Sunday I went to see “Latido Negro,” a performance of Afro-Peruvian dance and music at the Gala Theater. It was a small group, maybe eight people altogether.
It had the barest sketch of a story line in the first act, all for the purpose really of dramatically explaining some of the historical context for these dances and how the form came to be what it is. A theater group (like the one we were watching) sits around getting ready to rehearse, talking about what the style of their work represents. They don’t seem to sure about it but it doesn’t seem like they need to be. Along with this are little bits of comedy, music and dance. In the second act it’s all traditional dances and songs with the whole range of influences –- Waltzes, African dances, music played on instruments that the slaves invented when the Spanish banned their use of drums; vendor songs, a “devil dance.”
If you grew up in the Caribbean all this would seem familiar right away. I grew up hearing the songs of the peanut vendor and “Fudgie” (all the vendors who sold popsicles and ice cream were called “Fudgie”). The devil dance was great fun, and related, I’m sure, to the jonkanoo dancers who appear around Christmas in Jamaica and to the masquerade in St. Kitts, among others. The old shango religion made an appearance. The dancers went at it with energy, charm and a sense of fun, and of course there was a lot of hip waggling and flirting in all of it – one dance involves each woman trying to light a red fabric “tail” that hung from the seat of her male partner’s trousers.
The raciness of the dances too, was tamer than it would have been. I mean, I see a direct line between this sort of thing and the current style of dancing that has the church crowd complaining all over the Caribbean. That line passes through Calypso, and through the origins of calypso in little songs that the slaves and ex-slaves made up about their masters and each other. At Christmas time in the Caribbean, at least, the slaves were given a few days to celebrate, and they celebrated with this jubilant, raunchy defiance.
Even though I had never seen these particular dances, and even though the performance really was pleasing, I knew, watching them, that the real thing was way more intense than what we were seeing. I know, from experience, that real jonkanoo on the street can be menacing. You aren’t sure if they are playing or genuinely trying to shake you down, and that ambiguity is fearful. The jonkanoo dancers I saw in Jamaica as a child took a certain pleasure in being scary.
And yet even though as I say this was relatively tame and out of context I felt a sort of proud pleasure in it all. As though these forms and themes, extending throughout South America and into the Caribbean, represented a common experience, and it is, simply, the experience of those who were brought to those places as slaves, and of what they and their descendants managed to invent for themselves out of their circumstances. It bespoke such intelligence and spirit. It reminded me, too, of how the music made its way around the Caribbean. In early calypso the Latin influence is more marked. There was much more regional movement before the Second World War. Caribbean people went to Venezuela, to Cuba, to Panama to work on the canal. They went where opportunity was, mostly. They picked up the music and bits of language. (One trope of early calypsos was the one where the singer shows off the Spanish he has picked up). Many folk songs mention sailing in schooners among the islands, to Venezuela, leaving the little girl in Kingston. Working sailboats traveled the waters. One of my great-grandfathers operated one of these, carrying goods between Black River and Kingston. Another great-grandfather migrated to Jamaica from Columbia. My father and his brothers and sister called this grandfather "Papi." Soem of the relatives settled in Costa Rica and live there still.
Nowadays regional migration is Haitians, Dominicans, and Guyanese. Those are the three countries with the worst economies; Haiti, of course, has other dangers. There is also a little bit of Jamaican migration too. I am not sure if that's regional as just Jamaicans as usual turning up everywhere.
The choreographer for this show is Lalo Izquierdo and if you ever see his name on a program for anything you had better go. He’s the real thing – a physical comedian of subtlety and great resources. A short, middle-aged man with the complete opposite of anybody’s idea of the ideal dancer’s body, he had what I can only call intelligence of bodily expression. Whatever he was supposed to be feeling, the balance between tact and fullness of expression always seemed perfect, the purest concentration. He drew attention without trying to upstage anybody, you were drawn by the intensity of his energy to take an interest in what interested him. It was extraordinary. And he could dance too.
Also the other lead guy in the show, Rafael Santa Cruz, who also directed it, was the most beautiful black man I have ever seen. One more hour in that theater and I would have followed him home. Since his role in the performance was to sort of act as a narrator and interpreter and witness to the goings-on, he was on the stage a lot and I did enjoy seeing him. (Fans self.)
And there was one Peruvian woman, older, who sang with a lovely, ringing voice that reminded me of Celia Cruz. There were at least two other terrific voices, both male tenors kind of like Pio Leyva, in the small cast. How come this singing is so marvelously resonant and expressive? I mean, how come there are lots of people who sing like that there but nobody sings like that here, if you see what I mean? And what about the way it seems to come as easy as talking?
Of course on my way home I had to listen to some Mexican music. I would have listened to Cuban music but Mexican was all I had in the car. Why do these songs get to me? Therapists and friends, Dear Abby, all the voices of health and sanity tell me that the frame of mind that these songs express is unhealthy. But no, I listen to, say, this Lila Downs song, and
….Si te cuentan que me vieron muy borracha
Orgullosamente diles que es por tí,
Porque yo tendré el valor de no negarlo
Gritaré que por tu amor me estoy matando,
Y sabras que por tus besos me perdí.
Para de hoy y adelante el amor no me interesa
Cantaré por todo el mundo
Mi dolor y me tristeza.
Porque sé que de este golpe ya no voy a levanterme
Y aunque yo no lo quisiera
Voy a morirme de amor.
If they tell you that they saw me very drunk,
Proudly tell them that it is because of you,
Because I will have the courage not to deny it.
I will cry that because of your love I am killing myself
And you will know that because of your kisses I was lost.
From today on, love doesn’t interest me.
I will sing my pain and sadness everywhere.
Because I know that from this blow I shall never rise,
And although I didn’t wish it,
I shall die of love.
Damn! I know what this feels like!
Of course, it never does you a bit of good with the other party to carry on this way. This is the phone call that a glass of wine will tempt you to make. It is the phone call you must not make. Better to call a friend and go out and do some nasty dancing. But you won’t, will you? Fine. Call, get it over with quickly, and then go to bed and cry yourself to sleep.