Gabriela Shiroma remembers walking through the streets of Chorrillos as a young girl and hearing the sound of the cajones filling the air with infectious Afro-Peruvian rhythms. The music always called to her.
“It was hard for me to get a hold of the real traditions of my country even though I lived there,” Gabriela says. She attended an American-run high school, where students received no folkloric education and studied mostly American texts. She grew up in a heavily Afro-descendent town, but her engagement with African-derived traditions during her childhood was minimal.
When asked why she later chose to immerse herself in Afro-Peruvian dance, music, and culture, Gabriela says, “It’s a calling…It’s not about where you come from. It’s not your race, it’s not your gender…but it’s a calling.”
“It’s in you, and you know it’s yours,” she continues. “You have to follow it. Otherwise you’re not following the mission of your life.”
The birth of De Rompe y Raja
Gabriela heard the call again at San Jose State University. She had come to the U.S. to study graphic design, and the dance department building was always on the route to her classes. This time, it was the rhythms of an Afro-Haitian dance class that called to her from the studio windows. “The drums haunted me,” she jokes. She had to sign up for the class.
Her Afro-Haitian teacher at San Jose State created space for Gabriela to share Afro-Peruvian dance traditions, which she had begun studying by this point in time, with students and universities in the U.S. It wasn’t long before Gabriela was working closely with other artists in the San Francisco Bay Area who were interested in Afro-Peruvian dance and music. They created De Rompe y Raja Cultural Association, the Bay Area’s first Afro-Peruvian cultural ensemble, in the basement of their friend Carlos’ garage.
Answering the call
That was sixteen years ago. Since then, De Rompe y Raja has been working and studying closely with master Peruvian musicians and dancers from the coastal region of Peru. Gabriela and other members of the group have regularly traveled to Peru not only to take classes but to be part of the jarana, casual gatherings where artists share music, dance, food, and drink. Additionally, Peruvian masters have come to the Bay Area to share their traditions with Gabriela’s students.
Earlier this year, Gabriela and a group of twenty-five students and other members of De Rompe y Raja traveled to Peru to study and immerse themselves in Afro-Peruvian cultural traditions. Ages of the travelers ranged from five to ninety-two years old, and the group included American, African-American, Peruvian-American, Mexican-American as well as Peruvian musicians and dancers.
The trip was a “cultural bridge” that brought Gabriela’s master teachers in Peru and her Bay Area-based students together in the town of El Carmen, a small town in Peru where the blending of African, Spanish, and indigenous cultural traditions has persisted for many years. A typical day on the trip consisted of three or more dance and drum classes, visits to different peñas, and trips to landmarks of Afro-Peruvian culture. This kind of immersion was only made possible by the years that Gabriela and other leaders of De Rompe y Raja had spent engaging with the master teachers in Peru.
“It’s really hard getting permission to learn,” she says. “You have to be part of the community and spend time with the masters – living with them and being a part of the process of the hatajos in order for them to accept you as someone who can learn these traditions.”
An hatajo is a group or family of people who practice Afro-Peruvian cultural traditions. On this recent trip, De Rompe y Raja engaged with two such hatajos that Gabriela chose to work with because of their deep connection to the folkloric traditions she had been teaching her students in the Bay Area.
Gabriela designed the trip to maximize engagement with the local artists. The goal was not only to take classes and perform with the local community, but to listen to local artists’ stories and share in their day-to-day life – walking in the streets, eating, traveling, laughing, and even crying together.
It was not an easy trip, but it was one filled with powerful moments. Moments like when the Caporal Mayor Adan Herrera Fajardo teared up during a dance exchange at the plaza, or when the group’s children received a standing ovation after singing a marinera, or when De Rompe y Raja was granted exclusive access to perform in the church of El Carmen, an opportunity not often given to the local artists themselves.
“I feel like the students went over to Peru and clicked in some ways with what they were doing in the Bay Area,” she says. “[In the States] it’s kind of hard to explain something they don’t know…we’re not in the setting, we’re not in the environment…when we got there, everything kind of hooked up.”
In other words, Gabriela’s students heard the call and answered.
Answering the call is not just acquiring a certain technique or performing on stage, as Gabriela will tell you. It is about a deep engagement with Afro-Peruvian culture and history that then allows De Rompe y Raja to share these traditions with communities around the world.
Gabriela’s website – www.gabrielashiromadelperu.com
De Rompe y Raja Cultural Association’s Facebook Page – http://www.facebook.com/pages/De-Rompe-y-Raja-Cultural-Association/190615430397
Video of the world-record-breaking cajoneada that De Rompe y Raja participated in on their trip to Peru this year – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjjOcplOAF4