On first meeting, DJ and keyboard-synthesizer player Ramon Perez-Prieto seems thoroughly integrated into Western pop and media culture. He’s juggling a Blackberry (for which he apologizes), a second phone and a box of Lucky Strike cigarettes, and wearing a T-shirt with a picture of The Clash, the iconic British punk group he’s idolized since he was a teenager in Lima.
“I went to an English school in Peru, and all the kids started listening to English punk in the ’80s,” says Perez-Prieto, 40. “And I played classical piano as a kid, so when I got fed up with classical, I went to punk.”
Punk and The Clash led to reggae, which led to funk, which led to progressive rock (King Crimson is another favorite) and playing in cover bands.
In the early 2000s, Perez-Prieto started a project with three Peruvian buddies who had scattered to Hong Kong, Barcelona and London. But instead of turning to the international pop and rock they’d all been playing, they went back to their roots, to deeply traditional, folkloric Afro-Peruvian music.
“Before that we always looked at music from elsewhere than Peru,” says Perez-Prieto, who had grown up hearing it but didn’t pay much attention to what his generation considered their parents’ old-fashioned music. “Everyone knows it,” says Perez-Prieto. “But I’m not gonna buy it or go [hear it] as a kid.”
The other major ingredient in Novalima, which plays Thursday at PAX Miami, is electronic dance music. For Perez-Prieto and his friends, it was not only the newest and most intriguing international style but the easiest one on which to collaborate online as they launched Novalima from three continents.
As they listened to other bands mixing traditional styles with electronica, from Afro-pop star Fela Kuti to tango modernizers Gotan Project, they saw a way to combine music that reverberated around the world with their own distinctive cultural voice.
“This gave us a path,” says Perez-Prieto. “Combined it works really well.”
And it has. Like Colombia’s Bomba Estereo, Argentina’s Bajofondo Tango Project and Mexico’s Nortec Project, Novalima has found success combining rhythm-centric traditional styles with international electronic grooves. The group’s fourth album, Karimba, topped iTunes’ world music chart and made Billboard’s world music Top 10.
Novalima has played major music events, including the Montreal Jazz Festival and the Latin Alternative Music Conference and in 100 cities in Asia, Europe, Latin America and the United States. This will be its fourth Miami appearance, part of a tour that also takes it to Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
(Another innovative Peruvian fusion musician, Miki Gonzalez, will play at PAX on Friday).
When they began experimenting with tradition, Perez-Prieto and Novalima’s three other founders turned for help to two cajon (box drum) players: Juan Medrano Cotito, who plays with Peruvian world-music star Susana Baca, and Manolo Vasquez, who comes from a famous family of Afro-Peruvian musicians.
“The rhythms are complex,” says Perez-Prieto. “We had to research it.”
Intricate percussion, soulful vocals and idiosyncratic rhythms dominate Karimba. But the undercurrent of electronic grooves makes the more complex sounds comprehensible and palatable to the uninitiated.
“On tour we see all these different people dancing to all these unusual beats,” Perez-Prieto says. “It’s a common language. The blend has made it easier to get to know these raw rhythms.”
That’s also true for their younger counterparts back in Lima, where other bands are experimenting with a Novalima-style sound.
“It’s made it easer for young audiences inside Peru to get excited about Afro-Peruvian music,” Perez-Prieto says. “Now kids from Peru are listening to Afro-Peruvian music. That’s something we’re really proud of.
“Music is all about learning from your past, but keeping it evolving.”