CHICHA LIBRE LIVE IN CONCERT, FEB. 9, MASSMOCA!!
It's gonna be a blast. Feel free to send around the e-flier art I made for this post!
Let me say first and foremost: ¡yo amo esta banda - I love this band - been following them from the start and I've had the opportunity to DJ a concert of theirs a couple of years ago, as well as license a few tracks for my compilations. As some of you out there may know, I work a quite a bit with the type of music the contemporary Brooklyn-based band Chicha Libre pays tribute to (Peruvian psychedelic cumbia and tropical sounds, like mambo and boogaloo, also from the Andean nation) as I have put together a few compilations of this type of music, working with various labels like World Music Network, Nascente, Vampisoul, and Masstropicas. So it's really exciting to DJ their upscoming show in North Adams.
For a little background, let's start at the beginning. As some of you may know, "chicha" is a name of a fermented drink (sometimes alcoholic) found in South America, of indigenous origin, and over the years has been used to describe a particular sort of sub-genre of Peruvian cumbia as well. I do not claim to be an expert in Peruvian tropical music, merely a fan. I have never been to Peru, though my family members have been and one of my friends is a musical artist from Lima so I feel a closeness and affinity without having actually experienced the place itself.
Chicha Libre's Paris-born leader Olivier Conan travelled to Peru and fell in love with the scene and history of chicha music (let me repeat, he's put out several compilations on Barbés Records, collections of actual cumbia from down there, which I've learned from to be sure). So that covers why the term "Chicha" kicks off the band's name... And in my opinion, the use of the word "Libre" (free) as the second part of the band's moniker is just as appropriate because the multi-talented members of this organization take a liberal and non-reverential approach to interpreting the genre, freely mixing in other sorts of strains and textures to concoct a mind-altering brew - several years on, Chicha Libre's sound is now highly original, not just an imitation or homage, the way it might have seemed in the early days.
They also do some super-dope cover versions that will blow your mind (wait - was that Wagner coming through those tropical waves of sound? Did i hear a re-imagined Satie? a spot-on classic song from Arthur Lee's Love??! The Clash!? AY Caramba! No wonder Matt Groening is a fan! Kind of like tasting something slightly familiar and finding it to be also enticingly strange at the same time, like a jungle scene seen through rose-colored glasses....like dude, that's not chicken you're eating, it's Guinea Pig!
Anyway, not to get too nerdy or over-done in explanations, I will just add that in the 70s/80s in Peru the term "chicha" was used by some in the media (perhaps derogatorially) to describe the tropical cumbia music that was popular among the mostly poor, working class indigenous and mestizo (mixed Indian, Black and Spanish) population. it was indeed a mongrel breed, mixing all sorts of influences, from psychedelic rock and twangy surf guitar to Colombian cumbia and Cuban son, with Indian melodies drawn from native traditions (like the huyano) just to bring it to the next level and put a personal stamp on things. Sadly, in the mainstream urban consciousness of the 70s and 80s, the music - like the drink - was seen as something worthless and immoral enjoyed only by the brown masses, with lyrical themes that could only come from that marginalized world and a perceived simplicity of musical composition that many critics deemed as impoverished as its fans. For many years the elite - i.e. whites - considered it uncouth and dirty music (though it is certainly more universally popular & accepted today), same as it was early on in its country of origin Colombia, as well as at first in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Argentina. In those countries, it was seen not only as lower class but as being 'cosa de negros' (a black thing), sort of beyond the pale for pal faces to enjoy. It was not really until later, in the 70s, that Colombian governmental and cultural pundits promoted the cumbia on as a symbol of national pride, recognizing it as a national music and symbol of 'mestizaje' (racial/cultural mixing), a concept in vogue at the time.
Though cumbia had been played in Peru since the 50s and 60s, it really took off in the 80s. Unlike in some other countries, Peruvian cumbia has regional variations, and is mostly guitar or electric keyboard based, heavily influenced by European and American pop music, as well as traditional Peruvian "criollo" guitar music. In the 60s and early 70s, Peruvian cumbia's "go-go" guitars and "beat" organs seemed mostly influenced by surf instrumentals and heavy Latin rock groups like Santana and El Chicano. Whereas in Colombia (and places like Mexico) you're more likely to hear brass & accordions, clarinets, flutes, the guacharaca (scraper) and folkloric drumming, and even Mariachi instrumentation when listening to classic cumbia, there seems to be a paucity of brass in Peru's approach to the instrumentation of the same genre. Of course in the 80s, with the advent of newer and more affordable technology, and the spread of cassettes, Peruvian cumbia proliferated and mutated, becoming awash in synthesizers and drum machines, cheap echo and flange effects, frosted with slick salsa stylings imported from Cali and New York, with tacky videos and the bands wearing matching outfits and sexy dancing ladies for eye candy. And to me, that's when chicha really came into its own. Though most Peruvian chicha and cumbia musicians are Indian or Mestizo, several bands had Chinese or Japanese members, and you cannot forget the Afro-Peruvian presence - very important (one of my favorite vocalists in tropical music from Lima is the Afro-Peruvian genius, Felix Martinez). Almost every popular band in the 60s & 70s had at last one black Peruvian member, something that is not openly acknowledged even today. The unique and innovative way Olivier Conan and his right hand man Joshua Camp approach these Peruvain traditions is really cool. Instead of playing an electric guitar, Olivier plays the small South-American acoustic guitar called a cuatro (not to be confused with the Puerto Rican guitar of the same name popularized by the late Yomo Toro), which he rhythmically strums through a pick-up (and amp) while crooning in French, Spanish, and English. Mr. Camp plays various freaky keyboard and guitar sounds through his Hohner Electravox, a totally cool chest-mounted squeeze-box thang that helps him get alarmingly diverse sounds for all the band's other melodic needs (it's not really a conventional accordion, more like a spirit-medium in the guise of an accordion). Filling out the group's kaleidoscopically tropical palette is Karina Colis on timbales, bass player Nicholas Cudahy, and Vincent Douglas handles the electric guitar duties (you KNOW there has to be electric guitar in their magical brew!), and multi-percussionist Neil Ocha rounds out the lineup with some very tight beats.
One thing I can say, for those of you not yet exposed, is chicha - and Peruvian cumbia in general (there's a variant from the jungle sometimes called 'cumbia amazonica') - sure ain't that "Andean flute music" you hear on every subway platform in New York, LOL! And Chicha Libre ain't your typical chicha band, neither. And I like it like that!
For those of you in the area, I urge you and your families to come on over the mountains to see Chicha Libre at MassMOCA this month as it will be very fun and it's a great place to hear and dance to the band!
For any potential people thinking of coming out, it may be a bit tricky to describe the band's sound in detail, but I guess you could say Chicha Libre has touches of humor, soundtrack modalities, and jungle kitsch, but with the funky tropical beats of cumbia and salsa making it highly danceable, with a shimmering dose of psychedelia thrown in for good measure. Here's what I wrote about Chicha Libre in one of my recent compilations (The Rough Guide to Latin Psychedelia, to be released in April of this year):
Ending this trip through the land of Latin Psychedelia with Chicha Libre as our guide seems wholly appropriate. Though steeped in the wild Amazonian cumbia and chicha genres of 60s - 80s Peru, this Brooklyn-based sextet led by intrepid French adventurer Olivier Conan has an equally contemporary vibe. Much of the band’s music is as inspired by spiritual ayahuasca journeys through the jungle as it is by loopy humor or ethnomusicology, which may lead one to conclude: so that’s why there is such a rich vein of psychedelic music in Peru!
On the prevalence of the electric guitar in Peruvian tropical music, I wrote:
In Peru, guitarists like Enrique Delgado and his combo Los Destellos (The Sparkles), El Opio, and Los Pakines were taking in influences as disparate as California surf instrumentals, Jimi Hendrix freakouts, the ubiquitous Santana, bubble-gum pop, indigenous “criollo” and Andean traditions, as well as the usual tropical and Cuban strains that remained popular from previous generations.
What the good folks at MassMOCA wrote:
Combining Latin rhythms, surf music, and psychedelic pop inspired by Peruvian music from Lima and the Amazon, Chicha Libre is a party waiting to erupt wherever they play. The Brooklyn-based band mixes up covers of forgotten Chicha classics with French-tinged originals, reinterpretations of 70s pop gems, and wild cumbia versions of songs you thought you'd never hear on the dance floor.
From the band's web site:
Chicha Libre plays a mixture of Latin rhythms, surf and psychedelic pop inspired by Peruvian music from Lima and the Amazon. The Brooklyn collective is made up of French, American, Venezuelan and Mexican musicians who mix up covers of Peruvian Chicha with original compositions in French, Spanish and English, re-interpretation of 70’s pop classics as well as cumbia versions of pieces by likes of Satie, Love and Wagner.Chicha is originally the name of a corn-based liquor favored by the Incas in pre-colombian days. Chicha is also the name of Peru’s particular brand of cumbia first made popular in the late 60′s by bands such as Los Destellos, Manzanita, Los Mirlos and Juaneco y su Combo. While loosely inspired by Colombian accordion-driven cumbias, chicha incorporated the distinctive pentatonic scales of Andean melodies, some Cuban son, and the sounds of surf guitars, farfisa organs and moog synthesizers; an oddly post-modern combination of western psychedelia, Cuban and Colombian rhythms, national melodies and idiosyncratic inventions which were close in spirit to the Congolese rumba of Franco or the pop syncretism of Os Mutantes.While Chicha Libre’s repertoire has evolved somewhat from the Peruvian canon, the sound and approach are completely indebted to the Peruvian bands it originally emulated. Like them, they use surf guitar, organ sounds and latin percussion to play a mixture of borrowed and homegrown sounds. The borrowings are somewhat different – classical music and pop debris from 3 continents in Chicha Libre’s case – but the latin rhythms that form the basis of the music are both as close and as foreign to them as they were to the Shipibo Indians who first took up the electric guitar.Chicha Libre has performed around the world, including Turkey, The UK, Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Denmark, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, the US, Canada and, of course, Peru. They have showcased at WOMEX, in Copenhagen, and Globalfest, in NYC. They have played in Los angeles with guitarist Jose Carballo, of Chacalon y la Nueva Crema fame, in Lima with Los Shapis and in Berlin with Ranil, the legendary cumbiero from Iquitos. They have toured with cambodian psych-band Dengue Fever and shared the stage with bands as varied as Brazilian Girls, The Skatalites, Frente Cumbiero and the Orchestre Poly-rythmo de Cotonou.
Chicha Libre’s music has been featured in the TV show Weeds and a Simpsons 20th anniversary special in which they were asked to play the Simpsons theme “chicha” style alongside the likes of Red Hot Chili Pepper and ZZ Top. They have also scored a Vaclav Havel play which was performed at Colombia’s Miller theater in the author’s presence and two Charlie Chaplin films which they performed at NY’s prestigious Merkin Hall. Their first CD, Sonido Amazonico, is available from Barbès Records in North America, Crammed Disc in Europe and Random Records in South America. Their follow up Album, Canibalismo, is due May 8, 2012 on Crammed Discs/Barbès Records.