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Travel in music: Chapter 20 - 2002, Peru

2020, the world is in confinement because of a corona virus. I have used this time to reminisce on my past through a musical blog series. They will take you through my peregrinations on this tiny, unique earth, in chronological order. Click on the song, use it as soundtrack, and enjoy!


2002 - Chapter 20 | It felt great o initiate a brand new project in Peru, in my beloved South America. Less than two years before, I had been roaming every corner of this amazing Andean nation with long hair and a dusty backpack. I was very familiar with some of its best tourist highlights. I was nonetheless excited to experience it from a different perspective and for the opportunity to reconnect with very close friends I had met then.

Peru's second round did not disappoint. We may have taken advantage of my nationality to set up an interview the Belgian 1st Lady – an archaeologist married to then-President, Alejandro Toledo – we also spoke to dozens of other corporate and political high-caliber personalities, including Alan García. In spite of his impeccable manners, polished erudition and accent-less French, I remembered him from Economics 101 as the crook who spun Peru into hyperinflation disaster and explosive social conflict. I was therefore a tad nonplussed to meet him while he prepared himself for a fresh shot at the highest office in the land (which explains why he was so eager to talk to pseudo-journalists like us). Peruvian politics is a decidedly murky, alzheimer-ish affair. Though he failed that 2001 bid, Peruvians elected him in 2006. Last year, he shot himself, as investigators were about to arrest him on corruption charges. Not just murky, then. Deadly too…

We also interviewed Tony Custer, part-heir to a family empire, part-businessman, part-philanthropist, and, most importantly for my taste buds, enthusiastic promoter of Peruvian cuisine – bar none the most exquisite in Latin America, thanks in no small part to the fusional influence of Peru’s sizable Japanese migrant population. I still own an autographed copy of his best-selling book ‘The Art of Peruvian Cuisine’, which he offered us on that occasion.

Our eeriest encounter, however, was with the French manager of a surimi plant, lost in a remote corner of the wild northern coast. The nearest village was so far away, the factory workers and the operators of the fishing fleet that supplied it lived on site. He too, lived there. He was a lively, though rather gruff man with a passion for motorcycles and… pelagic fish. During the factory visit, he had us in stitches. He explained, with deadpan seriousness, that his surimi was so protein-pure that if you ate nothing but that, you would theoretically never take another dump. Indeed, surimi is what is left of fish meat, after the process has extracted water, fat, blood vessels and anything else that is not 100% protein flesh. It has no taste and no flavor. How is that for bizarre-useless-fact to absorb in the middle of a Peruvian desert?

Though work, discovery and play were never quite separate during these fast-paced months, there was time for pure tourism too. We surfed the giant sand dunes near Ica, flew over the Nazca lines, took pirogue trips down the ‘Madre de Diós’ River, deep into the southern Amazon jungle and not very far from the intersecting borders with Bolivia and Brazil. We caught a few live gigs too. Perujazz was a mind-blowingly talented jazz outfit that put much too much emphasis on virtuosity, at the expense of emotion. I was ashamed to admit it but they bored me to tears. At the other end of the spectrum, was the warmth and energy Compay Segundo exuded on stage, at 93-years old. He joked that an 8-decade long, uninterrupted consumption of cigars, rum and women was the source of his longevity. Whatever the secret, he had plenty of it. He played a two-hour set, sitting for only about half of it.

If you read my previous chapter on Latin America, you might have noticed a guest singer from Peru who featured in Calle 13’s song. I discovered Susana Baca while in college, years earlier. One of her songs appeared on Luaka Bop’s launch CD, along with other artists David Byrne’s brand new label was promoting (I will talk about another one later, in the Angola chapter). She stayed with me since but, until I got to Lima, I did not quite measure her stature. The release of her ‘The Soul of Black Peru’ album on Luaka Bop, back in 1995, has credited Susana Baca with reviving Afro-Peruvian music singlehandedly. Ten years later, she became Minister of Culture, only the second afro-descendent ever to do so in Peru’s history. Politics can be gracious too.


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