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Afro-Peruvian sound with an electronica beat

By Andrew Gilbert
Globe Correspondent / July 10, 2011

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SAN FRANCISCO - With each resounding wooden thump emanating from the boxlike cajon bouncing off the exposed masonry walls of a bustling new club, the Lima-based combo Novalima seemed to inspire the dancers turning and spinning in front of the bandstand. Set to a swaying folkloric Afro-Peruvian lando, the song was laced with a supple electronica beat, creating a rhythmic mesh perfectly at home in the hipster-haven of the SoMa district.

While ignored and reviled for centuries in Peru, the music of Africans brought as slaves to the silver-rich Spanish colony has found a home on world stages over the past quarter century through performances by musicologists and artists Susana Baca and Péru Negro. While lesser known abroad, Afro-Peruvian singer Eva Ayllon is a beloved icon of Lima’s teeming working-class barrios. Many Americans first discovered Afro-Peruvian music through David Byrne’s 1995 Luaka Bop anthology, “The Soul of Black Peru,’’ but Novalima, which performs at Johnny D’s tonight, has introduced the tradition to a new generation, both on the international club scene and at home.

“Afro-Peruvian music has kept its traditional sound for so long,’’ said keyboardist Ramón Pérez-Prieto before the sound check. “What we did was give it this electronica twist with a global fusion of reggae, jazz, dub, and salsa. Now younger crowds in Peru are interested in the music we do, and they’re starting to investigate the original versions. We’re trying to keep alive these beautiful Peruvian sounds.’’

While Pérez-Prieto had moved back to Lima after a New York sojourn when Novalima first took shape as a project in 2001, the other three founders had dispersed around the world looking for opportunities unavailable at home. Songwriter, producer, and beat programmer Grimaldo Del Solar settled in Barcelona, while guitarist Rafael Morales worked in London and bassist Carlos Li Carrillo hustled gigs in Hong Kong. High school friends raised in bohemian Lima families, they started building and sharing tracks online. The music ended up on the group’s eponymous 2003 album, which quickly found an avid audience among young Peruvians looking for a cosmopolitan new sound.

Novalima followed up with 2005’s “Afro,’’ on the influential British label Mr. Bongo, an album that took top honors in the best world fusion album category from the Independent Music Awards (and lent the title track to Robert Rodriguez’s controversial 2010 film, “Machete’’).

The foursome realized that for their music to take the next step they needed to congregate in Lima and actually forge a sound as a band. The group’s members started developing new material by working closely with Afro-Peruvian masters they had encountered through the previous recordings.

“On the first album it’s more an international mix of music with electronica,’’ Del Solar said. “That’s where we started experimenting with some percussion, some cajones, but the songs weren’t Afro-Peruvian. When we moved back to Lima, we had relationships with musicians and that’s how we started doing the new Afro-Peruvian stuff. It’s not like we had a plan.’’

The band released its breakthrough album, “Coba Coba,’’ on Cumbancha in 2009, earning a Latin Grammy nomination for best alternative album while topping the CMJ New World and Latin Alternative Charts. They cemented their status as club favorites a few months later with “Coba Coba Remixed’’ featuring tracks by leading American and European DJs. The Johnny D’s show on Sunday will mark Novalima’s Boston debut, with an intimate setting on a tour that includes New York’s Central Park SummerStage, Toronto’s Sunfest, and Quebec City’s Festival D’ete.

Numerous guest artists appear on “Coba Coba,’’ but it’s the Afro-Peruvian cast of percussionist-vocalist Juan Medrano Cotito, timbalero Constantino Alvarez, vocalist Milagros Guerrero, and percussionist Marcos Mosquera that largely defines the album’s sound. While many of the same artists participate on the band’s upcoming release, “Karimba,’’ which is due out on ESP in September, the session brought the original quartet back to their roots.

“The evolution is that ‘Coba Coba’ was exploring the live band, and ‘Karimba’ we went back to the studio,’’ Pérez-Prieto said. “This next album is a bit more raw in the percussion, at the same time we’re using more effects that make our sound a little deeper.’’

Since gaining an international following, Novalima has started performing regularly in Peru. A decade ago there was so little opportunity that they couldn’t imagine building careers at home. These days Lima is home to numerous musicians who understand that they don’t have to choose between their own culture and other styles. After Novalima, everything is fair game.

“Instead of just doing American rock or reggae, they’re starting to mix a lot of things with Peruvian stuff too,’’ Del Solar said. “The fact that the music is getting heard outside the country means it gets more respect inside. It’s like the rise of Peruvian cuisine around the world. They’re getting interested in their own music, which was almost being lost among the young.’’

Andrew Gilbert can be reached at jazzscribe@aol.com.

NOVALIMA

At Johnny D’s, tonight at 9. Tickets: $15. 617-766-2004, www.johnnyds.com.