Peru on beats: from Identity dilemmas to songwriting

During the pandemic, one of my biggest creative challenges was to write a full hip hop song using one of the beats made in the Hip Hop Writing and Production class with Shea Rose. I decided to draw on the concept of Identity to complete this assignment, despite being an elusive concept for me. Since my early 20s, I’ve often felt estranged from traditional markers of identity like nationality, class, skin color, or sex/gender. Although I might be read as Peruvian, middle class urban, Andean (or as we say colloquially, cholo), and male, I’ve never felt strongly attached to any of the groups that define themselves in those terms. I focused instead on national identity.

In my country, Peru, there are multiple different ethnicities found amidst a varied geography. Our complex and particular history of native cultures, colonization, independence, slavery and migration, has made it very difficult to talk about a singular Peruanidad, or the essence of Peruvianness. Peru’s three general geographical zones--the Coast, the Highlands, and the Jungle-- contain within them a great diversity of cultures that long-preceded the Spaniards’ arrival. Many of these cultures were very different from the Incas (the culture which dominates imaginaries of Peru) and were affected in a variety of ways by the Spanish conquest and subsequent wars of Independence. To this day they continue to face exclusion and marginalization. The Spaniards brought African slaves who were freed decades after Independence. After the abolition of slavery, Chinese and Japanese workers came to work in plantations and after their abusive contracts expired, they stayed and became citizens. The descendants of the Spanish and other European migrants, have formed a relatively small but very influential group of white elites. Peru came about almost by accident, when lots of very different people happened to be caught in the same territory just as its borders were being defined, and then we all had to start pretending that we were Peruvians and that we belonged together for some reason. As one famed anthropologist, Carlos Iván Degregori, put it: “No hay país más diverso” (There is no country more diverse). Such diversity seems to make it difficult to build a coherent concept of Peruanidad, and persistent structural injustices since colonization have made it difficult for us to feel united.

I think Peruanidad is a fiction. I don’t think there is some essence that makes me Peruvian and connects me with other “Peruvians,” or which radically differentiates me from, say, an Argentinian or a Mexican. Every country has similar problems to a certain degree. In France, the imposition of Parisian French as the official language was a source of conflict. Spain has suffered from separatist movements, and in Canada the French and English-speaking sides do not always get along. Narratives about a shared identity can be powerful enough as to make us believe things that are not there, and maybe that belief alone is in fact what eventually makes National Identity real. I’m not sure. Maybe what essentially makes me Peruvian and connects me with others like me is a shared concern of the things that happen there, and not the imagined community that nationalist narratives build. Sometimes I’m afraid that that isn’t enough, since so many ethnic groups who have been historically marginalized have every right to not feel Peruvian at all.

For our assignment we had to make three beats. The only way to tackle the subject for me was then to show the variety of music that is produced in Peru. I chose one genre from each of Peru’s three, broadly-defined regions. From the Coast, I chose the landó, which is a subgenre of Afro Peruvian music. From the Highlands, I chose huayno, the most popular type of Andean song. And from the Jungle, I chose cumbia amazónica, which is an interesting fusion of foreign and native influences: British psychedelic rock, Colombian cumbia, and Amazonian music. I decided to make a beat from one classic song of each genre. Although in theory my personal background brings me closer to the Andean tradition because my grandparents migrated from the Highlands to the capital Lima, I was unable to come up with a beat using huayno. I didn’t want just to impose a 4/4 beat over a typical chord progression. I wanted to build the beat from the groove itself, just like I had done with the other two. Perhaps this difficulty was due to the fact that Andean music is harder to understand and feel using concepts and notation derived from the Western tradition. Just listen to the modern drumming in contemporary Andean music and you will understand. I made another beat from old ideas I had from an unfinished song and presented them.

We had to choose one of them to build a full song. I wanted to choose the third one because I felt more comfortable with my own ideas than with the other two. However, Mrs. Rose’s enthusiasm for the landó encouraged me to use it as the basis of Reconozco (I admit), my contribution to this compilation. She was right when she said that it was very unusual and different from anything else that she had heard before. The problem was that I didn’t know what to do with it. Transforming the original groove into hip-hop was exhausting (creatively speaking), and I felt that I couldn’t develop it any further. It turned out I was wrong. The process was challenging enough to make me forget about the landó. It was very hard to make something musical out of it, so my efforts focused on finishing the song to see where it might take me.

In my next post I will explore the landó groove and how I transformed it into a beat, and other aspects of the songwriting process.

I would like to thank my friend Adela Zhang for editing this article.