Peruanos en Alabama

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Peruanos en Alabama, circa 1993

Ever since I left the South—as I’ve wandered from New York, across the Midwest, to the Southwest, eventually landing in Califas (interspersed with long stints in Lima)—no matter where I go, I’ve always been confronted by incredulous looks when I tell folks where I spent my childhood: Alabama!? That’s right. Perhaps it doesn’t seem that random to me because we weren’t the only Peruvian family around. In the golden age of the 1980s, peruanos in Birmingham could field two full soccer teams (see photo above) and collectively cook up an enormous buffet table every July 28th, for Independence Day parties. There were lots of us, or at least that’s how I remember it.

(Of course, now, there are many, many more Peruanos and all sorts of Latinos around Bama… Don’t believe me? Check this out.)

Still, part of me has always wondered too. Why there? How? Recently, on a trip back, I had the chance to chat with my uncle Hubert and my aunt Mercedes. They were raised in Arequipa, and Hubert and my father were childhood friends. Like my old man, Hubert also studied medicine at the local university. When my father transferred to Lima, they lost touch, and found one another, quite by accident, a decade later in Alabama. When I asked Hubert and Mercedes how this came about, my uncle began with an observation about the university in those days: the old, fusty, boring teachers had all studied in Europe, whereas the good, young, dynamic teachers had studied in the US. Naturally, Hubert began thinking he should come north. Like any good student, he went to the library, where the university kept a green reference book containing the addresses of American universities and a listing of scholarship possibilities in the US open to Peruvians, alphabetized by state.

He turned to the first page: Alabama. And that was it. The whole story.

At that point in the interview, my aunt started laughing: if only he’d turned a few more pages, she said, we could have moved to California!

With the International Day of the Migrant coming up this Saturday, I thought I’d share this little story with the extended Pelanga fam. Here’s an audio clip from the interview:

Interview with Tio Herbet

And here’s “El Jet”, a song from Los Compadres del Ande that makes me think of my parents’ generation, the ones that left Peru for all those random places that beckoned. It goes out with much love to my folks, to Hubert and Mercedes, and all the peruanos in Alabama.
El Jet – Los Compadres Del Ande

El Jet

– tunda

Grupo Folklórico y Experimental Nuevayorquino

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The Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino made only two records–Concepts in Unity (1975) and Lo Dice Todo (1976) –but both are classics of the 1970’s New York salsa scene. The recordings came out of jam sessions held in Andy and Jerry Gonzalez’s basement in the Bronx (I’m imagining the Latin version of Minton’s Playhouse), and they have that spirit to them: open, loose, with a lot of space for supremely talented musicians to do their thing.

I found Lo dice todo a few months ago, and have been listening to it over and over ever since. It was hard to pick out a track to post, but I finally settled on the rumba version of the old bolero “Se me olvidó”. It’s the one I just can’t shake. The opening is so spare, so melancholy, and I love how Virgilio Martí’s voice just glides over, under, and around Alfredo de la Fe‘s violin. And then it just builds and builds.

Apparently, I’m not the only one obsessed with this song. It’s just one of those that gets under your skin, which is why so many artists have tried their hand at it. I did a quick search and found plenty of covers, some better, some worse: Manu ChaoBebo y CigalaRoberto Ledesma, or this mariachi version by Francisco Lara from a Mexican telenovela I hope never to see (tequila shots taken with a scowl only add to the atmspherics.)

Se Me Olvidó by Grupo Folklórico Y Experimental Nuevayorquino

Se Me Olvidó

Another banger from Lo dice todo is Au Meu Lugar Voltar, an intriguing mix of salsa and samba rhythms, composed by Brazilian trombonist Jose Rodriguez, and featuring Ubatan do Nascimento on vocals. Nice.

Au Meu Lugar Voltar by Grupo Folclórico Y Experimental Nueva Yorquino

Au Meu Lugar Voltar

FYI: Souljazz Records put out a collection called Nu Yorica! a few years back, featuring “Anabacoa”, a track from Concepts in Unity, and both of the Grupo’s albums are now available on CD. But the best news of all is that they’re performing again, so keep an eye out.

abrazos,

tunda

 

Charles Mingus, 1951

1951 was the year Charles Mingus arrived in New York, where jazz musicians went to make their reputations. He got right to it. Soon he was leading the Jazz Workshop, also known as the “Jazz Sweatshop” to some of his overworked sidemen. With a rotating cast of players, Mingus pioneered a collaborative style of co-creation that would serve as a template for many groups that followed. He sang out the parts to each musician, teaching them the song phrase by phrase in long, grueling rehearsals. He refused to let the musicians work from a score. In many cases, of course, the written music didn’t exist: it had all been worked out on piano, but only Mingus knew the piece completely. A soloist was usually given a set of scales from which to craft his improvisation, but he had to be aware of the shifting rhythms behind him. Performances were simply extensions of rehearsals, as fluid and unpredictable: arrangements were constantly mutating, songs might be rehearsed one way and performed another, all according to the unique and changeable vision of the band leader. As trumpeter Lew Solof put it: “He liked the sound of the struggle.”

Of course, not all musicians enjoyed working under these unpredictable conditions, and the tensions within these Workshop bands became the foundation of many myths that surround Mingus even today: Mingus chasing his trumpet player angrily off the bandstand and out into the street; Mingus smashing the piano at the Five Spot; Mingus stopping his aggravated band once and again, to the dismay of the audience, who might get a lecture on their own uncivilized listening habits should anyone dare object too loudly. He once had the children of his band mates play from behind the stage curtain, mocking the so-called avant-garde and free jazz sounds that were just starting to be heard in New York then.

He was protective of his music, sensitive to any perceived slight, and was always willing to defend himself with violence, if necessary. But he got results, and this is indisputable. Few composers demanded as much from their players, and fewer still were capable of eliciting such brilliant performances from them. His players, even those who had their disagreements with him, mostly credit Mingus with pushing them further than they’d imagined possible. He sometimes refused to let a sideman solo, might deliberately antagonize him, stoke him, insult him, only to finally let him blow, drawing a spark of genius from the frustrated and angry musician. Reedman Yusef Lateef, who played with Mingus in the early 1960s, recalls asking for guidance on a certain solo, and being given, in lieu of a set chords or scales, a line drawing of a coffin.

Many great albums came out of this period, including historic collaborations with drummer Max Roach (with whom he also founded Debut Records, jazz’s first artist-owned label), but Mingus’s first masterpiece was Pithecanthropus Erectus, an eerie, haunting album recorded in January 1956, starring an inspired Jackie McLean. The title track tells the story of the rise and decline of man, something easy enough to pick out in the McLean’s tense and freakish horn work. It is an album of brilliantly orchestrated chaos, a true milestone.

You’ve probably heard the title track before, but it’s so beautiful, why not listen to it again?

–franz tunda

Introducing Vassil Boyanov, aka: Azis!

Editor’s note: Today La Pelanga inaugurates what we hope will be an occasional series of special guest pelangueros. Our first is Bulgarian poet and journalist Dimiter Kenarov. His work has appeared in EsquireThe Nation, Boston Review, and VQRHe is also the author of two collections of poetry, Patuvane kum kuhniata [A Journey to the Kitchen] and Apokrifni zhivotni [Apocryphal Animals]. 

“Azis is what every man fears to be and what every woman dreams of becoming. Something in between Marilyn Monroe and Marilyn Manson. Azis is an institution, Azis is a factor, Azis is the most interesting personality in this country,” said the Bulgarian singer Azis in 2007 before he entered the second season of VIP Brother, a reality TV show featuring local celebrities. According to polls, slightly more than two million Bulgarians, or about a quarter of the entire population, watched the opening night of the show.

Vassil Boyanov, a.k.a. Azis, is a thirty-two year old Bulgarian Romany turned superstar, a performer of chalga – a hybrid pop-folk genre that blends oriental maqams and occidental dance-beats – and a flamboyant showman with transvestite tendencies. His concerts sell out the largest venues, including stadiums, within hours. He tours the Bulgarian communities in Europe and the US like a messiah, sowing mass hysteria and mayhem along the way. Tabloids and serious publications alike vie for his interviews. In a recently conducted poll on the most important Bulgarians of all time he ranked 21st—the only other contemporary Bulgarian that high on the list was soccer legend Hristo Stoichkov. Azis even dabbled with politics as an honorary head of the Euroroma party and ran for parliament in 2005, though conceding a narrow defeat.

To know Azis is an epistemological impossibility. Aside from his heavily-penciled, mesmerizing blue-lensed eyes and platinum-bleached goatee and mustache, his identity shifts from song to song, video to video. Now he is dressed in leather, sporting curly blond locks; now he wears lingerie; now his widow’s black veil billows in the wind, while all around him – and this requires a leap of the imagination – brawny, depilated construction workers with picks and sledgehammers are busily tearing down an old abandoned house. “My entire life,” Azis said in an interview, “I’ve wanted to have the breasts of a Victoria Secret girl. In any case, I have great legs and it’s a crime to keep them to myself.” Azis may as well be the only person in Bulgaria whose simulations of male-on-male fellatio boost his popularity. He thrives on scandal, wallows in it, tracking down like a hound the time-proven “no publicity is bad publicity” maxim.

What has been really difficult to explain is his rise to prominence in a Balkan country historically rife with homophobia and racism against the Roma minority. Azis is far from secretive about his sexuality and ethnic origin, oftentimes referring to himself in the female. In the capital city Sofia, a centrally located billboard advertising one of his albums, in which he exposed a fair part of his buttocks, caused a major uproar and was the food of TV and radio commentators for several weeks, until the macho-oriented mayor of the city, Boyko Borissov, ordered it removed. Undaunted, in 2006 Azis issued his autobiography Az, Azis – Bulgarian for I, Azis – and in October of the same year, in a heavily publicized symbolic ceremony, married his burly boyfriend Nikolai Parvanov, a.k.a. the Chinese. (Bulgaria does not officially sanction same-sex marriages.) That same evening, almost every news channel broadcasted what the country had never seen before: two men exchanging wedding vows and a kiss.

In case his gay marriage was deemed too old-fashioned, Azis also announced plans to adopt a child together with his new partner. When Veneta Raykova, the celebrity gossip hostess of the Bulgarian TV show “Hot,” asked him about the adoption, he replied, “It’s absolutely normal. We are, or appear to be, in the European Union now, and we should accept certain things more calmly.”

Calm is, of course, the last thing Azis is looking for, and his talent for controversy has won him a number of foes as dedicated as his fans. In a country where the pop-folk genre is generally stigmatized as low-culture, the kitsch territory of saccharine, sexually suggestive lyrics performed by well-endowed peroxide blondes in tacky clothing, Azis holds a special place in the minds of his compatriots. He has been accused of almost every sin imaginable. Some believe that Azis is exploiting the transvestite/gay/transsexual persona simply for commercial purposes, while avidly practicing heterosexuality; others bewail the downfall of contemporary culture and blame him for moral degradation of the young. Whatever the truth, Azis maintains the equanimity, if not exactly the opinions, of a Socrates: “I’ve not become a superstar to teach people morality. I’ve become a star to entertain them, to make them laugh, but not to teach them anything. What did Madonna teach people? Everybody’s falling at her feet. What was Michael Jackson’s teaching? People are crazy for him. It’s quite strange why Bulgarians want a singer to be a math teacher and lecture them on fractions.”

— Dimiter Kenarov

The Invisible City

We don’t usually write about television commercials here at La Pelanga, but then again, most commercials don’t have soundtracks like this one. I first saw this Cemento Sol ad a few years ago, and have had its laid-back cumbia reworking of the Augusto Polo Campos classic “Te Sigo” in my head ever since. I’ve done my best to find the complete track, but had no luck. The song (and the ad) recognizes a shift that was a long time coming: the capital used to be synonomous with música criolla; now, after decades of migration from the interior, that musical culture has changed dramatically. In colonial central Lima, just behind the Presidential Palace, there’s a boardwalk named after Chabuca Granda, one of the great songwriters of the creole tradition—these days it’s pretty common to hear the strains of Andean huayno there, something unimaginable not that long ago. Cumbia bands like Juaneco y su Combo perform at the Lima’s Centro Cultural de España in front of thousands. The once-obscure Los Belkings (perhaps the greatest Andean surf rock group ever) play sold-out shows in the hipster district of Barranco.

The images themselves tell an important story—moving from central Lima to the anonymous outskirts, from the landmarks of the city’s colonial past to the newly-settled neighborhoods where most Limeños live. And the very fact that cement would be advertised on national television says something significant. While it’s difficult to imagine this happening in the United States or Europe, in the developing world, it makes perfect sense, of course. Peru is a country where most construction is done informally; where houses are built, not by contractors, but by the owners themselves, in their spare time, often with the help of their neighbors or extended family. In the ad’s last image, we get a glimpse of this new urban pastoral: working men place their hands gently on the grains of cement, and the thin metal bars rise like corn stalks from the roof of a house, backlit by the setting sun. This could be anywhere in the city, one of literally thousands of neighborhoods. I’d go so far as to say most of the Peruvian capital looks just like this.

The situation was very different in the 1970s, when the song was originally composed. In case you’ve never heard it, here it is, as sung by late Arturo “Zambo” Cavero, along with a slideshow of images from a city that no longer exists.

slideshow courtesy of Gianlucca30

— franz tunda