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Music of Peru
Los Wembler's de Iquitos in 2015. Photo by Josh Eli Cogan, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
Los Wembler's de Iquitos in 2015.
Photo by Josh Eli Cogan, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

Just as Peru is more than Machu Picchu, Peruvian music is more than panpipes. Spanish colonization introduced Western strings, while the slave trade brought African drums, and an entirely distinct sound as rhythms and melodies mixed with Indigenous traditions. Celebratory songs are a centerpiece of every community festival—of which there are many—accompanied by lively group dances.

On this playlist, you will hear a few of the musicians who traveled from Peru to perform at the Folklife Festival, plus songs from the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings collection of the same dance traditions, themes, and regions we featured in the Peru program. Between 1991 and 2002, Smithsonian Folkways released an extensive Peruvian traditional music CD series, first recorded and issued by the Archive of Andean Traditional Music.

Album cover

1. La Danza del Petrolero

From La Danza del Petrolero (c. 1970)
By Los Wembler’s de Iquitos

The Wembler’s hail from Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian rainforest. This song, written by Isaías Emerson Sánchez, refers to the oil boom that changed the physical and cultural environment of their city and the rest of the Amazon in the 1970s. The group reunited in 2011 and brought their signature cumbia amazónica sound to the 2015 Folklife Festival.

2. Huayno

From Traditional Music of Peru, Vol. 6: The Ayacucho Region (2001)
By Laureano Zárate, regidor of Alcamenca

Huayno is a popular form of Andean music, combining rural folk and urban dance music. Alcamenca community leader Laureano Zárate performed this song on the harp during the 1997 Festival of Water, when Ayacucho residents replenish the fields and mark the cattle.

3. Danza de tijeras (Scissors Dance)

From Peru: Andean Music of Life, Work, and Celebration (2015)

Also representing the Ayacucho region, this pasacalle song accompanies a procession toward the town square, where dancers face off in a choreographic competition. The “scissors” refers to the instrument they play while dancing.

4. Mi Burrito

From Traditional Music of Peru, Vol. 8: Piura (2002)
By Leida La Madrid with Roger Alméstar

This song is an example of tondero, the most popular genre in the Piura region, and one of many iterations of Afro-Peruvian music. Lyrics often describe daily life in the community, and here Leida La Madrid sings about “My Little Burro” while also playing guitar. Roger Alméstar accompanies on a chair, played like a cajón.

5. Contradanza

From Traditional Music of Peru, Vol. 1: Festivals of Cusco (1995)
By Conjunto of Paucartambo

The 2015 Folklife Festival hosted a contradanza troupe that performs in the annual Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen, similar to this recording from the 1993 Fiesta de la Virgen del Rosario. Dancers wear small bells on their legs to provide percussion as they process through the streets.

6. Waytallay Rosasllay

From unreleased recording
By La Estudiantina Municipal de Ayacucho

The Trío de la Estudiantina Municipal was another of the featured musical groups at the 2015 Folklife Festival. This song, once typical for wedding parties, engagements, and child burials, is an example of the araskaska genre that is now rarely practiced in their home region of Ayacucho.

7. The Potter / El Alfarero

From Traditional Music of Peru, Vol. 4: Lambayeque (1996)
By Rudecindo Maco and Ramos Sandoval

This song is in the style of the Marinera, the national dance of Peru and a product of intermingling Spanish, African, and Indigenous performance traditions. While this minimal variation uses only a plucked banjo, the 2015 Folklife Festival featured a band accompanying the dancers and the country’s famous caballos de paso—dancing horses.

8. Song of Marriage

From Mountain Music of Peru, Vol. 1 (1991)
By “Young girl”

The Quechua language lyrics of this huayno describe a young girl’s confusion on her wedding day. “You took me to church on Sunday; I thought it was time for Mass... When we lit the candles, I thought it was because it was dark... When the rice fell on my head, I thought it was hailing.” This recording, now an interstellar hit, was included on the Golden Records aboard the Voyager space crafts.

9. Sonido Amazonico

From La Danza del Petrolero (c. 1970)
By Los Wembler’s de Iquitos

Written by Los Wembler’s guitarist Elmer Alberto Sánchez, this instrumental song suggests the sound of the Peruvian Amazon. Their combination of popular urban music with traditional melodies, born of the cumbia-chicha scene of the 1970s, still gets feet moving today.

10. Fiesta de Carnaval

From unreleased recording
By La Estudiantina Municipal de Ayacucho

Although Brazil’s celebrations may be the largest and best known, Catholic communities across Peru maintain their own Carnival traditions. In Cajamarca, residents dance around the yunsa tree decorated with toys, fruits, and liquor bottles; they ceremoniously cut down the tree and retrieve its goodies. Visitors will be able to see a yunsa celebration dance at the Folklife Festival.

11. Corresponding songs for alpacas

From Mountain Music of Peru, Vol. 1 (1991)
By Louisa Sera Chompi

Alpacas are native to the Andes, where they have been domesticated for their fiber, a key ingredient in traditional Peruvian dress. In this song, the singer pleads, “Let’s go to the mountains/ Where we can pasture our alpacas, little mother./ We are sad because we have no clothing.” 

12. Pastoras

From Traditional Music of Peru, Vol. 8: Piura (2002)
By five Peruvian girls accompanied by Walter Cruz and Juan Tino Neyra

In this canto song and dance about pastoras (shepherd girls), a group of young women perform in a church or in front of a nativity scene. Normally done around Christmas, this recording was done in October 1994 in collaboration with the Center for Andean Ethnomusicology.

13. Lunarcito

From Music of Peru (1962)
By Serapio Mejia Ayala and Vicente Apaza Uscamaita

Although the Western harp was brought to Peru by the conquistadors, the instrument is considered an indigenous instrument in Quechua communities, with a distinctive structure and sound. This song, about how nice a birthmark looks on a girl’s face, features two arpa peruanas.

Compiled by Elisa Hough

Crisscrossed with paths connecting communities across geography and history, Peru boasts a stunning vertical landscape that integrates a diversity of ecosystems and cultures. Peru is one of the world’s most biodiverse nations, containing ninety microclimates across extreme variances of altitude. The coastal, rain-forested, and mountainous environments provide abundant resources, including major exports such as fish, copper, and asparagus. Many culturally and historically significant areas are popular tourist destinations that encompass complex layered histories.

The uniqueness of Peru’s diversity lies in the connectedness of its landscape in the form of rivers, roads, and pathways that existed long before the Inka Empire (fifteenth–sixteenth centuries) and Spanish colonization (sixteenth–nineteenth centuries). Across its different altitudes and climates, communities exchange commodities and practices, shaping deeply rooted but constantly changing daily customs and celebrations. The influx and movement of people between and beyond borders also influence and transform these exchanges.

The 2015 Peru program featured projects, organizations, and groups whose cultural expressions highlight these social, cultural, and economic exchanges. It demonstrated how the networks of celebration and community, crops and markets, textile and craft production, foodways and technology, and music and dance forge the diverse cultural heritage of the country.

Visitors to the Peru Festival program could experience these unique connections through cooking and craft demonstrations, music and dance performances, moderated discussions, ritual and celebratory processions, and other participatory activities. In addition, there was a robust involvement with Peruvian American and diaspora communities. The public had the opportunity to learn, to eat, to dance, to shop, to witness these vibrantly connected cultures, and to create their own connections with Peruvian artists and specialists on the National Mall and beyond.

Olivia Cadaval and Cristina Díaz-Carrera were Curators for the Smithsonian; Rafael Varón Gabai was Curator and Consultant to MINCETUR. Valentina Pilonieta-Vera was Program Coordinator; Alexia Fawcett was Community Engagement Manager, and Betty Belanus was Family Activities Curator. A Curatorial Advisory Committee included: Madeleine Burns, Marjorie Hunt, Mary Linn, Luis Guillermo Lumbreras, Giancarlo Marcone, Soledad Mujica, Diana N’Diaye, Luis Repetto, Marcela Ríos, Daniel Sheehy, Jorge Ortiz Sotelo, Milagritos Saldarriaga, Francisco Tumi, and Madeleine Zúñiga. A Community Advisory Group included: Catherine Cabel Chicas, Nelly Carrión, Billy Castillo, Kristy Chavez-Fernandez, Fabiana Chiu- Rinaldi, María del Carmen Cossu, Miguel García, Elmer Huerta, Vicky Leyva, Doris Loayza, Ana Noriega, Elena Tscherny, and Ricardo Villanueva.

The program was co-presented and co-sponsored by the Republic of Peru Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism (MINCETUR). Additional support was provided by the staff of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, directed by Kevin Gover (Pawnee), coordinated by Amy Van Allen; Washington Dulles international Airport and the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. The program received federal support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center. Special media support is provided by Telemundo Washington DC,, Latin Opinion Baltimore Newspaper, Orange Barrel Media, WAMU 88.5, El Tiempo Latino, Washington Hispanic, Washington Blade, El Tiempo Hìspano (MD-DE-PA), CTM Media Group, El Zol 107.9, Digital Conventions, and Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Support for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage's welcoming ceremony was provided, in part, by Avocados From Peru and Pisco Portón (in-kind).

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