Afro-Peruvian percussionist Juan "Cotito" Merano
Afro-Peruvian percussionist Juan "Cotito" Medrano" playing a bovine jaw as a percussion instrument at Lake Merritt. July 1, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

Oakland doesn’t have an official sister city relationship with Lima, the capital of Peru, but when it comes to rhythmic kinship the ties run deep.

The new album Mascabeza Con Jones, by the band Lima Oakland, embodies a thick web of relationships that manifest in a series of original tunes set to polyrhythmic Pan-American grooves. This isn’t the kind of sound that can be cooked up casually in the studio. It’s the work of artists who have been collaborating since Black Peruvian music gained recognition on international stages a quarter century ago. 

Oakland drummer Josh Jones and Concord pianist Patrick Morehead (aka Señor Mascabeza) co-lead the band, which was built upon a friendship with Afro-Peruvian cajón master Juan “Cotito” Medrano, who moved to the East Bay last year to teach at the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music. A founding member of the electro-folkloric ensemble Novalima, which brings together Peruvian musicians from around the world, Medrano helped break the musical code that combines 4/4 house beats with the 6/8 rhythms that predominate in Afro-Peruvian musical forms. 

Produced and recorded by Greg Landau in his Alameda studio, Mascabeza Con Jones is the latest fruit from seeds planted back in the mid-1990s, when David Byrne tapped Landau to produce an album by Susana Baca, the poet, singer and musicologist who’d long championed Afro-Peruvian culture.

Baca had already released a few records in Peru, but her eponymous Landau-produced debut for the Luaka Bop record label in 1997 catapulted Baca and her core combo with Cotito, percussionist Hugo Bravo, and bassist David Pinto into new-found prominence.

“Before our work with David Byrne, Susana Baca was invisible in Peru,” said Cotito, speaking in Spanish during a recent Zoom interview in which Landau served as translator. “The impact was tremendous. People began to understand the ancestral roots of Susana’s music. People began to value the music and the contributions we made.”

Afro-Peruvian percussionist Juan “Cotito” Medrano, playing on a sunny day at the Pergola on Lake Merritt.

It was through Landau that Cotito first connected with Berkeley High School graduate Josh Jones, a mainstay of the Bay Area music scene since the 1980s. Jones is known for his broad-based rhythmic acuity and is particularly well versed in Latin jazz, salsa, and Afro-Cuban rhythms. Landau thought he’d be a good fit for a 2006 project in Lima featuring Peruvian vocalist Pamela Rodriguez. Cotito and other Baca band members played in the sessions that resulted in Rodriguez’s album, En la Orilla

Jones studied up before the 2006 trip, but as the only non-Peruvian in the studio, “I was super nervous,” he said.

“The first day in the studio it was like, ‘Who’s this drummer from Berkeley?’” said Morehead. “With a little good luck I managed to nail the situation and ended up spending three weeks there and made two other records. I was pretty green but plunged in with both feet, learning on the spot from the greats.” 

Jones and Morehead have worked extensively together over the years in an array of ensembles, and Lima Oakland isn’t their first round with a genre-defining master such as Medrano. They collaborated with Fort Apache trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez on the Landau-produced soundtrack for Dante Betteo’s 2015 San Francisco-set neo-noir film The Other Barrio. Featuring Jones’ Latin Dub Stars, it was an unlikely project for Gonzalez, one of the primary architects of latter-day Latin jazz.  

“It’s the only time Jerry Gonzalez stepped out of the box, and he was skeptical,” Morehead said. “When he finally let his guard down, he got into it and his beautiful muted trumpet sound floats throughout the film. That was one of the seeds for me and Josh to do the Lima Oakland recording.”

So far, Landau has released two teaser tracks from Mascabeza Con Jones with more to come shortly. Both pieces were written by Morehead, who is the project’s main composer. Married to a woman from Peru, he’s spent a lot of time in the South American nation over the past two decades.  But much of what he has learned about Afro-Peruvian landó and festejo rhythms comes from other artists in the Bay Area. 

Susana Baca bassist David Pinto, who’s lived in the Bay Area since 2007, hired Landau for his first high-profile Afro-Peruvian gig as part of an all-star fundraiser for the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music in 2011. The concert featured Cotito and Mexican-American jazz trombone great Steve Turre.  

One big challenge for Morehead was finding a role for his instrument. “There’s not a lot of piano or keyboard in Afro-Peruvian music,” he said. “It’s mostly guitar dominated, and you can’t just start playing Cuban montunos. So David Pinto gave me these tracks of all these rhythms designed for drummers to play on cajón.”

“A Peruvian break-beat record!” Jones said with a laugh. 

A work in progress, Lima Oakland is a rhythm laboratory where Jones, Morehead, Cotito and Piedmont bassist Geoff Brennan, who spent years touring and recording with Cuban pianist Omar Sosa, layer and intermix a dazzling array of time signatures. Adding another shot of rum into the already potent brew was Cuban saxophonist and percussionist Yosvany Terry, a central figure in the wave of brilliant Latin American artists who’ve energized New York’s jazz scene. 

Jones has been close with Terry since seeing him perform with his illustrious family band Columna B at the Havana Jazz Festival in 1995. They both ended up contributing to the seminal 1997 album The Sign and the Seal by Coleman and The Mystic Rhythm Society. They’ve been like family ever since, often spending summers together as faculty at the Stanford Jazz Workshop

Terry was in town last year to perform in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts premiere of Paul S. Flores’s We Have Iré!. Jones and Morehead quickly invited him into the studio to lay down some searing alto work and chekeré, a West African gourd instrument

The sound on Mascabeza Con Jones is a roiling rhythmic experimentation that’s been irresistible for Cotito in recent years.

“For me, my mission has been to mix our roots with music from all over the world,” Cotito said. “The musical message of Afro-Peruvian music is getting out to the world now. People are getting conscious of it and I’m part of that mission.”

He came to Oakland to continue that mission at the Oakland Public Conservatory, a plan thwarted by the pandemic. Whatever form teaching takes in the fall, he’ll be around to give workshops through at least October, while hoping for the chance to introduce the music of Lima Oakland to one of its namesake cities.