Wednesday, January 29, 2014


Review: Juaneco Y Su Combo: The Birth of Jungle Cumbia (The Vital Record, 2013)

I feel fortunate to have been exposed to Peruvian culture at an early age through the stories and photos of my aunt’s travels there in the 1980s, and much later, though my work for the Vampisoul and MassTropicas music labels and my friendship with their respective leaders, Iñigo Pastor and Mike Pigott, as well as my acquaintance with Olivier Conan and his band, Chicha Libre. In fact it was through Vampisoul, and later Olivier’s Barbés label, that I rediscovered the music of the artist whose latest posthumous release we are discussing here, which is one of the best of 2013 by far, but may have slipped under some people’s radar. Ironically enough, my beloved aunt Barbara had brought me back a cassette of Juaneco (and some other Peruvian cumbia tapes) back in the 80s, which I enjoyed immensely but soon forgot as I subsequently became obsessed with the world music craze and early hip-hop. So it was with a kind of half-remembered nostalgia that I started to listen once again to my old friend Juaneco and his Amazonian combo with the release of Barbes’ Roots of Chicha and Juaneco compilations a few years ago.

And now, just when I thought the precious resources of Peruvian psychedelic tropical "poder verde" (green power) music – especially from the recently re-popularized Juaneco – had been completely exposed, mined and depleted forever, here comes a brand new reissue of the Amazonian cumbia master’s earliest, rawest, and least-known work from 1970-72, a forgotten chapter (that I never even knew existed). Timing aside, this is not some case of ‘bandwagonism’ or trying to exploit a boho trend because, as the collection proves, the merit in educating people about the origins of cumbia amazónica in an intelligent and informative way let alone digging up a “lost” set of recordings, is self-evident and doesn’t require riding on the coattails of any previous collections of the genre or striving for any sort of justification for its existence. Indeed, the good folks at The Vital Record have done some commendably deep digging for this release (with the help of some native experts, it should be noted), and unearthed the rare early IMSA singles (which appeared on an obscure debut EP) and the combo’s first album, presenting it in CD form with a wonderful, musicologist style booklet to boot.

Outside of Juaneco’s jungle home base, these freshman recordings were probably not exactly popular or well known in the rest of Peru as the new decade dawned, and so no doubt faded into unwarranted obscurity even as the band’s subsequently more polished releases propelled them to national stardom later in the 1970s. As TVR label founder David Aglow points out, they were probably too raw and provincial sounding to catch on or gain radio play in Lima. And that precisely is why putting out this Juaneco compilation holds so much appeal for Aglow. As he puts it, “In our opinion, that's what makes it sound so good to us now.” So folks, all I can say is, this is yesterday’s gloriously gritty analog sound made ripe for the Daptone/crate digger aesthetic of today, unapologetically unadorned yet sincere and of genuine historical importance. The pops and crackles are there, but over all the tracks sound surprisingly clean in spite of the source material’s inherent drawbacks (there are no master tapes and the original pressings were poorly made). Something about the unpretentious simplicity, honest rawness and upfront immediacy of the recordings just jumps out of the swampy mire of the past and bites you in the culo like some crazed electronic piraña.

For students of Peruvian music in general, and Juaneco in particular (like myself), this little jewel of a reissue is a godsend because it fills in critical gaps in one’s knowledge about origins of cumbia selvática (jungle cumbia). It’s great to hear these early prototypical sides and read about how they were made and the first years of the band before, Otis Redding-style, more than half the combo were tragically killed in an airplane crash in 1977, thus ending their early configuration and altering their sound forever. You may even recognize some of the tunes because they were later redone or incorporated into the more polished (but no less powerful) recordings the group did for Alberto Maraví’s INFOPESA and later, Juan Campos Muñoz’s Horoscopo label. The interesting multi-cultural origins of the band’s founding members (such as Juan “Juaneco” Wong Paredes, Jr.) and their distinctive first guitarist (Noé Fachín) are thoroughly researched and are a joy to read. The pleasure is augmented by the fact that the songs are described in details rich in both sociological and ecological analysis. It’s quite rare for a compilation to give fully informed contextual information about where a particular genre comes from and what forces shaped it, but Amazonian historian (and lawyer) James Matos Tuesta and discographer Victor Zela most definitely know their stuff, and set the music in a comprehensible context that lends extra meaning and insight to the proceedings. 

For further info on Tuesta, check out an interesting article here on my friend Mike P’s blog:

And to learn more about what makes Victor Zela tick, visit his blog here (a site I love to check on periodically):

On a side note, as a Cuban-American, it’s gratifying to hear snippets of Caribbean-influenced music already in effect in the early formation of Juaneco y su combo’s milagro verde (green mirale) sound, especially Cuban genres like guaracha, guajira, and bolero. That’s right, there are not only the obvious influences of Colombian cumbia and Indigenous Peruvian forms, but a healthy dose of Afro-Antillean music as well, right from the start. Add to that the band’s Chinese, Amerindian, and Spanish criollo roots, and you have an amazing potion ready to cause hallucinations of a pan-American experience like no other.

Speaking of visions, let me emphasize the package is not only musically and textually rich, it’s also a phantasmagorical visual feast stuffed with great photos of the band and — a major revelation for me personally — some juicy reproductions of contemporary fantastic jungle-themed paintings by Graciela Arias and Christian Bendayán.

I was literally stopped in my tracks when I saw Graciela’s painting Eva del Paraiso on the eighth page of the booklet. ¡Carambaaaaa! 

Eva del Paraiso

Her amazing magical realist jungle alter-piece portrait of a sexy Amazonian Eve who is half horse (a “runamula” in local terminology) is nothing short of a mind-blower: electric blue constellations surround a nubile, centaurian Pachamama plucking a glowing red jungle fruit from a forest branch presided over by a golden serpiente. On the side is a female river spirit, rising from the leaves with long trestles of hair like some vision out of an alternate Vogue magazine peopled by beings from the time of Prometheus. It’s an apparition that stops the heart like an arrow tipped in curare, as if Guaguin tripped on acid with Mati Klarwein and woke up in Ayacucho. Yes the painting features protean Biblical imagery — but seen through Indigenous Amazonian eyes — so it takes on a more defiant air then merely devotional Christian imagery that you see so much in Latin America. I guess you’d have to journey to Pecullalpa visit Graciela’s studio and see her art in person to really confront physically, but from my vantage point, you don’t need any special cultural knowledge of her art to “get” this painting. It just impacts you from the moment you set eyes on it. Along these lines, David Aglow told me, “I've known Graciela for years. And she's gone from painting cute tourist mementos to full-blown Amazon visionary artist, working very much in the realm of magical realism, as you say. She likes combining the elements of folklore and mythology with the Christian…Anyway, her [art] is mesmerizing. She's an up and coming woman artist from the region, and her stuff is really special. I'm heading there [soon] and I can't wait to see her new [paintings].” Below are some examples of Graciela's art Dave sent me...

Christian Bandayán is also an “arte amazónica” painter, but unlike Graciela, he’s from Iquitos. I tell you, the guy is quite a revelation! This is an artist to watch. When I told David how much I was impressed by Christians work, he said, “Glad you liked Bendayán’s stuff, which is some of my favorite.” How cool that Aglow thought to combine his taste in Amazonian art with his discerning choices in the tropical music of the region? That’s not something you’d have with some typical domestic CD packaging from Peru, you can bet! Below I have put some samples of his art for you to check out.

I was also well pleased to see several ayahuasca/yagé paintings by one of my favorite “curandero” (healer) priest/painters from the Peruvian Amazon, Don Pablo Amaringo. As Aglow related to me, “I actually met him on several occasions and have one of his paintings. He was quite a character!” Indeed. Amaringo is the deceased elder statesman of Peruvian psychedelic folkloric and shamanic imagery (think 60s black velvet hippie paintings and UFO/Surrealist iconography colliding with the intricate, indigenous peyote-fuelled bead paintings of Mexican Huichol Indian artisans). Bendayán is a young (b. 1973), very savvy multi-media artist taking Amaringo’s lead but going to the next level, dragging it kicking and screaming from the “folkloric” realm (functioning within the traditional people’s local village culture) to the more rarified market of international commercial “fine art” (if there is such a distinction!). Where Amaringo’s art is stocked with diaphanous celestial bodies, levitating spirits, vast starlit swamps, and unseen skyward patterns being revealed, Bendayán’s world is full of tropical sex and real people rooted in an urban reality in conflict with the jungle (but it is just as colorful and trippy as Amaringo’s). Graciela Arias shows us a more feminine viewpoint, with an emphasis on the spiritual and lyrical side of the indigenous mindset, but she too cannot escape the groundbreaking work by Don Pablo that precedes her and informs her art. I think I may have posted before about Don Pablo's work, but here are some of his paintings just in case you have not been exposed to this genius...

For all this wild Amazonian stimulation packed into a small jewel case, we have to come back to reality and thank the already mentioned David Aglow, the  principal impetus behind this fortuitous commingling of visual, aural and literary worlds. It was his vision and perseverance that made the project happen, and in such high style! I am now hoping Dave will listen to my suggestions to eventually put out a limited edition 45 of the two most DJ-friendly tracks (he told me a whole LP vinyl version would prove too costly at this point), the most likely candidates being the wacky and syncopated instrumental cumbia “Perdido en el espacio” for the A side, and the instant classic “Me voy pa’ Trompeteros”. Or perhaps “Caballo nocturno” (with it’s super dope intro) for the B side. You could also fashion another great single from the wistful “Sirenita enamorada” (a great vocal with raw fuzz guitar) and “La incognita” as a percussively up-beat and axe-rockin’ B-side. But then there are Dave’s favorites, the catchy yet plaintive “El llanto del ayaymama” with its raw buzz-saw guitar riff, and the haunting bolero “El forstero” – two equally viable choices for the vinyl single treatment! Record Store Day, I here you calling like the ayaymama (a large jungle bird with a distinctively forlorn mating call)! Maybe there could even a “rework” by the Whiskey Barons or Quantic could be entertained to give us a radical remake with his Combo Bárbaro…one can dream a feverish tropical dream! At any rate, for the time being we have this unique and singular CD, and if enough sales are made, that might just finance some sort of vinyl release, something near and dear to my DJ/collector heart.

So that’s really about it – you have to hear the music and read the text for yourself to receive its full medicinal benefits. Go out and buy this CD and be transported to a far away place and time that we, as “developed” consumers in the digital age are fortunate enough to have at our disposal for our gratification and edification. Heed Bongohead’s advice: Don’t waste this opportunity for illumination brought to you by The Vital Record, mi gente.

Like I said, this collection rings a special note with me on a personal level. From stories I heard of the magical back-water jungle city Iquitos, where today a kid could be named Hitler Michael Jackson Ramirez and in a bygone era of rubber barons, European arias could be heard at the Baroque opera house built directly on the mangrove swamp, to the shape-shifting dolphins that become fishermen’s lovers just down river from Fitzcarraldo’s Quixotically foundering steamship, to the legend of the “Lost City of Z” and its would be discoverers perishing in plain sight of it because the city was the jungle all around them, the stygian tropical forests and mighty rivers of South America have always fascinated me, constantly revealing themselves to be more inexplicable, fleetingly evasive and amazing than any magical realist author like Vargas Llosa or García Márquez could put to words. With this compilation, I have both the satisfaction and the sadness of knowing yet another obscure sector has been (re)discovered, mapped out, and exposed to me, making the Amazon a little less mysterious and exotic on the one hand, and on the other revealing all of its contradictions and complexities that thankfully continue to make it as hard to grasp as a brightly colored macaw or neatly categorize as the thousands of undiscovered plants that carpet the forest floor to this day.

For more info and to hear some of the music, go to the label’s web site:
While you’re there, do yourself a favor and check out the label’s other excellent and quirky releases. If you are interested in music from the Peruvian Amazon, there are two other fascinating CDs you should pick up: a contemporary cumbia amazónica album from the eccentric El Cacique De Menkoremón, and some heart-rending violin work by Don Francisco Pezo Alva, who plays his homemade instrument at the wakes of the recently deceased and fills his sound with all the pain and anguish his patrons need in order to aid the grieving process. May the marvelous revelations of this incredible musical resource that is Peru never be depleted!

Check this out! Track to watch for: "El Huarmi Icaro"

Francisco Pezo Alva plays violin - on location!