Performance Saturday, October 26, 2013 | 8 PM

Eva Ayllón

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Eva Ayllón is one of Peru’s most legendary stars with a voice that embodies the spirit of a nation. Known for her larger-than-life stage personality and fearsome dance chops, the “Queen of landó” (a traditional Afro-Peruvian musical form) infuses her music with colorful sounds from the coastal plains of Lima, as well as her country’s indigenous, African, and Spanish musical heritage. The resulting style is a powerful sound with call-and-response, complex syncopation, and polyrhythms with sweet, melancholic melodies.


  • Eva Ayllón

Event Duration

The printed program will last approximately two hours and 30 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.


  • Eva Ayllón

    A singer with a powerful voice, commanding stage presence, and versatile flair for many music styles, Eva Ayllón began performing in Peruvian peñas ("nightclubs") in the 1970s. By the 1980s, she had produced popular recordings and collaborated with established Peruvian groups, including Los Kipus. In 1989, her performance as lead vocalist with Los Hijos del Sol sealed her status as a Peruvian national star.

    Ayllón's musical roots are in two coastal Peruvian styles: música criolla ("Creole music") and Afro-Peruvian music. Peruvian música criolla-the legacy of the multiethnic coastal culture that developed among the working classes in 20th-century Lima-involves strophic songs with lyrics about lost love, romance, patriotism, and nostalgia for colonial Lima. Genres include the marinera and the vals ("waltz"), the latter of which is one of Ayllón's specialties. Música criolla has been performed since the mid-20th century on two core instruments that symbolically express Lima's European and African heritages: the guitar and the cajón ("box drum"). Typically, the lead guitarist plays elaborate solos and active, strongly plucked figures on the upper strings, while a second guitarist performs repeating patterns (bordones) on the two lowest strings and strums rhythmically. The cajón, a rectangular wooden drum with a sound hole in the back, provides a rhythmic counterpart with an impressive variety of timbres. Although Afro-Peruvians have long been known alongside their European-descended neighbors for their contributions to música criolla, a common perception was that African-descended music had disappeared in Peru by the first half of the 20th century. Beginning in the 1950s, however, a revival re-created the forgotten music, dance, and poetry of the Afro-Peruvian culture. As in música criolla, the core of Afro-Peruvian musical styles-such as the festejo and landó-is the interplay between the cajón and the criollo guitar. Various percussion instruments (quijadas, or "jawbones"; a smaller version of the cajón called the cajita; congas; bongos; cowbells; and so forth) and occasional harmony and/or melody instruments are added for specific genres. The music combines traits associated with West African music styles (polyrhythms, layered percussion, call-and-response vocals, metric complexity) with elements of Peruvian música criolla (vocal timbre, guitar melody styles and strumming patterns, the prominence of triple meter, hemiola). Songs tend to describe Afro-Peruvian culture with lyrics about slavery, abolition, rural life, and imagined ties to African heritage.

    What is it that sets Ayllón apart in her seamless performance of both of these Peruvian national styles? For many listeners, her voice is addictive, fraught with a kind of combined fragility and strength that perfectly complements her favored repertoire of coastal Peruvian songs. She has long been known in Peru as the "queen of landó," and she has moved this folkloric genre in a new direction since the Afro-Peruvian revival, reimagining it as a kind of sensual and highly syncopated popular ballad with varied instrumentations. An innovator in both criollo and Afro-Peruvian styles, she adds Afro-Cuban batá drums, West African djembe, jazzy keyboards, and salsa-style horn sections to the mix-yet her style remains both fiercely individual and distinctively Peruvian.

    When Ayllón toured the US in the 1990s, she performed primarily for the Peruvian "colony" of expatriates in special shows advertised only within that community. Then, in 2003, she disappointed her Peruvian audiences by moving to the US, where she began to tour more widely and released her first US-produced recording. Since that move, Ayllón has broadened her repertoire and increased her already impressive versatility. This is no surprise; she is continuing the voyage she began in her native Peru, connecting her music with the sounds of her multiethnic heritage.

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"Ritmo, Color, y Sabor"
Eva Ayllón
Trauni Music

Agustin Gurza on Eva Ayllón

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.

Program Notes
This performance is part of Around the Globe, and Around the Globe - Students.