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.


  1. Jason - I enjoy your writing!
    It is Chabuca Granda and she is not famous for her interpretations of Afro-Peruvian music.
    Ricardo Palma was not mainly known for his poetry.
    Please correct accordingly.

  2. Thanks b4callao,
    It's nice to have an editor to find my mistakes! I made the changes that you suggested because you are correct.