BY MARLON BISHOP
BORED OF PLAYING IN 4/4? NEVER mind modern jazz and its crazy meters. For a real mind-bending rhythm workout, aim your ears southward to suss the milieu of Afro-Peruvian grooves.
“I studied jazz for a long time, and I could play in all sorts of meters—5/4, 9/8, 11/8,” says Joscha Oetz, an upright player of German origin who currently lives and gigs in Lima, Peru. “I thought I could play any kind of rhythm. Then I had to play landó. I was completely lost.”
Even fluency in the chronic syncopation of Cuban bass tumbaos didn’t prepare Oetz for his immersion in Afro-Peruvian music. The music, developed in the coastal cities of Peru by the country’s tiny black minority, sounds like nothing else in Latin America. Though lesser known than other Latin styles, the music’s minor-key lilt and offkilter polyrhythms have been winning fans around the globe in the last decade.
The principal rhythms of Afro-Peruvian music are called festejo and landó, and they are traditionally played on guitar and accompanied by a variety of percussion instruments. When ensembles began to add bass players in the 1960s, they generally doubled the parts that guitarists were already playing on their low strings, but there was no codified role for the bass. “It’s kind of neat playing Afro-Peruvian bass, because it’s a young art,” says Edward Perez, an alumnus of Gabriel Alegria’s acclaimed Afro-Peruvian jazz sextet. “It’s still an open question how to go about it.”
All Afro-Peruvian bassists will agree, however, that understanding the patterns of the cajón is key. The cajón, a wooden box drum that drives the rhythm, largely defines the Afro-Peruvian sound. It has two main strokes: a low tone and a high tone. Bassists generally try to lock in with the low tones. Example 1 shows the cajón pattern for landó, the slower and bluesier of the two rhythms. Compare that pattern to the bass line in Ex. 2, transcribed from Susana Baca’s “Negra Presentuosa.” In bars 1 and 4, the bass part largely follows the contours of the cajón rhythm.
The cajón provides a roadmap for bassists, but not strict guidelines. “Bass notes in landó can, and do, fall almost anywhere,” says Perez. Landó is incredibly syncopated, and that’s what makes it such a difficult groove to learn. Except for the downbeat, the bass almost never plays on the pulses, giving the music an almost rootless, floating feel. Although nowadays landó is usually written in 12/8 (four groups of three eighth-notes), for many years it was written in 6/4 (six groups of two eighth-notes). In 6/4, the pulses line up with the accents in the cajón pattern. But most players insist that 12/8, with the pulses in tension with that pattern, is the proper way to feel the beat. Still, there’s room for ambiguity. “As a player, it’s useful to see it either way,” says Perez. “To see it both ways at the same time is ideal.”
Festejo is a faster, livelier rhythm, also written in 12/8. Example 3, taken from “El Negrito Chinchiví” off Oscar Alviles’s classic album Y Siguen Festejando Juntos, is a typical bass pattern for festejo, emphasizing beats five and eight, and using short passing lines between chord changes. Seems simple enough, but the tricky part is catching festejo’s polyrhythmic feel. At all times, there is a tension between subdividing the beat as eighth-note triplets and as regular eighths—in other words, between duple meter and triple meter. So, for example, the eighth-notes at the end of each bar in Ex. 3 are actually played somewhere along a rhythmic spectrum; they’re neither triplet eighths nor straight 16ths, but somewhere in between. As Perez explains, “There’s an aesthetic of having contrasting layers on top of each other, and that’s where a lot of the richness in the sound comes from.”
Polyrhythm is an integral part of many African music traditions (and by extension, those in the African Diaspora), but it can be hard for the uninitiated to get it right away. “It’s important to be aware that these are oral traditions,” points out Joscha Oetz. “The musicians never thought about 6/4 or 12/8 or anything; that’s a superimposed European kind of thinking. The greatest Afro-Peruvian players will play rhythms that are impossible to accurately write down in Western notation.”
Another challenging feature of playing Afro-Peruvian music is its flexible approach to time. In both festejo and landó, the band stretches out the middle of the bar, and then speeds up at the end to catch up and hit the one on time. In some cases it’s even acceptable to speed up the song’s tempo as it goes.
Overall, the Afro-Peruvian scene is fairly small, and only a handful of bassists worldwide specialize in the sound. Here in the U.S., the most important player is Oscar Stagnaro. Stagnaro was born in Peru and has played with Afro-Peruvian legend Eva Ayllón, as well as countless greats from the Afro-Cuban world. He’s held the Latin Jazz bass chair at the Berklee College of Music for over 20 years, and is the author of The Latin Bass Book [Sher Music, 2005]. He recommends that bassists interested in getting into the genre’s rhythmic vocabulary start by learning some of the “standards,” many of which have set bass lines or bass intros that largely define those songs. For example, the landó “Zamba Malató” is played by virtually every Afro-Peruvian group, and always begins with the solo-bass intro transcribed in Ex. 4.
Even if mastering the Afro-Peruvian canon doesn’t interest you, there’s plenty to take away from studying the music. Jazz and Afro-Peruvian blend particularly well, and there are several groups out there today doing interesting fusions. Joscha Oetz noticed that after years studying festejo and landó, his internal understanding of rhythm has completely transformed. “Especially when playing standards and swing, I can really surprise people. I can keep the music on edge, and do syncopations that people aren’t used to.”
Marlon Bishop is an arts writer and radio producer who reports on global music for a number of media outlets. He is an Associate Producer of Afropop Worldwide and a Culture Producer at WNYC (New York Public Radio).