Sounds of Afro-Peru: An Interview With Peña's Cory Wong
Minneapolis based musician/producer Cory Wong is on a mission to spread the music of Peru’s coast as far and wide as possible. Last April, he traveled to Lima and assembled an ensemble to help document Afro-Peruvian music. The group was called Peña (a meeting place or grouping of artists/musicians) and two albums from the sessions have been released since last October on Wong’s Secret Stash Records. A third Peña volume, released this April, remixes some of the original tracks.
The first Peña effort was a collection of 17 tracks that eloquently displayed the different styles within the genre and was accompanied by a documentary DVD, impressively packaged in an lavish wooden box. The album quickly received critical praise from tastemaker’s like NPR Music, PRI’s The World, All Music, Blurt, Afropop, etc. and landed on many year end lists.
MundoVibe caught up with Peña’s Producer and Musician Cory Wong to discuss the history of Afro-Peruvian music and how Peña came to document it.
MundoVibe: It was just a year ago that you visited Lima, Peru to record and release Peña. What was the inspiration for you to venture to Peru and to make this recording?
Cory Wong: It came from a long standing relationship with my guitar mentor Andrés Prado. He is from Lima and lived here in Minnesota for several years and is now back there. He instilled in me a passion for Afro-Peruvian music and taught me a lot about the culture and where this music has come from. I wanted to do a project like this for a long time and last March I was at lunch with Eric Foss and we just decided that it was time to make it happen. 2 weeks later he, Unai Bolivar and I were standing in Lima with a bunch of gear ready to go!
MundoVibe: Were the Peruvian musicians surprised that someone from Minneapolis would venture all the way there to record their music? Tell us about this cross-cultural experience.
Cory Wong: Yeah, it was a great surprise to us when we got there how exited and enthused some of the musicians were to be a part of the project. We recorded everything from guys who perform on the streets to local professionals. We met a lot of really great people who were happy to see people with such great interest in this music. It was so much better than trying to just do it here in the states because we got to see first hand what this music is about and interact with the people who live this music everyday.
MundoVibe: You are a guitarist and producer. What role did your musicianship play in Peña?
Cory Wong: As a producer, I was thinking and seeing the big picture of the project and planning out the overall sound of the project. We recorded with around a dozen musicians, and trying to get a cohesive sound was a scary thought at first, but when it was happening it was really brought to life by the performances and the musical expressions/emotions from each musician. A lot of it was the logistical side doing the engineering as well. I played guitar on over half of the recordings, and even wrote some of the songs for the project too. It was a great learning experience for me. I learned and studied this music with Andrés for a couple years, but the two weeks leading up to the trip I transcribed every Afro-Peruvian album and song i could find. That was what really helped me on the technical side of learning this music, but even more so was just getting down there playing and interacting with the local musicians.
MundoVibe: You recorded over 50 songs in a very short timeframe in Lima. What challenges did you face in recording and how did you narrow the songs down to those you released?
Cory Wong: Wow, yeah looking back on it I can’t believe we got that much done in such a short period of time. We were there for a total of seven days, and only five days were spend tracking. Like I said, the people I recorded with really live this music out everyday, so the challenge engineering/production wise was to not get in the way. We had really set out to make this recording as organic as possible. We recorded in a lot of interesting places and just made it work. I’m used to recording in well isolated studios, but down there it was just set up wherever we could get a remotely isolated sound and where the musicians could perform in the most natural way. It was much more about the performance, emotion, and vibe. Before we went down there we tried to contact some local studios to see if we could use their space but it just didn’t work out, so we recorded in classrooms, apartments, auditoriums, and the hostel we were staying at. Looking back, I really don’t think it could have turned out better. It really captured what this music is about.
MundoVibe: Afro-Peruvian music has not received the same exposure as, say, Afro-Cuban music. What do you attribute this to?
Cory Wong: That’s kind of a hard question to answer because I guess there’s a lot that goes into it…but I guess one big thing might be that the Buena Vista Social Club project really helped popularize Afro-Cuban music around the world. I think they did a great job with that project and really look up to them for that. Some people have compared Peña to the Buena Vista Social Club record, just without the budget and superstar of Ry Cooder. With this project we truly wanted to just make this music known to people who wouldn’t otherwise encounter it. We want to expose people to this music and culture with a hope that more of the “general public” will dive deeper and get into the roots of this music as well.
MundoVibe: In listening to Peña, it’s clear that there is not just one mood or style of Afro-Peruvian music. It is as diverse as it is rich. What are the various forms of Afro-Peruvian music that you recorded for Peña?
Cory Wong: There are several “key” forms or song types that sort of define Afro-Peruvian music. Festejo, Lando, Panalivio, Mariñera, Vals, etc….
Festejo means celebration, and the songs reflect that for the most part. Rhythmically they are typically a quick 12/8 and in a major key.
Lando is a slow 6/4 song type typically in a minor key (but not always). It is more of a lamenting and darker vibe.
Really the main ingredients of this music is the rhythm and the feeling. If those two things are happening the other stuff kind of falls into place.
MundoVibe: Do you see this music getting more attention and recognition outside of Peru with the release of the Peña series? Do you feel like an ambassador of the music?
Cory Wong: I would really hope so. Like I had said, one of our biggest goals with this project is to expose more people to this music and culture. This music is a big passion of ours, and we really just want people to enjoy it as much as we do! As far as being an ambassador of music, nah…not at all, we don’t need that kind of title hanging over our heads. It’s all about the music. To me great music is great music, and a great vibe is a great vibe. Sometimes people tend to get in the way of that, I’d prefer to stay out of the way and let the music speak for itself.
MundoVibe: Is there a fusion of cultures in this music and if so, what elements are combined?
Cory Wong: Absolutely. Just to keep things short I’ll try to sum like this. Rhythmically it feels rooted in Africa, harmonically it feels rooted in Spain. Really though it’s its own unique thing though. It wouldn’t have happened with just one or the other. Its the combination of the two, and the history behind them that make Afro-Peruvian music what it is.
MundoVibe: What are the traditions that form the foundations Afro-Peruvian music – it’s structure, instruments and subject matter?
Cory Wong: A lot of it has to do with the Spanish bringing African slaves to Peru. I am amazed at how something so beautiful came from such a dark past. A lot of the subject matter is about slavery, but it is also just like any other type of music with love songs, and songs about life experiences. The cajón is the national instrument of Peru, and is one of the defining qualities of this genre. The ensembles can range from 2-10 members (depending on how many people are hanging out that day!). Most of the instruments you’ll hear in Afro-Peruvian music are: nylon string guitar, cajón, cajita, quijada, bass, and other various percussion instruments.
MundoVibe: The most recent release in the Peña series are remixes of tracks released on Volumes 1 and 2. How did you approach these remixes since they’re still very true to the originals?
Cory Wong: When you tell people you make a “remix album”, they have a certain preconceived notion on what to expect or what it will sound like. I really wanted to make something that would change the way people think about that. My approach musically was way different on the third volume, but the emotion and spirit of it was the same. I spent a ton of time going through the songs and isolating parts of the recordings we did in Peru to make completely new songs/arrangements out of them. I used some of my fellow musicians here in Minnesota that I play with regularly to make all new recordings to go behind the vocals that were recorded in Peru. So in the end this was taking the fusion thing one step farther, blending Afro-Peruvian music with American pop/jazz styles. The thing that was REALLY important to me was to not make it sound forced. So many times we hear remix or revisited albums that feel very convoluted. I wanted this to feel like it was all planned, recorded, and arranged like this from the start. It was also important that the spirit and emotion of the songs stay the same. If you listen to “Quizas Un Dia Asi” from the first volume of Peña and then listen to the remix version on volume 3, it’s completely different musically while keeping the same intimacy/vibe/emotion. It took me a long time to get my mind to take a paradigm shift artistically since I played guitar on both versions; but it really goes to show that the same feeling can be expressed through completely different avenues.
MundoVibe: Is there an actual “scene” in Lima around Afro-Peruvian music? Can one go to clubs and hear it? Are there labels dedicated to it?
Cory Wong: There is, and there are. This music is very alive around the coast of Peru. It is played in all sorts of venues, but mostly at Peña’s. A Peña is basically a party where there is music, dancing, food, and really just a good time. When deciding on a name for the project, it seemed obvious….
MundoVibe: What plans do you have for future Afro-Peruvian music releases? Will there be any live version of this on tour?
Cory Wong: While we were in Peru we met with the head of the biggest record label in Lima called IEMPSA. We worked with them to do a reissue of some of the best Afro-Peruvian music ever recorded. It’s a Secret Stash Records release called “The Rhythms of Black Peru” that will be out next month. We have a live ensemble that has done and will do more performances here in the states, along with some educational masterclasses and performances for colleges/schools around the country. We are hoping that it stirs up an excitement about Afro-Peruvian music and can inspire people to take similar musical journey’s.
“Cuando Llora Mi Guitarra” (FREE DOWNLOAD – HERE)
“El Mayoral” (FREE DOWNLOAD – HERE)
“Cardo O Ceniza” (FREE DOWNLOAD – HERE)
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