On the edge of the Amazon in the ’60s, a sound emerged that united Peru’s indigenous melodies with Colombia’s highly-danceable cumbia rhythm, surf rock wah-wah pedals, and rock and roll’s organ-playing. These cumbias amazonicas migrated to Lima and became chicha, the soundtrack of empowerment for the era’s newly urbanized indigenous population. The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru on Barbès Records features six of the most compelling bands from the scene, before the sound became watered down with pop aesthetics and cheesy synthesizers.
Chicha emerged around the time of Peru’s big oil boom and the associated rural-urban migration (and dislocation) of the time period. This happened to be the same period that guitar effects and compact electric organs became available, and worldwide local styles became electrified. Rural populations moved into the city—similarly to what was happening globally in places like Kingston, Lagos, and Kinshasa—oftentimes living in poor conditions while adopting Western and urban musical elements to create new hybrids. As the music gained popularity, it became a great source of cultural (and even class) pride. In Peru this emerging style assumed the label chicha, the name of a fermented corn drink associated with pre-Columbian indigenous people in the region.
Chicha is further characterized by the rich guitar tradition of Peru (some say more virtuosic than any other Latin American nation) which was translated to electric guitars. While other styles of music—like Andean folkloric and Afro-Peruvian music—became accepted by the powers that be in Peru, chicha was looked down upon by many as only for the poor and working class.
The Roots of Chicha album came about when Olivier Conan—owner of Barbès, a small but much-lauded bar in Brooklyn—took a trip to Peru in search of musical inspiration. He was pleasantly surprised to find a diversity of sounds from New York salsa to techno Andean music. He stumbled across early chicha while buying music on the streets. “There are few legal record stores; just bootleg vendors at street markets. The interesting thing is that a lot of those bootleggers are motivated by taste and enthusiasm, just like a real independent record store should be,” explains Conan, whose Barbès Records has also released records by Hazmat Modine, Slavic Soul Party, and Las Rubias del Norte. “A lot of chicha that I like is the ’70s stuff. They call it antigua. There’s not a great sense of history with that music, because it is not considered traditional.”
As Conan tried to track down the bands he liked, he found out that the Lima label that had put out a lot of this music, Infopesa, went out of business and a lot of the masters disappeared. “I had a hell of a time finding who had the rights to these songs, so I dealt with a lot of the bands directly,” says Conan. “The first guy I contacted was (Angel Rosado) from Los Hijos del Sol and he was very emotional. He passed the phone back and forth with his wife, playing some of his old albums over the phone. The whole sense of recognition is very important.. Even though they did sell a lot of records, they got no respect from mainstream institutions there.”
The compilation starts off with “Sonico Amazonico” by Los Mirlos. “They have the most surf sounding guitars. This song sounds almost Middle Eastern and has a really cool vibe,” says Conan. Originally from the Amazonian town of Moyobomba, San Martin, band leader Jorge Rodriguez Grandez moved to Lima in 1973 where he formed Los Mirlos with two of his brothers and a cousin. They coined the expression Poder Verde, Green Power, an indigenous take on Black Power.
Juaneco y Su Combo—also featured on the album—claimed their mostly Shipibo Indian background by dressing in traditional costumes. They never left the Amazon. Their songs poetically address tradition and modernity, and often find humor in the tension between the two.. “Their sound doesn’t seem to owe anything to anyone and hasn’t aged a bit,” says Conan. Most of the members died in a plane crash in 1976 on the way back from a gig. The singer and keyboard player were mixing a record, so they were not on the plane. “They continued the band, but the singer has since died, and his grandson Mao has taken over.Now they are enjoying some sort of comeback. Lima hipsters are starting to claim them.”
Over in Lima, Los Destellos—who had little connection to the Amazon—were one of the earliest to integrate the Moog and wah-wah pedals, which they did as early as 1968. They also were one of the earliest bands to add Cuban styles and salsa into their sound. (Their quirky take on Beethoven’s “Für Elise” shows up here as “Para Elisa.”)
“The music was so fresh, so exciting, and its appeal so effortlessly universal that it still seems strange that it never managed to find an international audience,” says Conan. That is starting to change. Conan started his own Brooklyn-based band called Chicha Libre to pay tribute to this under-recognized style. And when he plays at Barbès, stylish young Peruvians who know the latest iteration of Los Hijos del Sol come out to show support alongside Brooklyn hipsters. Chicha Libre’s debut album is expected in January 2008.
Conan continues to be fascinated by the unexpected combination of influences of the original bands. “The music is a synthesis of borrowed genres: the Latin rhythms they use have almost no Peruvian elements; they are adapted from Colombia and played on percussion codified by Cuban bands,” explains Conan. “The indigenous elements are sung in Spanish, not in Quechua. Other instruments are borrowed from American rock. In a country with such a rich, proud musical heritage, to create a genre almost from scratch with so many borrowed elements, fascinates me.”
“The oddly post-modern combination of western psychedelia, Cuban and Colombian rhythms, Andean melodies, and idiosyncratic experimentation was close in spirit to the pop syncretism of Brazilian Tropicalia bands such as Os Mutantes.”
“But unlike Brazilian Tropicalia,” continues Conan, “chicha was not an intellectual movement. Its main proponents were working musicians who mostly came from poor backgrounds. Their job was to make people dance. They didn’t travel to London. No discourse was elaborated around the music. It never became popular with the Peruvian middle class. Art students didn’t embrace it. Critics and intellectuals didn’t write about it. As a result, the music was scorned nationally—and largely ignored outside of Peru.” Until now.