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The Peruvian music sensation known as chicha wasn't on Olivier Conan's cultural itinerary when the Brooklyn musician and club owner flew into Lima in 2005. The Paris-born expat was a bigger fan of guitarist Oscar Aviles, singer Arturo "Zambo" Cavero, and other emotionally supercharged criollos. So he was delighted to hear buskers performing his favorite song, Zambo's "Cada Domingo à las Doce Despues de la Misa" ("Every Sunday at Noon After Mass"), not long after stepping off his plane. (He'd even recorded the tune in New York with his own group, Las Rubias del Norte.) A fervent record collector, Conan soon stumbled upon Lima's flourishing army of street vendors, specifically some mom-and-pop record shops that he says exhibited "almost curatorial tendencies." One such savvy proprietor introduced him to vintage tracks by chicha pioneers Los Mirlos—"the old Amazonian stuff"—and Conan was hooked: "I must have bought 600 songs while I was down there."
Named after a popular fermented Andean beverage usually made of maize, chicha blends the traditional Peruvian sounds of the Amazon, Andes, and coastal regions with the dance music of Colombia and Venezuela. Cumbia Amazónica, as it is also known, developed in the oil-boom towns of Iquitos, Moyobamba, and Pucallpa during the 1960s, when certain bandleaders took a notion to modernize their sound by replacing cumbia accordions with Farfisa organs and adding garage-psych electric guitar to the tropical rhythms. Los Mirlos attached the term Poder Verde—"Green Power"—to this new sound, while Juaneco y Su Combo proudly flaunted their Shipibo Indian garb onstage. As migrants from the mountains and rain forest moved into Lima's gray environs, the Andean strain came to predominate in songs reflecting ghetto struggles and the migrant's plight. Chicha's main add-on in Lima was the folkie huaynos pipes sound of the Andes, though "El Condor Pasa" this ain't.
Upon returning to Brooklyn, where he'd moved in 1984 at the age of 22, Conan assembled a new group he called Chicha Libre. Cumbia not being native to Peru, Conan had no qualms about adding his own Anglo-Gallic spin to the style once the group got into the groove. "Peruvian cumbia is to Colombian cumbia what British r&b was to American r&b," he says: "They play it wrong, and that's why it's so good." Since September, Chicha Libre has played nearly every week at Barbès, the smartly curated Park Slope club that Conan owns with surf-rocking guitarist Vincent Douglas. This month, Chicha Libre releases its first album—¡Sonido Amazonico!—on Barbès Records.
Conan synergized the sextet's residency with the September release of 2007's best international reissue, The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias From Peru, which joins releases from Slavic Soul Party!, One Ring Zero, and Las Rubias del Norte on Barbès. Like Chicha Libre's debut, this enormously satisfying compilation kicks off with Los Mirlos' irresistibly sinuous chicha national anthem, "Sonido Amazonico." Chicha's golden-age Amazon and Andes variations are well-represented on 17 tracks, recorded between 1968 and '78, that groove along as smoothly as fine vintage reggae. Juaneco y Su Combo, to whom Conan plans to devote a greatest-hits release, cook up a strange brew indeed in tracks like "Vacilando Con Ayahuasca" ("Floating With Ayahuasca"), in which the potent jungle psychedelic delivers an orgasmic kick. (The rest of the album is psychedelic only in the sonic sense.) Chicha's first star, guitar hero Enrique Delgado, deploys a mean wah-wah pedal on "Para Elisa," Los Destellos' snazzy take on Beethoven's "Für Elise." Los Hijos del Sol bandleader Ángel Anibal Rosado contributed what might be chicha's most singularly groovy tune, "Cariñito." And Los Diablos Rojos bring it all back home—or at least to Cuba—with standout dance raves like "El Guapo" and "Sacalo Sacalo."
As cool rulers of Peru's underclass, ignored by critics and the upper crust alike, it's unlikely that these fine artists ever expected chicha to thrive outside Peru, especially insofar as many of its innovators are already dead. Half of Juaneco's group, including songwriting guitarist Noé Fachin, perished in a 1976 plane crash. Enrique Delgado died in 1996. And Ángel Rosado isn't doing so well, either. "When we first called Ángel, he cried on the phone," Conan says. "He was so excited that he started playing us all the songs over the phone, from beginning to end. I felt like a complete impostor. I'm not Sony Music; I'm just some guy from Brooklyn. I'm not going to make him rich." As he pursued the tracks he wanted to use, Conan had to decide whether to use master tracks that the original artists no longer owned, or substitute remakes. "I feel really bad, because I want to help out the musicians," Conan empathizes. "But I'm not going to put out a bad CD to do it." The good news, at least for Conan, was that Infopesa, chicha's predominant label, conveniently still owned most of the masters.
One of the hardest-working signifiers in Peruvian culture, chicha also applies to both architecture (combining handmade tiles with cheap aluminum siding, for example) and the prensa chicha, the inexpensive and bloody Lima tabloids once co-opted by the country's corrupt president, Alberto Fujimori. As the title of the recent film Chicha tu Madre suggests, Peru's emerging chicha culture is garish, tacky, sexual, and slangy. With its myriad racial and class signals, it's thus the subject of much scholarly and political discourse, with the Shining Path's responsibility for driving millions of Andeans into Lima just one harsh historical factor among many.