Dazzling bastard between the Amazon and Brooklyn
It is the most widely branching water network on earth and provides us with one thing above all: oxygen for the entire planet. But the Amazon is also the source of astonishing sounds – classical strains emanating from an opera house in the middle of the green hell (remember Fitzcarraldo!), or the carimbó and lambada rhythms pulsating in the Indian-Caribbean music heard in the delta metropolis of Belém. Chicha Libre, on the other hand, takes us on a journey to the headwaters of the Amazon, where the river is not yet Brazilian, but winds its way through Peruvian territory. Chicha is the name of the genre to which the band has dedicated itself with its lifeblood and retro philosophy. As bandleader Olivier Conan tells it: “I was in Peru about 5 years ago. I had gone there on vacation really, hoping to see some criollo music, which I have been a fan of for many years. I bought a lot of records there and a vendor played me this old Peruvian cumbia that I had never heard of before – I loved it right away and started buying a lot of the music, asking about it. So while I did start the trip focused on music, I got into chicha completely by accident. A very happy accident, I must say!”
The music that captivated Conan is indeed a curious crossbreed. It took shape in the 1960s when the Indian population of the Peruvian Amazon region discovered both rock ’n’ roll and a penchant for Colombian pop, and confronted Andean melodies with psychedelic sounds. With cheap electronic instruments like Farfisa organs and electric guitars, which they played surf-style, they formed bands that put the eclectic mix into practice. Conan raves: “The music contained all the elements of music I had loved all my life, but that I had never heard in one genre. It was the most global, most syncretic music I had ever heard. There were elements of cumbia, guaracha, psych-rock, surf, boogaloo, classical music, Brazilian music. Pretty amazing really”
Conan traces this completely unorthodox mixture back to the peculiarity of Peruvian pop culture, a fascinating Latin American crossroads. Peruvian musicians, he says, have always juggled a great diversity of idioms. Trained as criollo guitarists or in classical conservatories, they incorporated the tropical styles from the more northern and eastern climes of the continent, while snatching up everything Peruvian radio put on the airwaves, from surf to salsa. In Lima a center of chicha culture arose which, thanks largely to the many immigrants in the capital, took on distinct colorations of Andean music, while in cities like Iquitos and Pucallpa the Amazon element remained dominant.
“Chicha is the first unselfconscious postmodern music,” says Conan. “This eclecticism became the template for chicha – and this is what inspires us. More than just the music itself, it’s the process. The idea that you should incorporate every kind of music into what you play. As a musical approach, it´s not all that different from, let’s say, what John Zorn would be doing 20 years later – except that this was popular dance music.” With his CD “Roots of Chicha” – which is soon to be followed by a second chapter – Conan sent the sound, only still found at hidden record counters of second-hand shops, out into the world. Gradually it is emerging, in the European club scene, too, from an insider’s tip to a fixture in DJs’ collections. Much more exciting, however, is that Conan and his band, Chicha Libre, have revived the nearly forgotten genre.
In Brooklyn Conan has gathered together musicians whom he has collaborated with in other groups, and whom he has infected with his chicha fever. They come from bands such as One Ring Zero and Combustible Edison, who are known for their predilection for obscure instruments, retro styles, and idiosyncratic Americana philosophy. “We stick pretty close to the classical instrumentation but have adapted it somewhat. Instead of an A2 guitar, I play a Venezuelan cuatro. Instead of a Farfisa, we use a Hohner Electravox, which looks like an accordion, but is really the body of an accordion with the electronics of a 1960s organ.”
This mad notion of revival can be heard on “¡Sonido Amazonico!” It is impossible to resist the music’s call, as if Chicha Libre wanted to outdo even their heroes’ love of the crude mix. Along with cover versions of songs by legendary chicha bands – already spiced with all imaginable colors, from funk and ska to cumbia, tex-mex and arabesque moods – the album includes a sultry version of Joe Dassin’s “Indian Summer” that sounds like a tropical carnival, as well as a laid-back variation on the early synth-pop hit “Popcorn.” Even “Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte” by Claude Debussy and Erik Satie’s “Gnossiene No.1” are irreverently but congenially incorporated in the Chicha sound, complete with salsa flair and reverberating cha cha cha.
And their name? Its similarity to Cuba Libre suggests a “high-proof” reference by Conan and band. Indeed, chicha is a schnapps that is popular all over Peru and is said to have been a favorite even among the country’s pre-Columbian inhabitants. The liquid gold of the Incas, made into music – and in 2010 being cast in exciting new forms.
From an interview of the author with Chicha Libre in June 2010.
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
Concerts, Films, Exhibition, Discussions
(22 July 10 - 13 August 10)