there was not much to see and the gatherings were private.

Like most Pre-Columbian cultures, the Incas were an agricultural society that worshipped their ancestors. In the northern hemisphere, Day of the Dead festivities focus on sharing the harvest with dead ancestors; south of the equator, early November is a time of returning spring rains, the re-flowering of the earth and the anticipation of the harvest season. As such, the start of the very important planting season is celebrated and shared with ancestors. When the Spaniards arrived, they found a way to fuse these pre-Columbian traditions with All Saints Day (Día de Todos Santos) on November 1st and All Souls Day on November 2nd. In Peru, November 1st is celebrated nationally, but in Cuzco it’s known as Día de Todos los Santos Vivos (Day of the Living Saints) and celebrated with food such as lechon, sugar cane, chicha and the tantawawa breads. November 2nd is considered the Día de los Santos Difuntos (Day of the Deceased Saints) and is honored with visits to cemeteries.

We went to Plaza Tupac Amaru on Día de Todos los Santos Vivos hoping to see displays of baby and horse breads and to try some lechon. On the way out the door of our apartment, our landlords had a whole suckling pig laid out on a table in the middle of their enclosed courtyard, ready to be roasted. At Plaza Tupac Amaru, we passed by bread vendors selling tantawawas on our way to a corner of the plaza with many makeshift food stalls. We walked to through until we found some selling lechon. We ordered two plates for the four of us and found a quiet corner to sit down and eat. The lechon was delicious: tender, moist suckling pig with a robust smoky flavor, laid on a bed of tallarines (noodles), with rocoto rellena (stuffed pepper) and a potato. We order two more plates and my son devoured another very large portion of lechon in about 20 seconds.

Despite being downplayed by my co-workers, on Día de Los Muertos we walked across town to the Almudena Cemetery in the late afternoon. We bought some flowers and offerings in the plaza next to the cemetery and walked through the massive stone gate. Inside there was more than a thousand people gathering about their ancestors’ wall niches. In South America, when a person dies they are buried in a casket for 10 years, before being dug up and cremated, and the ashes are placed into a wall of the cemetery. For those who are wealthy, the ashes go into little stand-alone marble houses that are large enough to accommodate the entire family. The wall niches at Almudena were interesting little dioramas of the deceased one’s life. Inside framed glass enclosures were symbols of the lives that the people led: dinner tables with large feasts, large beer and pisco bottles, automobiles, flowers, dolls, photos, religious statuettes…each 2-foot by 1.5-foot space selectively representing a life. The mood was festive with dancing, drinking and singing, but I got the sense that worshippers were pacing themselves. I’d heard that many would stay at the cemetery all night to greet the dawn with their dead ancestors. There were several bands playing upbeat music and I saw quite a few people who looked like they were halfway between crying and laughing. We found a quiet corner of the cemetery to hold a small service for a relative of ours who had died recently. We laid our flowers on an anonymous marble crypt and each of us talked about what our deceased aunt meant to us. It seemed a very appropriate place to remember her.


Peruvian Fusion: Anticuchos

Peruvian food is one of the world’s great fusion cuisines, incorporating influences from the Andes and coastal Peru with Spanish, African, Chinese and Japanese flavors. One example of this is anticuchos, beef kebabs that are grilled and sold on many a Peruvian street corner. While skewered llama meat has been around in the Andes since Pre-Columbian times, it was African slaves in Colonial Peru who perfected the marinated and skewered beef heart kebabs that are so popular today.

During colonial times, the Spanish would give their African slaves the parts of the cow that they disdained: heart, stomach, organs, etc. The slaves took the beef heart and seasoned and marinated it heavily prior to grilling and over time the dish became very popular in Peru. Basically, the cow heart is cut into portions that easily fit onto a skewer and are heavily seasoned with ají panca, a full flavored but mild red chili and marinated in vinegar and spices (such as cumin, aji pepper and garlic). The meat is marinated for a day or two before grilling over charcoal, then the skewers are usually served with a boiled potato and a spicy dipping sauce. Anticucho comes from the Quechua word antikucho, meaning 'Andean cut' or 'Andean mix'.

Up until recently my experience with anticuchos was primarily through my nose. As I’d routinely drop the kids off for swimming at the Wanchaq pool, I’d walk over to the supermercado to do the food shopping. Just outside the pool, a woman sets up a tiny grill on a rickety stand tucked into a corner and the smell and smoke of grilled meat usually invades my nostrils as I pass by. Turning the corner and heading up Calle La Infancia, I always pass a small anticucheria that sets up their grill at the front door and a fan blows the smoke towards the street. After reading a bit about the Afro-Peruvian origins of anticuchos and getting a recommendation from a co-worker, I went to anticucheria called El Condorito on Calle Tacna. Inside the smoky restaurant, families sat at benches and devoured the skewers while drinking chicha morada or cerveza. I ordered a plate of anticuchos and sat down. I’d love to tell you how much I enjoyed them but I can't. While some people sing the praises of the “best-textured muscle in a cow’s body” and the delicious seasoning, I found myself wishing my anticuchos were made from a regular cut of beef.

Peruvian food in general is a combination of many influences. The Incas grew hundreds of variety of potatoes, corn, quinoa, barley and chili peppers, with cuy (guinea pig) and llama being the main sources of protein. The coastal Incas loved their ceviche, shellfish and various types of seafood. The Spanish added chickens, cows, pigs and goats to the mix, providing more meat and protein into the Andean diet. Africans came and added yams and peanuts, along with new dishes like anticuchos, tacu tacu (beans and rice with aji amarilla) and Cau-Cau (seasoned tripe). The Chinese came to build railroads and brought soy sauce and fresh ginger as well as stir-fry cooking, creating a blend of cuisines known in Peru today as chifa. The Japanese, who arrived in the early 1900’s to work on the sugar and cotton plantations, brought their love of seafood and their techniques for simple and beautiful preparations and opened cevicherias and shaped nikkei, or second-generation Japanese cuisine.

While I can’t in good conscience recommend the marinated cow heart, you can substitute regular beef cuts if you want to try anticuchos. Here is a recipe:


• 1 Beef heart or 2 lb of beef rump steak
• Salt and Pepper to taste
• 3 to 4 cloves of crushed garlic
• ½ cup of red wine vinegar
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 large chili peppers, finely chopped without seeds
• 1 tablespoon ground cumin


Firstly make sure the heart is clean of all veins and fat. Cut the heart or rump steak in small 3 to 4cm (1 to 1½ in) cubes. In a large bowl mix the vinegar, oil, salt, pepper, crushed garlic, chili pepper and ground cumin. Add the heart cubes and let the heart marinate for several hours or overnight. If you are using rump steak you do not need to marinate the meat for as long. Remove the meat cubes, lightly salt them and put 3 pieces onto each metal skewer. Cook over a hot grill for approximately 3 minutes per side, brushing them with the vinegar mix. Serve immediately with steamed corn on the cob and boiled potatoes.

This post was part of a Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Carnival at Kat's Tie Dye Travels, called Food Around the World.


Peruvian Fusion: Corpus Christi

Prior to the Spanish conquest, the Quechua people celebrated a fruitful harvest by honoring the Father Sun ("Tayta Inti”) in the presence of his “children”, the mummified remains of the Inca kings (“mallki”). The mummies were adorned in fine clothing and jewelry and were paraded about the main plaza in lavishly decorated litters, while the Quechua people gathered and celebrated with traditional Andean foods. When Francisco Pizzaro arrived in Cusco in 1533, I can only imagine the reaction of the priests in his conquering party: “Hmmm…pagan deities, mummies…this will have to go.”

As a replacement ceremony, the Spanish priests instituted the feast and procession of Corpus Christi ("Body of Christ") in Cusco and virgins and saints were paraded around the main plaza in place of mummies (which were burned) and the Tayta Inti and the Pachamama (mother earth) were put on the back burner in favor of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Since the feast and procession of Corpus Christi was coincidently held each year around the same time as a southern hemisphere harvest (May/June), it was a logical substitution. The Inca chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega observed that the first Corpus Christi was held in Cusco in 1550, perhaps as early as 1547. In 1572 the Viceroy Francisco de Toledo instituted Corpus Christi in all Peruvian provinces.

This past June, more than 450 years later, my daughter and I ventured to the Plaza de Armas and obtained second-story balcony seats at a corner restaurant and ordered lunch shortly before noon. We were there to watch the entrada (the entrance of the saints) without getting mobbed by the crowd below. The first saint was San Antonio from the San Cristobal parish, who slowly moved past us with his beard, staff and light blue robe embroidered with silver. He is the patron saint of swineherds and was single; as such only young unmarried men hold up his litter. Next up was San Geronimo from the parish of the same name, dressed in a broad red hat and robe and holding a pen in his right hand and a silver model of a chapel in his left hand. More saints continued: San Cristobal held the Christ child while standing under a palm tree, San Sebastian shaded by a tree with arrows in his chest and the easily-identifiable Santiago charging forward on his white horse with sword in hand. Once we’d finished our unappetizing lunch, we’d wished instead that we eaten what most of the Cusquenas were eating. Everyone was eating chiriuchu (roasted guinea pig with toasted corn and potatoes) washed down with either beer or chicha.

During the entrada a total of 15 saints and virgins parade around the plaza, after having been carried by a couple dozen men from their respective parishes. The statues are left in the cathedral for 8 days at which time they depart and head home. The highlight of the entrada is the impressive silver “Carroza” carriage that is paraded around the Plaza de Armas midway through the entrada. It contains the bread – the symbolic body of Christ – and is topped by a chalice decorated with the image of the Holy Sacrament. As the centerpiece of the entrada, it effectively replaced the ruling Inca’s litter from Pre-Columbian times.

An interesting thing to note about Corpus Christi is that over 750 years ago the festival was started as a way to re-consolidate religious belief and reinvigorate Catholics in Europe. Corpus Christi officially celebrates the belief that the Eucharistic bread contains the real presence of Christ. By the 13th century, religious belief was becoming diffused by the older cult of the saints. The numberous saints with their relics and the dismembered parts of holy men and women (skeletons, locks of hair, toes, etc.) were more tangible symbols of faith and served to keep religious focus decentralized. By re-focusing belief onto the Eucharist with a formal religious ceremony – controlled by priests – the Catholic Church was able to re-consolidate their power over the populace. If it worked in Europe, why not in the New World?


Peruvian Fusion: Eva Ayllón at the Teatro Municipal

As our taxi rushed through the Cusco streets Friday night, on our way to the Eva Ayllón concert, we had reason to believe that the event might be lightly attended. Our tickets cost 70 soles ($24), an amount that caused most of my co-workers to decide not to a see the “Queen of Afro-Peruvian Soul.” The fact that it was so easy for me to get front-row, center stage tickets gave me another reason to suspect a low turnout. Arriving late from our kid’s swim meet, our taxi dropped us off and instantly knew we’d been mistaken: we walked into a packed and energetic Teatro Municipal.

Eva Ayllón is Peru’s most celebrated musical artist and is recognized worldwide as a leading exponent of música criolla (Creole music) and Afro-Peruvian music. Música criolla is a fusion of mainly African, Spanish and Andean influences and Afro-Peruvian music was first created by African slaves in Peru during the Colonial Period. She has 4 platinum records, 10 gold records, and two Latin Grammy nominations for “Eva” Leyenda Peruana” and "To My Country," an album she recorded with Los Hijos del Sol and Alex Acuña. Afro-Peruvian music has its roots in the communities of black slaves brought to work in the silver mines along the Peruvian coast and in the Andes. The music was little known even in Peru until the 1950s, when it was popularized by the seminal performer Nicomedes Santa Cruz. One of the high notes of Ayllón’s 30-year musical career was selling out Carnegie Hall in November of 2008.

On Friday night Ayllón came out on stage in a super-tight, black stretch outfit, high heels and a Christian cross necklace supported by Amazonian hauyruro beads. As she sang her first few songs we began to see why the Los Angeles Times described her as “The Tina Turner of Afro-Peruvian music, energetic and playful, sexy and fully charged.” Friday night’s concert was a tribute to Chabuca Granda, a performer known for Afro-Peruvian inteerpretations late in her career, and the audience sang along to popular Granda songs such as “Jose Antonio” and “Fina Estampa.”

As we sat and listened to the toe-tapping Afro-Peruvian beats, I meditated on the origins of the two principal instruments accompanying Ayllón’s vocals: the guitar and the cajón (box drum). I knew a little about the guitar’s Latin and Moorish origins and I’d heard that the cajón, a rectangular wooden box that doubles as percussion instrument and a seat, came from African slaves using agricultural crates in Colonial Peru. The guitar is descended from the Roman cithara brought by the Romans to Hispania around 40 AD, and further adapted and developed with the arrival of the four-string oud, brought by the Moors after their conquest of Spain in the 8th century. The prevailing view about the origins of the cajón, while similar to instruments in Africa and Spain, is that indeed they were adapted by Peruvian slaves from the colonial Spanish shipping crates. Slaves used boxes as musical instruments to contravene colonial bans on music in predominantly African areas. Thus, cajóns could easily be disguised as seats and avoid identification as musical instruments.

The instruments, the singer and the music were all beautiful examples of the Peruvian fusion between Andean, Spanish and African cultures. The Peruvian writer Ricardo Palma wrote, “If you are not Inca, you are Mandinga,” reinforcing the idea that all Peruvians have indigenous blood, African blood, or both. While Afro-Peruvian music has been around for hundreds of years, for the past 30 years Eva Ayllón has helped Peruvians accept and embrace that heritage.