Brazil has such an imposing cultural presence south of the equator that sometimes it’s easy to forget the smaller guys—like Peru, for instance. Afro-Peruvian music in particular has never been short on ambassadors, from singers Nicomedes Santa Cruz and Susana Baca to the progressive ensemble Peru Negro, but for decades, even their efforts did little to crack the barriers to international awareness. As usual, it took a prominent (that is, white) rock musician to open the floodgates; when David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label released Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru in 1995, it was the first time many up North had even heard Chabuca Granda’s creole waltzes or Peru Negro’s pulsating rhythms.
Novalima owes a debt to that tradition, but most of the group’s success can be chalked up to youthful ingenuity and a near-bottomless well of tech savvy. Synthesized bleeps and electronic beats are just as likely to find their way into a Novalima session as Yoruba-style drumming and a dubwise bassline; fittingly, keyboardist and cofounder Ramón Pérez-Prieto likens Karimba (literally, “mark of fire”), the group’s fourth album, to a “musical laboratory” of experimentation, as rootsy as it is contemporary, and equally outernational in its worldview (Pérez-Prieto is the only one of the four founding members still living in Lima). Add to the mix lead singer Milagros Guerrero, whose spitfire delivery brings a real sense of Carnaval to upbeat workouts like “Guayabo” and “Festejo,” and you’ve got a sweat-inducing live experience that only gets hotter as the night goes on. Some things never change.—Bill Murphy