Cultural Landscapes Shaping the Peru Program
The Peru program for the 2015 Folklife Festival has taken a more definite shape since we returned from our second curatorial fieldwork trip in December. My colleagues Cristina Diaz-Carrera, Rafael Varón, Alexia Fawcett, and I continue to marvel at the range of cultural and physical landscapes we encountered as we traveled north along the coast, northeast to Amazonian towns of Iquitos and Nauta, and into the central valleys of the Andes.
What was most interesting to me on this second trip were the distinct ecological relationships between the people, their history, and their artistry and creativity; the physical environment—the land, the water, the animals, the natural resources; and the challenges of industrialization, expropriation of natural resources, tourism, and globalization. I never ceased to be amazed how Peruvians respond to these with cultural persistence and creative reformulation of traditions, successfully sustaining their values and ways of life.
On the north coast, we encountered the world of the marinera, a dance tradition with many regional variants whose very name (mar) references the ocean. Now considered a national icon, marinera has become a cultural institution not only inspiring generations of dancers but also motivating local artisans to organize creative enterprises that outfit the dancers: embroideries for skirts and blouses, woven cotton belts and straw hats, and delicate silver filigree earrings, necklaces, and hair adornments emulating peacocks.
Also on the coast in the town of Huanchaco, we met fishermen who continue the tradition of building caballitos de totora—fishing canoes made with local totora reeds. This millennial tradition is being increasingly replaced by commercial boats; however, some local fishermen chose to continue to make and fish in caballitos—but also rent them for surfing, a popular tourist activity. One of the greatest challenges for caballito artisans are the diminishing totora reserves; some have developed a strategy to use Styrofoam in the interior of the caballito, which gives the canoe the necessary buoyancy while using fewer reeds.
We next traveled to Iquitos, a city once on the Amazon, but when the river changed course in 1972, it became an island surrounded by Amazon, Itaya, and Nanay rivers. This commercial hub is a crossroads of traditions. We met with the music ensemble Los Wemblers, named after the Wembley Stadium in England. In the 1970s, they were one of the earliest groups to play cumbia amazónica, a local style incorporating elements of the popular Colombian cumbia music dominating the radio and commercial recordings. This parallels a similar phenomenon happening in Lima where cumbia is combined with the traditional huayno music of highland migrants to the city to create chicha music.
We then continued on to Nauta on the Marañon River to visit Radio Ucamara. One of the greatest challenges in this region is the loss of the native languages and the concurrent loss of cultural practices. The members of Radio Ucamara have engaged the community in oral history projects involving several generations to help revitalize their language by documenting oral traditions. In this world of rivers increasingly contaminated by oil expropriation, one of the stories describes not only why this impacts their livelihood but affects their ritual practices. Radio Ucamara will share their strategies for reinvigorating language and culture at the Festival as well as produce radio programs interviewing other Festival participants.
Lastly, we traveled to the central valleys in the southern Andes, a region renowned for its crafts—many providing rich visual historical narratives of the period of violence, known as la época del terrorismo, experienced in the 1980s and ’90s. In Cochas Grande, near the town of Huancayo, we visited mate burilado artists who engrave their personal stories on gourds. We traveled several hours to Ayacucho through rich valleys growing potatoes, lima beans, quinoa, corn, barley, and more. We met with an agronomist and explored the possibility of inviting farmers who grow these crops for their livelihood but are also part of a project growing organic quinoa for export.
In Ayacucho, it is common for craft traditions to run through families. It is home to a range of fine artisans who we are considering for the Festival and whose work includes tapestry weavings, tinsmith art, mask making for civic and religious celebrations, ceramics, and retablo boxes illustrating domestic, religious, historical, and personal stories.
At the Festival, visitors can listen to the stories of people who come from these different places; enjoy their music, dance, arts, crafts, and occupational skills; and appreciate how they combine creativity with traditional knowledge to address social and environmental challenges they encounter in today’s world.
Read about the team’s August 2014 trip to Peru on Talk Story.
Olivia Cadaval has curated numerous Folklife Festival programs, including Las Américas: Un Mundo Musical (2009), México (2010), Colombia: The Nature of Culture(2011), and Citified: Arts and Creativity East of the Anacostia River (2012). She is currently co-curator of the 2015 program on Peru.