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Music helps Lima to mend

The city's pena spirit and salsa-crazy port scene define its special blend of music that, like the place itself, is on the upswing.

March 25, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

Lima, Peru — THE penthouse recording studio of musician Manuel Miranda enjoys a panoramic view of this ancient and strangely compelling city. When he turns down the lights and turns up his bewitching brew of ancestral Andean melodies, jazzy rhythms and soaring synthesizers, he creates a mystical ambience that converts his 17th-story condo into an Inca temple.

Miranda, a guru-like figure who sports earrings and a beaded necklace, plays a battery of historic instruments over the recorded tracks from his upcoming album, "Brujos Voladores" (Flying Wizards). He rattles shells and blows on flutes made of wood, stone and pelican bone, evoking the mysteries of the cosmos, the primitive search for water, the origin of civilization.

In Lima, experimental artists like Miranda are concocting new ways of salvaging Peru's rich musical traditions by updating them with contemporary elements of jazz, rock and electronica. During a visit last fall, I was thrilled to discover these artistic efforts to revive one of the most powerful yet underappreciated cultural traditions in the Western Hemisphere.

Though less well-known than the Argentine tango, the Mexican mariachi or the Cuban son, Peruvian musical traditions are no less rich. Ardent proponents are working to ensure the survival of the country's distinctive sound, worried it could be lost as youth turn to foreign pop fads.

Lima, like its music, suffers a crisis of self-esteem. This ugly-duckling city of 8 million may not have the breathtaking grandeur of Mexico City, the cosmopolitan elegance of Buenos Aires or the graceful beauty of Havana, but it has that intangible quality called soul, reflected in its friendly people and their passionate songs, and that makes it equally memorable.

Skies are overcast in the city almost year round and many tourists consider it an unavoidable way station on their treks to Cuzco and Machu Picchu, centers of Inca civilization about 750 miles southeast. But when it comes to music, Lima is the hub.

Americans tend to associate Peruvian music with the folkloric flute sounds of the Andes, popularized by Simon and Garfunkel's "El Condor Pasa," the 1970 hit with Urubamba, a group that wasn't even Peruvian. Yet, Peruvian music is as diverse as the country's geography and multiracial makeup.

Lima and its coastal environs are best known for musica criolla, a blend of Spanish, Indian and African elements as tasty as the new fusion cuisine that's putting this city on the culinary map. The styles are as varied as the graceful marinera, danced with twirling handkerchiefs, and the romantic vals peruano, an earthy, urban waltz danced with a shuffle to the feet and sway to the hips.

Running through it all is the rhythmic legacy of Peru's black musicians, descendants of slaves who created their own distinctive song forms and dances, such as the mournful lando, the provocative festejo and the rowdy alcatraz.

My relationship with Lima and its music is personal. My first wife, whom I met when we were students at UC Berkeley in the '70s, was born and raised in Lima. I fell in love with the music, the sweet melodies, the poetic lyrics, the irresistible rhythms. But on this trip, I wasn't sure what I would find. By the 1980s, all of my ex-wife's family had immigrated to California, joining the sizable expatriate community. The last I knew of Lima was that people wanted desperately to leave, to escape the city's perfect storm of urban woes -- terrorism, poverty, crowding, crime, corruption and crumbling infrastructure.

Today, Lima is enjoying a civic and cultural resurgence. Night life has returned to the once dangerous historic downtown, where authorities have illuminated major colonial buildings as part of a full-scale restoration effort. New restaurants, good hotels, fine art galleries and trendy nightspots abound, luring tourists back.

Musical fusion

ALMOST every traveler arrives in Lima through Callao, the gritty port adjacent to Jorge Chavez International Airport. Once the shipping point for Inca gold headed to Spain, the district is now known as Lima's hotbed for salsa music. From there, most visitors head directly to the upscale districts of Miraflores or San Isidro, a straight shot along the coastal road that lines Lima's brownish bay from La Punta to Chorrillos.

Aside from being safe for shopping and strolling, Miraflores is a good base from which to explore Lima's music.

The fusionists, who perform in public only occasionally, have found a welcome venue at El Cocodrilo Verde (226 Francisco de Paula Camino), a nightclub that features a variety of live music. Late last year, the club hosted a series of concerts dubbed "Etno Fussion," featuring top names in the field -- from pioneer Miki Gonzalez to the newest multinational ensemble Novalima, which creates a powerful fusion of electronica with intoxicating Afro-Peruvian percussion and vocals.

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