On Friday, November 11, Latin Grammy-nominated world music/jazz fusion band Afro-Andean Funk and Columbia’s Dr. Renzo Aroni led a workshop and performance, sponsored and supported by the Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities, about the preservation of the Quechua language and culture through their music.

Content warning: This article contains mentions of genocide.

In 2018, US-based producer, composer, and bassist Matt Geraghty travelled to Lima, Peru, to film his fourth traveling music documentary to “provide a platform for the voices and the music of marginalized communities” entitled The Warrior Women of Afro-Peruvian Music, where he met Peruvian lyricist and singer extraordinaire Araceli Poma. The two immediately hit it off and have been collaborating for the past three years on several projects, the most recent of which being their band Afro-Andean Funk‘s debut album, The Sacred Leaf, which has been nominated for the 2022 Latin Grammy for Best Alternative Album.

After a brief introduction from lecturer, Quechua scholar, and musicologist Renzo Aroni, the band launched into an arrangement of their album’s title track as a primer for the music all those attending would hear that night. The song featured a resonant, ambient, magical synth pad playing rich chords, lyrics in Quechua from Poma, and a ringing, echoic, free-flowing bassline from Geraghty. It then became clear that the band mixes an even greater variety of styles than advertised, from the “Afro-Peruvian and Andina tradition” from which Poma hails, to jazz, electronica, cumbia, rock, funk, and soul.

The diversity of the band that night reflected the diversity of influences, with the addition of Russian pianist and frequent collaborator with the band Misha Tsiganov, along with Surinamese drummer Harvey Wirht joining the band for their events in New York.

During their next song, “Agua del Olvido,” highlighting “the role of the shaman in indigenous culture as the healer in indigenous cultures, […] healing the ailments of community after trauma,” Chincha dancer Josie García entered and appeared to perform shamanic tasks, adorning Poma with flowers routinely dipped in a small bowl, presumably the water of oblivion and forgetfulness that the song’s title mentions. The rest of the band droned on a chord with use of extended techniques, such as Geraghty using a glass to create a sound similar to a bowed string on his electric bass, to Wirht using all parts of his drum kit available to create a textural soundscape, before jumping into the funky, upbeat main portion of the song, even featuring some reggaeton influence.

Poma spoke at length about the importance of sharing the music and language with the world: “Lo comparto por una razón más que fundamental para mí. Mi abuela creció en Huancavelica escuchando de quechua en el pueblo; en su casa tenían terminantemente prohibido hablar en quechua. Sus padres le decían a mi abuela que [la gente] va a descriminarla, y lamentablemente, eso es sí como muchas de las lenguas indígenas se han perdido por miedo, por vergüenza a hablarlo. Y ella no les enseñó el quechua a mis tíos [ni] mis padres, y obviamente mi generación ya no llegó. Enhorabuena que mi abuela me cantaba algunas canciones en cuna en quechua, en dónde no era juzgada y nadie le podía decir que estaba mal hablarlo o cantarla. Y es así como [nosotros] que lo estamos aprendiendo todavía, y lo estamos difundiendo a través de la música que hacemos con Afro-Andean Funk en que sentir orgullo por las raíces.

[I share it for a more-than-fundamental reason. My grandmother grew up in Huancavelica listening to Quechua in the town; in her house they were strictly forbidden from speaking in Quechua. Her parents told my abuela that [the people] will discriminate against her, and unfortunately, this is how many indigenous languages have been lost out of fear and shame to speak them. And she didn’t teach Quechua to my aunts and uncles [nor] my parents, and obviously it no longer is taught to my generation. Fortunately, my grandmother sang some songs to me in my crib in Quechua, an environment where she wasn’t judged and nobody could tell her that it was bad to speak or sing it. And this is how those of us that are still learning do, and how we spread it through the music that we make with Afro-Andean Funk in which people feel proud of their roots.]”

This idea of growing up in a Quechua/Latin-American household is further explored through the song “Esterotipos,” with its lyrics referencing the machismo and racism that Poma experienced in her household. On a broader level, the song explores how there’s a degree of seriousness to stereotypes even when veiled as jokes, and how everyone is composed of stereotypes in some way, but we don’t have to hold onto the stereotypes we grew up with, and can unlearn them.

Others of their songs speak about issues that the Peruvian people face and have faced, such as “Spirals of Vision” and “Luchadora del Ande.” The former is an ode to the rainforest owls of the Amazon, speaking to the importance of protecting them and the connection the indigenous peoples of Peru have with La Pachamama [Mother Earth], while the latter speaks to the attempted ethnic cleansing and genocide of indigenous peoples in Peru under the dictatorship of Alberto Fujimori, in which nearly 300,000 mostly impoverished indigenous women were forcibly sterilized in the 1990s. In this anthem of resistance, García made a return to sing and dance along with Poma as they told the story of the “woman fighters of the Andes” and their battle against this extreme prejudice.

After the performance, García and the band demonstrated a handful the important elements in Afro-Peruvian music, such as the specific instruments used, like the Cajita, Cajón, and Quijada, as well as traditions common in many African-derived styles of call-and-response and dance. There wasn’t a single still person in the room as the band accompanied García’s leadership of the crowd in the basics of Festejo and Landó dance styles.

The whole event was an incredible exploration of the wonderfully diverse music of Peru and the world at large, as well as the power of music to preserve culture and language. Be sure to tune into the 23rd Annual Latin Grammy Awards on November 17 at 8 pm to see the band featured and possibly headed home with an award.

From left to right: Misha Tsiganov, Renzo Aroni, Matt Geraghty, Harvey Wirht, Araceli Poma, and Josie García

Images via Renzo Aroni and Author

Editor’s Note, November 14 at 11:20 am: Sponsor added.