Musicians can often feel overwhelmed by a seemingly impossible task: to develop a unique musical voice all while honoring the traditions that have preceded them. It’s a difficult balancing act, but every now and then we come across a musician who seems to have effortlessly mastered it.
Trumpeter, composer and bandleader Gabriel Alegria is one of those musicians. Growing up with one foot in his hometown of Lima, Peru and the other in the United States, Alegria had to become adept at forging an identity amidst strong, seemingly disparate cultural traditions. This has carried into his music: Alegria founded the Afro-Peruvian Sextet in 2005. Since its inception, the group has made it their mission to create a unique sound from a blend of traditional cultural influences from America, Peru and West Africa.
“The tradition of this music dates back to colonial times, but there was a whole period of time where it all sort of disappeared. It wasn’t until the 1950s that [we] saw the first revival of Afro-Peruvian music.”
Still, Alegria is quick to point out that the music he creates with his sextet is new. As he explained when 21CM director Mark Rabideau had the chance to catch up with him in our studios, “Our brand – our vocabulary that fuses jazz and Afro-Peruvian music very organically – has really only been around for 10 to 15 years.”
That’s largely due to the fact that all of Afro-Peruvian music is, in some way, a reconstruction. According to Alegria, “The tradition of this music dates back to colonial times, but there was a whole period of time where it all sort of disappeared. It wasn’t until the 1950s that [we] saw the first revival of Afro-Peruvian music.” For source material, that revival primarily used old paintings of traditional instruments and what Peruvian artists like Victoria Santa Cruz referred to as “ancestral memory.”
Nowadays, Afro-Peruvian music has a definite profile. That extends to the type of instruments used – particularly skinless percussion instruments like the cajón, cajita and quijada de burro (literally the jawbone of a donkey) – as well as its upbeat, highly syncopated rhythms. It’s thanks to artists like Gabriel Alegria and his sextet that Afro-Peruvian music continues to evolve and establish a more global presence. And yet – back to that balancing act – Alegria always connects their work to their larger culture heritage. “We’re trying to reflect our community, our way of life. It seemed like a natural thing for those of us who were listening to jazz and growing up with coastal music from Peru to see how they had a relationship. They have a profound relationship. It’s almost like they were just waiting to happen.”