Peru’s Heartbeat

Edited by Ivor Indyk & Fiona Wright


[…] Once at the plaza, without warning a rhythmic thudding started up, rippling through the square. It was the sound of cajones being played in the afro-dance academy, floating out the glassless windows on the second floor of a building fronting the plaza. It gave our conversation an underlying mood and heightened emotion and drew us all towards it, making the most extroverted of us do a few movements where we stood, laughing at each other, clapping and encouraging. I felt the pull and couldn’t help looking up to the academy, heart pounding, breath quickening. I caught sight of a shadow, a person up there.

I had already heard the reverberations of the cajón described as the heartbeat of Peruvian music. It’s the life force of that country’s aural landscape. Fernando Romero describes it thus:

‘It’s one thing with guitar and another thing with cajón’, declares a popular Peruvian apophthegm that with zambo wisdom encapsulates the nature of the instrument. It clearly shows us that ornamentation, circumlocution and refinement are contained in the strumming of a guitar, but that the sonority, the certainty and the leanness of the popular keynote, in sum, are found in the percussive and gruff cajón, whose voice gives authenticity to all that is ours that from the most remote reaches of the colonial period was called ‘of this land’.

The same instrument is now on a journey around the world; this wooden box with a hole in the back, this instrument of such humble origins, can now be heard in flamenco, world, trance and pop music. But in the beginning it was born out of loss, out of an attempt to recapture what was taken, because the Spaniards confiscated the drums of the African slaves in Peru out of the fear that they were being used for communication and caused immoral behaviour.

How to get back the heartbeat when the heart has been stolen?

The musicians turned to anything and everything and found that the crates used to transport agricultural products, when beaten with the hands, created a sound that was a memory, an echo of the lost drums. From the crates developed the cajón, and a cajón is what it was: a wooden box that could have been mistaken for any other but one with a secret musical purpose rather than a pedestrian one, a purpose that the Spaniards were fearful of but didn’t recognise in such a humble-looking thing. So the cajón was crafted out of a need to re-create and invent rhythms of self-expression but was a secret. How to get back a heartbeat when the heart has been stolen? Build a new heart that doesn’t look like a heart at all.

‘I’ll take you up there one day,’ murmured Alejandra when she noticed me looking towards the sound, not paying attention to the conversation around me.

‘They have classes up there; we can go to one.’

I was so hopeful when she said that.


And so I began to live in that town, to adjust to the rhythm and pace of it, to the sound and mood of it. But as I came to know how to move around its streets, I realised something: the map of Chincha that was forming within me was not a map of all roads and sites; it was, instead, a very personal map of how to get from one place to another. As I treaded between points of reference, I was beginning to know them only as they related to each other, and the way they related to each other was in turn linked to Alejandra’s knowing, since I was mostly with her. Her way of moving between places was rarely the most direct. Together we walked everywhere via her friends’ houses so she could see if they were still grounded; via her auntie’s so she could see if she would give her one of the traditional sweets she made to sell; or via the house of a boy she knew who worked as a moto-taxi driver and who she might have been able to charm into offering us a free ride.

The one place we regularly walked past was her boyfriend’s house. She talked about him all the time and insisted that I ask him what he thought of her, but when she was with him she was aloof and spoilt. She had to keep their relationship a secret. He was older than she was and besides that, the last time she had had a boyfriend, her mother had leant out of the second-storey window to throw a bucket of water over him.

The various turns and detours that we took became so imprinted in my mind that they developed into my map of Chincha. My capacity for getting from one place to another depended on them. These meandering routes were so complicated that when I took a moto-taxi, a motorbike with a carriage built around it, I often became lost: the moto-taxi drivers’ personal maps of the city were of how to get from one place to another via the most direct route possible and I couldn’t cope with such lack of complexity. When one driver didn’t know how to take me home from the plaza, I explained how to. The long way. Past Alejandra’s boyfriend’s house.

Soon, I liked to think of my inner map as a geographical equivalent to the trajectory of the cajón’s rhythms: something that arrives, eventually, at where it has always been going, but only after necessary detours that add meaning to that final point of arrival.

Read the rest by purchasing the issue.

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