Critics are often tempted to bridge cultural gaps through comparisons. So-and-so is the Bob Dylan of Denmark or the Frank Sinatra of Sumatra. Using counterparts is literary shorthand that telegraphs artistic qualities and social relevance that otherwise would be a strain to explain.
I've used the critic's crutch more than once in writing about Peruvian singer Eva Ayllón, the world's premiere interpreter of música criolla, her country's vibrant but undervalued popular music. In 2004, I called her "the Tina Turner of Afro- Peruvian music—energetic and playful, sexy and fully charged." Four years later, I wrote that she had "the smoky soulfulness of Della Reese, the technical command of Ella Fitzgerald, and the rhythmic mastery of Celia Cruz."
Today, such comparisons seem inadequate in capturing the essence of the grand dame of Afro-Peruvian song and her place within Latin American culture. Because as an artist, she is sui generis, just as her native country compares to nothing else on earth. Peru, like most of the Americas, was forged in a fusion of European, African, and Indian cultures. Yet, you could never say Machu Picchu is just another archaeological site. The place takes your breath away. And as a singer, so does Eva Ayllón.
In Spanish we would say, "No se parece a nadie." She has no comparison.
Peru is often identified with the sorrowful flute music of the Andes, popularized by Paul Simon's "El Condor Pasa." Ayllón, however, focuses on the vibrant, urban genres of the capital and the coastal plains. Her catalog, constructed over four decades and more than two dozen albums, encompasses a rich array of folkloric styles of song and dance. They range from the elegant and achingly romantic vals criollo with its melodic Spanish guitars, to the more raucous and percussive Afro- Peruvian variants—like the landó, festejo, and alcatráz—with their lusty dances and distinctive instruments, especially the iconic cajón, or box, developed by slaves who turned shipping crates into improvised drums.
Ayllón and her music first came to the attention of US audiences with the 1995 release of a compilation disc on David Byrne's Luaka Bop label, titled Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru. She appeared with other female vocalists of the genre, respected in their own right. But almost 20 years later, Ayllón stands alone in gaining wider international acclaim while retaining the loyalty of her most discriminating home fans. Peruvians demand downhome authenticity in their música criolla, no matter how refined the occasion, how revered the venue, or how removed the location. Though she's lived for the past decade in New Jersey, Ayllón clearly has left her heart in Lima. She performs as if she were still in one of the city's celebrated peñas, those festive neighborhood clubs where patrons and performers rub elbows, feast on lomo saltado, drink chicha morada, and party together until dawn.
But as folksy as she may be, Ayllón is also a sophisticated and urbane performer who turns the most hallowed halls into her private peña. On stage, her pacing is impeccable. Her engaging self-confidence comes naturally, cultivated since she started singing at age three. She can be charming in two languages, making an asset of her heavy accent in English like—forgive the comparison—Desi Arnaz.
Above all, though, is that gifted voice, sensuous and robust, tender and exuberant, soulful to the core. Her style is never showy, but always in service of the song, melding its melody, emotion, and message. So her singing goes straight to your heart.
For all these reasons, it can be said that Eva Ayllón is like … well, like nobody else you've ever heard.
—Agustin Gurza is an award-winning journalist who has written about Latin music for four decades, most recently as columnist and critic with the Los Angeles Times.