When the third percussionist of Festejation grabs a disembodied donkey jawbone in his left hand and scrapes its row of bulky teeth with the tattered wooden stick in his right, that’s when you start to feel the itch to dance. And when he picks up the cowbell, that’s when the rhythmic tidal wave of the music has got you for the rest of the night. Looking beyond the delirious grin worn in unison by the seven band members, you can see in their eyes the absolute seriousness with which they take this music. Right where the sun-drenched dunes of a vast South-American desert collide with the salty surf of the Pacific Ocean, the Afro-Peruvian musical tradition was born. The churning of those waves can be heard in the percussion and the spice of the ceviche from those waters can be felt in the vocals of festejo, the Afro-Peruvian music and dance style dedicated to celebration.
The sound of Festejo first graced the ears of bandleader Edward Perez when he stumbled into a venue in Lima while on tour with a jazz trio. The riptide of that chance encounter turned his two week tour into a two year stay, where he eventually earned his own kimba bonafides on stages in Peru with some of the greatest Afro-Peruvian musicians. After finding his way back to New York, Perez became a sought-after jazz bassist, an acclaimed arranger for world-renowned groups such as the Silkroad Ensemble, and a Grammy-nominated bandleader (Terraza Big Band 2019). But on the evening he emerged from a recording session at Avatar studios in midtown Manhattan only to catch a whiff of palo santo and then see on eighth ave the very same Señor de los Milagros parade that used to pass by his apartment on calle Pedro de Osma in Lima, he knew that destiny required him to make a permanent space in his life for Afro-Peruvian music.
In Festejation, Perez assembled a veritable all-star band of New York based musicians hailing from various countries up and down the American continents who pay homage to the style in their own unique way. If a rogue salsa refrain slips from the lips of the lead vocalist, if a hard, funky backbeat emerges from the drum set, or if the electric guitarist stomps on his distortion pedal in a fit of ecstasy, these expressions are welcomed and woven into the fabric of the group’s unique sound. Like a master chef, Perez tops the main dish from costal Peru with the special sauce blended in the barrios of Queens and crafts Festejation’s re-arrangements of time honored Afro-Peruvian songs with all of the same painstaking care that he puts into works he has penned for such classical virtuosos as Yo-Yo Ma and the Silkroad Ensemble. In Festejation, Afro-Peruvian music is treated at once as high art and also as a comfortable-as-denim everyday dance style that anyone can get rowdy to with a pisco sour in hand.