Which Peruvian Artists To See At The Smithsonian Folklife Festival

By Steve Kiviat

Peruvian vocalist Susana Baca is a must-see at this year's Folklife Festival on the National Mall.
Peruvian vocalist Susana Baca is a must-see at this year's Folklife Festival on the National Mall. Luaka Bop

There’s more to Peruvian music than Andean flute players — and when this summer’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival resumes today near the National Museum of the American Indian in downtown D.C., visitors will get a chance to hear a range of Peruvian musical styles, for free.

But where to start? I recommend vocalist Susana Baca, a highlight on Thursday night. Baca first came to the attention of the English-speaking world in 1995, when The Talking Heads’ David Byrne put her songs on a compilation called The Soul of Black Peru. Her vocals and music could be described as pan-Latino, but it’s the steady patting from a cajón that makes Baca sound distinctly Afro-Peruvian.

Baca, who has served as Peru’s minister of culture, has recorded with Puerto Rican reggaeton act Calle 13 and started a music school. She’s planning to record her next album in Cuba — a collaboration with singer Argelia Fragoso — but her last record was called Afrodiaspora, and attendees can expect her Folklife appearance to reflect that.

Los Wembler's De Iquitos

Los Wembler’s De Iquitos (Smithsonian)

Family band Los Wembler’s de Iquitos, another Folklife highlight, is the brainchild of Iquito native Samuel Sanchez who, in 1968, decided it was time for local dance music to go electric. He enlisted his five sons, borrowed a band name from the U.K.’s Wembley Stadium and developed a sound rooted in local dance rhythms and various South American, North American and British sounds the clan heard on AM radio.

Los Wembler’s de Iquitos — which includes a few members outside the family — nonchalantly dispense joyous rhythms that may at first sound like standard Latin dance-band fare. But bend an ear toward guitarist and songwriter Elmer Alberto Sanchez, and his ‘60s California beach feel exposes how hybrid this band’s sound can be. Los Wembler’s stayed busy during the 1970s and ‘80s, waned slightly, and recently made a comeback on the heels of a chicha revival.

The band’s many appearances at Folklife (schedule information below), the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage (July 3) and U Street club Tropicalia (July 10) are a boon for D.C. music fans; the band’s only other gig on this trip takes place in Brooklyn July 9.

Other Peruvian performers worth seeing include Tutuma, an Afro-Peruvian band featuring violin and guitar with three percussionists who tap dance and strut with dashes of hip-hop and carnival flair; as well as percussionist Alex Acuña, who is bound to trot out an array of drums during his Friday night showing.

Susana Baca performs Thursday, July 2 at 7 p.m. on the Ralph Rinzler Concert Stage. Los Wembler’s de Iquitos perform twice a day on La Juerga stage through July 4, at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage July 3 and Tropicalia July 10. Tutuma performs twice a day on La Juerga stage through July 4 and once July 5. Alex Acuña performs Friday, July 3 at 7 p.m. on the Ralph Rinzler Concert Stage. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival resumes today and runs through Sunday, July 5.