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Sample Track 1:
"La Danza del Millonario" from Canibalismo
Sample Track 2:
"La Plata (en mi carrito de lata)" from Canibalismo
Sample Track 3:
"The Ride of the Valkyries" from Canibalismo
Layer 2
Chicha Libre, Canibalismo (Barbès Records) Soundeater:
Chicha Libre Devours Tropical Sounds, Backroom Beats, and Analog Funk on Canibalismo and on Tour, Spring 2012

It’s no joke: A Venezuelan, Mexican, two Americans, and two French guys walk into a bar. A bar that had been transformed into a control booth, while the backroom turned into a recording studio, with coils of effects pedal lines, quirky vintage electronics and homegrown synthesizers, a nylon-stringed cuatro, congas and a battery of timbales. Chicha Libre had taken over the storied Brooklyn music hub, Barbès (turning ten this year), where the regulars hail from all over the map and have gobbled up everything from Pet Sounds to Os Mutantes, from Willie Colon to Serge Gainsbourg.

From gritty backwaters and backrooms, from retro equipment and deceptive nostalgia, the multinational outfit (featuring members of Si Sé and Combustible Edison) returns with Canibalismo (Barbès Records/Crammed Discs; U.S. release: May 8, 2012), an expression of the edgy craving that is fueling a pop rethink around South America and causing a stir in the rock-tired indie scene.

The album of originals, while tackling obscure mathematics and psychedelic inventors, took its cues from Peruvian chicha, a style that put surf guitar, rainforest psychedelics, and Andean flavor to a cumbia beat with open-minded exuberance. Chicha Libre has learned from and teamed up with the unsung mad geniuses of the music—such as Ranil and Los Shapis, who were featured on Roots of Chicha— then taken it as a springboard to join the international stream of tropical experimenters from Colombia to Argentina.

Like the legends of 60s and 70s rock sucked up and radically transformed the blues and jazz, today’s tropicalists are reshaping cumbia’s sound to suit their own unabashed, unconventional tastes. For Chicha Libre, this means vintage rock sounds rumble past irrepressible bursts of percussion, the Valkyries cavort to mellotrons, pan-Latin beats merge with curious lyrics, and the occasional passerby joins in with Guinean guitar or pedal steel riffs.

“Young Latin bands today, like chicha’s stars and like early rock innovators, cannibalize everything around them. They aren’t slaves to codes—the codes haven’t been created yet,” reflects Chicha Libre instigator and cuatro player Olivier Conan. “We’re part of a worldwide movement of people who have that kind of freedom. We don’t just play chicha. We can do whatever we want and absorb anything we like. We’re cannibals.”

Chicha Libre will bring this pop wave to cities across the planet on a worldwide tour that includes stops in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Bogota, Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, and Moscow.

“We are not making music from a distant place,” Conan insists. “We’re playing our own music, as much as the Beatles were playing their own music. We’re just using a different framework”

{full story below}

“Only Cannibalism unites us. Socially. Economically. Philosophically. The unique law of the world.”—Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade

When the French-born, New York-based Conan went to the curious city of Iquitos, Peru to make a film about the town’s most eccentric musician (and former mayoral candidate), he imagined himself digging through old crates in his spare time, hunting down lost chicha records, the radically omnivorous vintage music movement of the Peruvian hinterlands. He asked around, and a friend insisted he check out his collection. There, on his hard drive, he said, was a prime slice of chicha.

That crucial album was Chicha Libre’s debut, Sonido Amazonico. Conan realized they were part of a burst of trans-national madness, a continuation of the tropical movement that started with early 20th-century avant-garde South American artists, and continues to inspire young wild musicians in a now democratic Latin America.

The band’s brash creativity has jumped forward, as they leave musical reconstructions behind and gnaw the roots of everything from indie rock to European art music, merrily sending timbales through old guitar amps, inventing their own Tupperware-contained synths, and tossing everything into the tape delay machine.

Chicha Libre spits out a raucous cumbia rendition of Wagner complete with dubbed-out grooves, moseying surf guitar, and eerily quirky keys (“Ride of the Valkyries”). They reflect seriously on the delusion of the vintage and the nature of nostalgia for the good ol’ days (“L’Age d’Or”), while laying on the retro sound thanks to the copious use of old analog equipment. They sway through lush, trippy cumbias (“La Danza del Milionario”). Then they go off the deep end with a funked-up, Latin-edged tribute to 19th-century math genius Carl Friedrich Gauss and fermat primes (“Number Seventeen”); or with a slow-burning homage to the inventor of a certain popular psychedelic drug. (“Lupita en la Selva y el Doctor”).

But make no mistake: Tropicalism, like rock, isn’t about warm, fuzzy fusions or novel global convergences. Tropical musicians from Bogata to Bushwick hunt down old notions of “world” music and eat them for supper. And they are dragging burned-out indie rockers along for the ride: it’s no surprise to find Animal Collective members crate-digging in Lima.

“The tropicalist movement and its idea of cannibalism is not some gentle global all-inclusive way of making new music,” Conan states, using de Andrade’s metaphor to describe Chicha Libre’s own experience. “It’s more about blurring the line between exploitation, acculturation, and genuine discovery.  There are, after all, sinister aspects to cannibalism.”

It may be complicated, but sonic cannibalism feels to Conan and company like the easiest way to understand the cultural forces that led them to the Barbès backroom, to rural Peru, to club stages all over South America. “I grew up in France without an indigenous musical culture, one that was my own. There was no interesting pop music related to any tradition at the time,” muses Conan. “So I completely devoured other people’s culture, rock and Latin, which has always been an important part of the French pop scene. The cannibalizing instinct didn’t come in a cynical manner, as a desire to be other people. There was no second guessing it.”

When Conan reached New York as a young man, cumbia was hard to find—unless you went to ma-and-pa record stores in Queens. But he eventually found himself drawn to the few traces he came across of Peru’s cumbia permutations, including the long-ignored chicha. With its electrified rocking approach to the music of the Amazonian borderlands, the genre felt to Conan like the music he’d always heard in his head—and he was fascinated by cosmopolitan musical influences working-class chicha musicians absorbed without thinking twice about it. “It was postmodern in a way, but not self-conscious. The musicians just did it,” Conan recounts.

He released collections of vintage chicha tracks and started his own tribute band, “a fun musical exercise at first,” he notes. Conan and his fellow chicha-philes soon discovered they could take the wah wah-ing, swirling sounds and swallow them whole—and they wound up with a cult hit debut album and a deluge of offers to play in South America. The band took off, playing hundreds of shows across Latin America, Europe, and the U.S., gaining a following in and out of the Latin scene.

“Our music is not an attempt to imitate someone else's music but rather an attempt to merge what we do in a cohesive way,” Conan reflects. “It's a constant cultural negotiation between the band members’ backgrounds, with tropical music at its core and as its template.”

<< release: 05/08/12 >>