In rural communities around Peru, a party doesn’t really get started until the brass band shows up.
The South American nation is hardly alone in its celebratory embrace of brass. From New Orleans to Romania, from Nigeria to the Canary Islands, brass ensembles are an essential part of the cultural landscape, and across the Andean nation fiestas populares revolve around the presence of a brass ensemble.
“We have a saying: Without music, there’s no party,” said percussionist Erico Minaya, a founding member of Lima’s La Patronal, which makes its West Coast debut Thursday afternoon at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival and performs Thursday night at Ashkenaz.
The band is the brainchild of award-winning Peruvian filmmaker César Fe, who grew up listening to rural brass combos. Two years ago, looking to raise the visibility and stature of the tradition, he gathered musicians from the national circuit of traditional orchestras. The group has gained widespread recognition across Peru, and earned some international attention early in the summer by joining the national soccer team in Russia at the invitation of the country’s export and tourism promotion board, Promperú.
Like in so many other countries, the brass tradition evolved out of military bands, and in earlier centuries the sound centered on European marches and processionals. But over the years, particularly in isolated rural regions, people started to use the brass instruments to play their own folk songs, adding a festival jolt to community gatherings and celebrations. Peruvian brass bands ended up serving as a binding force.
“By constant traveling they build bridges between little villages and cities,” said Minaya, speaking in Spanish. “It used to be the only way to spread regional music and folk rhythms and dances. As a non-academic genre this allows for a very free interpretation of the folk traditions depending on the regions and nature of the groups. Some Huayno bands add salsa lines in their tunes, while other adapt lines from famous movies like Spiderman.”
Many of the musicians in La Patronal hail from musical families that moved to Lima looking for more opportunities. “We are part of a new generation of banda musicians,” Minaya said. “We know and respect the tradition and grew up playing in the traditional format but have also studied formally in conservatories.”
“When I was a kid I remember every Tuesday was rehearsal day at my house,” he continued. “Both my dad and my uncle had a band. My uncle had more formal music training and was a renowned musician in the Peruvian Marines band. My dad inherited the spirit of my grandpa who taught him regional music as a tool for surviving the difficult decades of the 60’s and 70’s we had in Peru. Little did he know that he wasn’t only training his children as musicians but also moving some of our most rooted regional traditions forward in history, and defining the family lifestyle for generations to come.”
La Patronal’s repertoire encompasses traditional genres and songs from across Peru, including cumbias, huaynos, marineras, and caporales. Regional brass bands in Peru often make instrumental arrangements of traditional and popular songs, and don’t generally write new compositions. “But it’s a challenge we are also starting to tackle,” Minaya said.