The Streets of Lima Are Alive With the Sound of Music


Photo by author Juan Arellano, used with permission.

The article by Juan Arellano was originally published in Spanish on his Globalizado blog and translated into English for Global Voices by Victoria Robertson.

Big cities are home to different kinds of people who work outdoors, in plazas, parks, avenues, and side streets. Among the denizens of these urban jungles, musicians, or buskers, occupy a privileged position: they are not just tolerated but often openly embraced on account of the joy they bring to impersonal public spaces.

Lima, the capital of Peru, is no stranger to this phenomenon. While street performers are sometimes dislodged from commercial spaces and certain areas of the city’s historic center by the police, most of Lima’s musicians enjoy a good deal of freedom in plying their trade and earning a few bucks. They are even accepted in many restaurants and on local public transit, the mini buses and vans known as micros or combis.

But whether the value of busking is truly appreciated is another question. A while back I read an article [GP1] on the topic in the blog Lima es Linda (Lima is beautiful), which suggested, “Limeños don’t value street performance because they consider it a form of panhandling rather than contributing to society.” At the same time, the article asserted, “street music livens up, inspires and motivates people (locals and tourists alike), and our city really needs that.”

Personally, I never paid the phenomenon much attention until a few years ago—maybe because I was just one more urbanite rushing along the city’s streets oblivious to what was really going on around me. But more recently, when I come across a street musician and happened to have a camera on me, I recorded the performance.

Here are a few of the talented people I have encountered on the streets of Lima.

The Asháninka people are the most populous indigenous group in the Peruvian Amazon and were the victims of forced migration during the period of terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s. Of those who were not actively exterminated, many relocated to Lima’s Ate district, where a small group of them continues to live alongside members of other indigenous communities originally from Peru’s forest regions. Together they maintain close ties to the land and their culture.

One day walking through Lima’s Central Market, I came across a small gathering of Asháninka performing a typical musical number, which on this occasion included a graceful dancer interpreting Amazonian rhythms. It was an unusual sight given the generally cool climate of Lima, but on that summer day the musicians performed as they would in the warm tropical atmosphere of their forest home. Unfortunately I was able to catch only a snippet:

Asháninka music is very diverse, as demonstrated by this song by Yéssica Sánchez Comanti I recorded at an Amazonian poetry and storytelling recital.

Although the Peruvian valse, derived from the European waltz, was a form primarily cultivated in Lima and the coastal cities in the late 19th century, it later made its way into the country’s interior. La Contamanina, which refers to the city of Contamana on the shores of the Ucayali river in the northern Loreto region, was apparently composed in Iquitos, the largest urban settlement in the Peruvian Amazon—or at least that is what blogger Manuel Acosta Ojeda contends:

“It is said that originally the valse featured music without lyrics, that the beautiful melody was created by an Italian violinist who travelled from Ecuador to Iquitos at the beginning of the 20th century in search of fortune during the rubber boom, and that its original title was Leonor. Don Alejandro Mera del Águila added the lyrics to describe the passion that the beautiful young Leonor Olórtegui Reyes inspired in the Italian traveller. Although his love was requited, the couple’s romance did not receive the blessing of Leonor’s family, and she was spirited away from the city.”

Several different versions of the lyrics exist, but one of the best known is performed by the group Dúo Loreto. In my urban wanderings, I recorded an instrumental version that, in keeping with the serendipitous theme of my encounters, was played by a blind saxophonist on a street in the heart of Lima that just happens to be called Ucayali.

I was not familiar with the musical saw until I met Miguel Ángel, but from what I gleaned on YouTube, it is a popular instrument in many parts of the world.

Here Miguel Ángel is playing Love Hurts, the 70s rock ballad that was a hit for the Scottish band Nazareth, although it was actually composed by Boudleaux Bryant and first recorded back in the 60s by the Everly Brothers.

In this next video, Miguel briefly and humorously explains what a musical saw is and how it is played. Other blog posts provide explanations and samples of the instrument sometimes called a singing saw in English.

Ever since I first listened to Miles Davis play his trumpet with a mute, I was fascinated by the sound that resulted. I had no idea that I might one day come across someone playing a muted trumpet on the streets of my capital city, but this year my new friend let me capture the following performance. He was one of the few artists I met who indicated he sometimes had problems with municipal officials ejecting him from certain public spaces.

There are plenty of other styles of street music played for passers-by in Lima, including popular interpretations courtesy of the military bands of the Peruvian Navy and the Government Palace. The City of Lima itself also organizes a variety of street events featuring rock groups.

Whether an official concert or an impromptu performance by a street musician, Peru’s capital is alive with the welcome sounds of voices and instruments. Enjoy!

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