Dance and music in the heart of Afro Peru


The walk is short but memorable. An acrid, pungent odor thickens the air and I am reminded of the unmistakable smell of the hog pen on the farm where I grew up. Piles of rocks and concrete fragments litter the dusty streets, which are lined with residences of crumbling brick. Some of the houses have been hastily repaired and reinforced, the residents making use of any and all available materials: garbage bags, tarps, sticks, bits of canvas.

A painting of Amador Ballumbrosio, patriarch of the family known for its dance and music tradition.
Young women dance barefoot while men play the cajons and congas.

They know we’re coming. As we approach the house at San Jose 325, faint conversation grows to a loud chatter. The door is open, and we file in without ceremony. The sensory assault that follows is unexpected. The walls are painted in alternating shades of rich mustard, rust, and, curiously, electric blue. Family photos cover nearly every inch of available wall space, and I can feel history staring out at me from every corner. The sharp aroma of carapulcra wafts in from the kitchen along with the sound of salsa music on the radio.

We take seats on the hard wooden benches along the wall and wait. It won’t be long, I’m told, before someone gets a jam session going with the cajons (large, boxlike drums) that are stacked neatly in the corner. Soon enough, one of the kids, a girl of about eight, with milk chocolate skin and voluminous jet-black ringlets, hops atop one of the cajons, gives it a few testing little taps, and begins beating rhythmically away. Her hands fly over the polished, glossy wood in perfect time, and we sit transfixed for a minute or two, watching. But she is still a little girl: the effort cannot quite compete with the lure of her toys several meters away, and she abandons the cajon.

The original twelve children of Ballumbrosio patriarch Amador have all grown up; many of their children, teens and toddlers alike, now fill the family home. The majestic art of Afro-Peruvian dance and music seems to flow as naturally as blood through the veins of every one. Amador himself, folk violinist virtuoso and master of the ethnic tap dancing art of zapateo, was both a revered musical icon and a beacon of hope and happiness throughout his years – even when health problems forced him permanently into a wheelchair. The beloved musician, dancer, and father died in 2009.

Inside the family home, however, Amador’s tradition lives on. In the evening, the entire clan assembles to give the neighborhood one of its frequent lively shows. We are lucky enough to secure a coveted spot on the worn but comfortable sofa and listen as Amador’s eldest son, dressed entirely in white, speaks at length about the inception of Afro-Peruvian music, his father’s legacy, and the importance of tradition. The introduction complete, he retreats to the back of the room, joining three other white-clad brothers, each as astride his own cajon, and the show begins.

The men beat the cajons in perfect rhythm for a few moments, the vibrations seeming to rattle the walls and our rib cages, until two female dancers emerge. They are barefoot, clad in frilly, midriff-baring bra tops and tiny skirts with colors that match the walls. Their limbs are a blur, each one’s movements a mirror image of the others, and both are wearing an expression of simple delight. They perform their hip-shaking, torso-twisting dance at an impossibly frenetic pace, concentrated but smiling, while beads of sweat form on each cajon-playing man’s forehead. For the next hour or so, we watch, rapt, while the women, six in all, rapidly and effortlessly contort their bodies in a fascinating display of speed and gracefulness and the men pound tirelessly upon their wooden instruments.


When the women have finished, the men treat the audience to a thrilling zapoteo show. Each gives a solo performance, filling the air with rhythmic stomping and tapping on the unadorned stone floor. The men wear similar expressions of pleasure and concentration, absorbed in the effort of creating such unique music.

Some time later, with a collective bow and a chorus of “Gracias!”, the show ends. The room has grown warm from the feverish exertion of the talented human bodies of the Ballumbrosio children and grandchildren. We rise slowly, still feeling the show’s lingering vibrations inside. I look down at my scribbled notes and realize that it will take days to satisfactorily relate my experience in the house of Amador Ballumbrosio. The overwhelming richness of it all reminds me of the first bite of extra dark chocolate — the flavor is striking, intense, and unfamiliar, but nonetheless addictive and somehow luxurious. As long as there are Ballumbrosios in El Carmen, I decide, the beauty and joy of their craft will ease the devastation and hardship beyond the front door of the little house on Calle San Jose.

Kate Bradley is an American travel writer and web copy writer. She has spent the past four years living and traveling throughout Central and Eastern Europe and currently resides in Lima, Peru.