- By threading Afro-Peruvian music traditions through their latest album, Dengue Dengue Dengue lose as much as they gain.
- The word "dengue" has grim connotations: tropical fevers, something horrible to do with mosquitoes. In Peru, apparently, the word has a slang meaning too—it's the feeling you get before you head to the party, according to Felipe Salmón and Rafael Pereira, the production duo who multiplied that feeling by three when they named their side project in the early '10s. Having once pitched themselves as "tropical futurism," as the duo explored the past-into-present sound of digital cumbia and dropped bass-heavy remixes of Fugees tracks, Dengue Dengue Dengue have lately been digging into Afro-Peruvian music, a lesser-known aspect of the region's musical heritage. The hypnotic rhythms of the Afro-Peruvian tradition have been passed down for centuries, from the communities of black slaves who were taken from West Africa after the arrival of the conquistadors. Compared with other Afro-Latin fusions from Brazil or Colombia, for instance, this music isn't well known beyond South America. For a long time, Luaka Bop's 1995 survey of Afro-Peruvian music was the only access point for overseas listeners.
On Zenit & Nadir, their third album, Dengue Dengue Dengue establish a more direct connection with this Afro-Peruvian lineage by collaborating with Pudy and Miguel Ballumbrosio, two brothers from a famous musical family who represent the living core of the tradition. The addition of their playing—on the unique percussion tools like the boxy wooden cajón drum and the quijada, a rattle made from of a donkey's jawbone—brings an organic dimension to these electronic productions, adding detail in the higher frequencies particularly. Hollow clicks and clacks, clanging metal and insectoid buzzing abound. Just a handful of tracks include vocals. On "Decajón" they're chopped into fragments, slotting into the Ballumbrosio brothers' web of percussion. "El Cavilante" is a straight-up song, featuring the Peruvian singer Sara Van. And there's "The Invisible Ones," a moody interlude with Kalaf (one of the founders of Buraka Som Sistema) reflecting, in English, on the legacy of slavery in Peru.
Despite all this human input, Zenit & Nadir feels strangely cool to the touch, its edges too smoothly chamfered. In 2017, on the title track of their Son De Los Diablos EP, Salmon and Pereira had put similar ideas to work in a different way, reaching towards the dance floor in a maelstrom of earth-driving bass and droplets of flute and marimbas (the influence of Teklife, one of the duo's stated influences, is just about audible). Zenit & Nadir, though, is resistant to this sort of uptempo exuberance—resistant to the "dengue" itself, perhaps. At its best, the results are shadowy and hypnotic—the vampiric creep of "Llæ" and the hard-hitting, gqom-esque "Guayabo" are standouts—but too often the tracks feel streamlined, almost sanitised. The fluidity and expressiveness so essential to these traditional 6/8 rhythms, which should swing and sway through every musician's hands, feels squeezed out, forced into grids.
In Dengue Dengue Dengue's efforts to foreground tradition, it's as if they've forgotten about the experimental possibilities of their own equipment, and so missed the opportunity to craft a sound that feels genuinely contemporary. Think, for example, of the way that Mexico's Siete Catorce has scrambled the sound of tribal into his own psychedelic and abstract rave tools. That said, electronic music is a relatively recent trend in Lima—Dengue only started exploring digital cumbia in 2010 and the scene itself is young, as they explained in an RA profile in 2016. And perhaps they just felt a little homesick, having moved to Berlin several years ago. Paying respectful tribute to tradition, as Zenit & Nadir seems so keen to do, may only be the starting point for a sound abundant with possibility.
02. Decajón feat. Prisma & Martin Boder
03. El Cavilante feat. Sara Van & Mikongo
04. Jarana y Tundete
06. Coimú Gqoimú
08. The Invisible Ones feat. Kalaf
10. Pacos feat. Prisma