Daniel Susnjar Afro-Peruvian Jazz Group
Daniel Susnjar is an award-winning drummer and teacher at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. His band, Daniel Susnjar Afro-Peruvian Jazz Group, won a host of WAM awards this year, including best jazz act, best percussionist and jazz song of the year. Their sophomore album, Moth to a Flame, launches Sunday, November 20 at Judith Cottier Theatre. Daniel Susnjar uses Pearl drums, Zildjian cymbals, Vic Firth sticks and Remo heads.
“What I love about the Peruvian music culture is it’s a culture of community and family. Quite a lot of music in our society is based on segregation of audience and performer. There’s this invisible wall which stops energy flowing to the performer. It’s like having a conversation with only one person talking: it’s exhausting. In our society, being a drummer is an anomaly, whereas music in Latin America is everyone just hanging out. Everyone will pick up a guitar or a bit of percussion, and play something. They’ll clap and yell and they’ll have that strong cultural essence in their playing. It’s party music.”
Susnjar stumbled into Afro-Peruvian music entirely by accident. He had just graduated with a masters of jazz from the University of Miami and decided to visit New York before flying back to Perth. A friend invited him to a club to see Gabriel Alegria’s Afro-Peruvian sextet. Susnjar had never heard Afro-Peruvian music before and he says it blew him away.
“Five months later I was back in New York, taking a break from my doctorate which I was kind of hating at the time. I didn’t really have a direction. I phoned up Gabriel to see where he was playing that night and he said his drummer was sick and asked me to fill in. That was the start of it. A few weeks later we were all at Festival of Miami and they got me up as a special guest with Shelton Berg, who’s Dean of Music at the University of Miami. We were at dinner after and they suggested I study Peruvian music. Gabriel took me back to Peru to play with the band on the road and study.”
While there, Susnjar had the chance to learn from famous Peruvian drummer, Hugo Alcazar, who taught Susnjar the folk side of Afro-Peruvian jazz. Like most Latin styles, Afro-Peruvian music is based on a rhythmic pattern known as a clave. Peru’s most common clave is the festejo.
“The music doesn’t have this strict adherence to the clave. My take on it is the clave’s implied; it’s not something that everyone worships. A lot of people who don’t have a Latin background get frozen thinking they have to play the clave, when what’s actually more important is the subdivision. The triplets and eighth notes interact in a way that’s not based on the classical notation system, it’s linked to dancing. If you try and do it from notation it’s always going to sound academic and, to me, the biggest goal in this music is to make it feel organic. It has to feel like a party, it can’t be clean and perfect.”
Susnjar says another way Afro-Peruvian music differs from other forms of Latin music is the instrumentation. The cajon originates from Peru and is a staple instrument. Guitar also plays a far more prominent role in the rhythm section. Many of the core instruments’ origins date back to the introduction of slavery in Peru.
“The music has a strong African influence. These slaves had nothing, so instruments came from whatever was at hand. Packing crates became the cajon. The cajita is a smaller box, like a church box, that sounds like a horse trotting when played. They also ended up with an instrument called the quijada which is actually a donkey jaw. You hit the side of it and the teeth rattle. The vibroslap is a synthesised version of a donkey jaw. It’s used in a lot of downbeat-oriented stuff.”
There is relatively little recorded music or academic research into Afro-Peruvian music, compared to the other Latin styles. The country’s musical icons, such as Chabuca Granda are relatively unknown outside of Peru and Chile, though there has been a revival of the style since the 90s, including David Byrne’s Soul of Black Peru album. Susnjar has become, almost by default, the vanguard of Australia’s Afro-Peruvian jazz music.
Moth to a Flame will be his band’s second album. Susnjar says the title comes from his own experience, being inexorably drawn to the world of Afro-Peruvian music. The recording features a mix of American, Peruvian, and Australian musicians, including his father. It also features arrangements of Feeling Good – a song made famous by Nina Simone – and the Inez and Charlie Foxx song, Mockingbird.
“We recorded the whole album pretty much in 24 hours. I was on tour with the Gabriel Alegria Afro-Peruvian sextet at the time. We did a bunch of gigs in the states and we had a day-and-a-half off in the middle of this tour. I booked a studio in Brooklyn called Systems Two, rented a hotel for the guys and set up the drums while they were resting. We did a night session, then a full day session, then we went straight to a gig in Washington the next day.”
The album is a follow-up to the band’s hugely successful debut release, Su Su Nje. Susnjar says the biggest challenge for this album was including piano in an already busy rhythm section. The debut album also featured extensive use of splash cymbals, which Susnjar discarded. Instead, he uses a flat ride to play embellishments while keeping rhythm with his main ride, a 22” Zildjian K custom Medium.
“My tom setup has also changed to be a little more reminiscent of a cajon; you know, a high sound and a low sound. I’m trying to incorporate that Peruvian sound into all of my music. I play with Russel Holmes, even with that gig I’ll use that snare and tom setup.”
The band’s current line-up features trumpeter, Ricki Malet; saxophonist, Luke Minness; pianist, Harry Mitchell; guitarist, Jeremy Thompson; bassist, Zac Grafton, and percussionist, Iain Robbie. Susnjar says, when forming the band, he was looking for people who had commitment, drive and energy.
“I was thinking about it and I realised if you’re in a jazz band and you’re only playing a gig every six months you’re kind of wasting your time. There’s no momentum. I decided if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this properly and I want to surround myself with people who want to go with me. I’ve got the right combination of guys now.”
Enciendete Candela is the opening track of Daniel Susnjar Afro-Peruvian Jazz Group’s debut album, Su Su Nje.
“A lot of people learn Latin music through a book. There are a lot of great books and recordings out there, but to really understand Latin music you have to be in a room with someone who understands that music. The feel, the language, the mannerisms and speech patterns are all different. They’re from a different part of world and you have to appreciate that the music is part of a whole cultural package. Just doing the clave isn’t really the same as playing the music.”