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Music Review: Various Artists The Roots Of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias From Peru

I've always found the habit of referring to a genre of music as "fusion" sort of redundant. I mean, by now almost every form of music we listen to or perform is going to be the result of the fusion of earlier styles of music. Even music that we tend to think of as "original" or "roots" like Blues and old time Country were the result of fusion.

Some of the results of fusion haven't been the greatest, disco is pretty good example, as was some of the pabulum "sensitive" folk rock that came out in the seventies. Most times when fusion got bland, was when the music started to be mass produced and creative control was wrested away from the bands who had built the original connection.

In the mid to late sixties it wasn't just North Americans who were exploring this combining of musical style to create some thing new. All over the world people were experimenting with how they could use the new electric instruments in the music they were playing. From Laos in South East Asia to the mountains of Peru in South America people who only a generation ago hadn't even lived with electricity were discovering what could be done with amplified instruments.
Juaneco Y Su Combo.jpg
One of the strangest blends of music that I've ever heard, but also one of the most infectious and happy, came out of Peru in the mid 1960s. Chicha Music, was a mixture of the indigenous music of Peru, Colombia's cumbia rhythms, surf rock wah wah pedal guitar, and rock and roll electric organ. "Chicha" is the name of a fermented corn drink that dates back to pre-Columbian times and has long associations with the indigenous peoples of Peru.

Like other areas of the world with oil deposits Peru experienced a boom in the sixties leading to the displacement and migration of its rural population into the cities. In the urban areas, they were exposed to Western Pop music for the first time and it was in the poor neighbourhoods they occupied that Chicha originated. With Peru's rich tradition of guitar based music it was only natural that the music was guitar centred, making the distinctive sound of the Southern California beach a major element.

In spite of the fact that the music had a wonderful sound and was eminently danceable, it somehow never gained widespread popularity in this it's initial stage of development. Part of the problem was due to class and probably race, as the musicians in the original bands were not only poor workers, a great many of them were indigenous as well. But, thanks to the release of The Roots O Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias From Peru on Barbes Records from Brooklyn New York that might begin to change.

Oliver Conan, the owner of Barbes Records, took a trip to Peru where he went to considerable time and effort to unearth original recordings by six bands from the heyday of the period; Lose Miros, Juaneco y Su Combo, Los Hijos del Sol, Les Destellos, Los Diablos Rojos, and Eusebio y Su Banjo. He was so impressed by the music that he heard that he has not only put together this album, he has created a tribute band to try and generate enough interest in the bands to assist the survivors in comeback attempts
(The completely indigenous band Juaneco y Su Combe saw most of it's member killed in a plane crash in 1976)

I have to admit the when I first began to listen to the tunes it was hard not to giggle, some of it sounded so silly. The juxtaposition of electric organ with the melodic vocals and scratch rhythms of Latin American music was very strange on "Linda Nena" by Juanec y Su Combo. Then there was the Los Destelios' song "A Patricia". With it's two lead guitars, one doing surf music jangles and the second played through a wah-wah pedal, overtop a very Latin sounding percussion sound, I was struggling to rationalize a point to the music.
Poster For Chicha Concert 2006.jpg
But gradually the music began to work a kind of magic on me, and I gave up trying to think about and just began to enjoy what I was listening to. So by the time Juaneco y Su Combo was playing their second track of the disc "Ya se ha muerto mi Abuelo" I was able to enjoy the music for what it was – a celebration of life and music

I have no idea how old some of these recordings are, but they were all recorded between 1968 and 1978. Although some of them have that slightly tinny feel of having had their original sound stretched through the re-mastering, the music is just as vibrant and exciting as it must have been hearing it in the clubs or the dance halls of Lima and other cities in and around Peru.

While the band Los Mirlos coined the phrase Poder Verde – Green Power – as an indigenous equivalent to Black Power in the United States, the music was not overtly political. If anything, their existence as bands was their strongest political statement not the contents of their lyrics. Although Juaneco y Su Combo dressed in traditional clothing and occasionally wrote lyrics about the plight of rural people transplanted into the city, the focus was still more on producing music that people would want to get up and dance to.

Although it may take a bit for you ears to get used to what you are listening to, and like me, you may be inclined to laugh on first hearing Chicha music, prolonged exposure is not only habit forming but also respect inducing. These are highly skilled musicians who created a very distinctive sound with the intent of getting people up off their feet and dancing.

I can't see even death standing in your way if you really wanted to dance to Chicha music. Of course if your not dead you can just pick up a copy of The Roots Of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias From Peru and get a few hundred friends together for a dance. Enjoy.

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