Pena: Pena

(Secret Stash Records)

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Of all the music that’s descended from the polyrhythms and melodic primalness brought to the Americas by African slaves, the once-extinguished subset of Afro-Peruvian music fell deepest into history, but has just gotten a thorough excavation.  Although Pena’s new album is the product of a collaboration between old world and new (indigenous older men of color and young Western globetrotters trying to stay schooled in the culture), there’s nothing about the record that overreaches. 

Spearheaded by Secret Stash Records manager, Cory Wong, who also plays guitar throughout, Pena’s every step is a loose, but measured, well-placed and well-played jumble of the gumbo that defines the Afro-Peruvian experience.  Wong was mentored under the Peruvian guitarist Andrés Prado, who’s also a driving figure on the record.  His lithe guitar lines and solo offer insight not just into a disappeared style, but a world that’s been long gone; for over 50 years, there has been almost nothing of this musical tradition.

But despite the “crate diggers” tease from the record’s press release, Pena plays less like the mother of all Latin jams than the sister of Buena Vista Social Club.  Although “El Mayoral” stutters and flutters with some distinct syncopation, by the time “Mi Corazón Roto” rolls around, you may have forgotten exactly whether you’re in Cuba or Peru.  The melodic theme of “Corazón” reprises on the funky and sublime “Barranco Lando,” with some deep cajon playing in the mix (the large, empty box that slaves used in place of drums).  However, when the repertoire involves vocals, which are all gut-wrenchingly delivered and always sparsely utilized, there’s very little “Afro” to be heard.

This doesn’t take away from the beauty of the tracks, though.  The best one is actually the shortest, clocking in at only forty-seven seconds. A virtuosic, rolling, finger-picked guitar exercise that sounds like it was recorded in a public square, “Baile de los Caballos” gives context to the more guerilla aspects of the music.  But perhaps the most infectious and telling piece is the time signature-hopping “Chincha,” which builds until it sounds like a celebratory, inverted, major key blues. 

The room to breathe that the musicians give each song speaks of respect for the idiom and the canon of Afro-Peruvian music, and makes for an engaging, authentic experience that frames Wong and the Pena project, more as Lomax-styled ethnomusicology than mere north-of-the-equator importation.

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About Alex Stimmel

Educator, musician, writer. Teach K-8 music in an East Harlem PS; guitarist/songwriter for Apothecary Hymns (Locust); have written for Mojo, NY Times Mag, Rolling Stone, Resonance & more.
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