Artwork by Sebastian Alvarez
JUANECO Y SU COMBO
LOS DIABLOS ROJOS
LOS HIJOS DEL SOL
THE ROOTS OF CHICHA: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru.
started out in the late 60’s, in the oil-boom cities of the
Peruvian Amazon. Cumbias Amazonicas,
as they were first known, were loosely inspired by Colombian cumbias
but incorporated the distinctive pentatonic scales of Andean melodies,
some Cuban guajiras, and the psychedelic sounds of surf guitars, wah-wah
pedals, farfisa organs and moog synthesizers.
Chicha, which is named after a corn-based liquor favored by the Incas, quickly spread to Lima. It became the music of choice of the mostly indigenous new migrant population – mixing even further with rock, Andean folklore and Peruvian creole music.
Very much like Jamaican Ska or Congolese Soukous, Chicha is western-influenced indigenous music geared toward the new urban masses who wholly identified with the new hybrid . Chicha is at once raw and sophisticated - and until now, it had never been released outside of Peru.
* * *
Peru is host to an astonishing variety of musical traditions that have managed to evolve concurrently. More astonishing, Peruvians as a whole seem to have embraced these traditions regardless of their class, regional or ethnic backgrounds. Everyone lays claim to Criollo music, which has deep roots in Spain; Lima’s main concert halls showcase Afro-Peruvian music; and indigenous traditions, which are still evolving, are considered a national treasure. Watch any party band in Peru, and chances are they will go from Vals Criollo to a Festejo and a Huayno, drawing on all the national traditions and mixing them up with Salsa, Cumbia, and Merengue. Depending on the setting, they might also play Chicha.
Chicha is a corn drink that has been popular in Andean countries for millennia. It is brewed from fermented maize and can be made either into a mild alcoholic beverage called Chicha de Jora (which was very popular among the Incas), or into a soft drink called Chicha Morada.
Chicha also refers to a particular brand of Peruvian pop music that educated Peruvians usually look down on. The music is often labeled tropical, which means that it uses rhythmic elements of Afro-Cuban music noticeable in other mixed musical traditions like Cumbia, which Columbia has been exporting to the rest of the world for half a century. Chicha is also known simply as Cumbia Peruana. According to Wikipedia, Chicha is “a lower version of the Cumbia, which is more popular with the lower social class.” And so it is: very much like Forro, Musette, Tango, or Son (not to mention jazz), Chicha is popular music played by, you know, the common man…
Most modern Chicha uses the canned sounds of cheap keyboards and low-end guitar effects, but it did not start out that way. In the late sixties and through most of the seventies, bands throughout Peru started playing Cumbias. They borrowed the style from the Colombian model but updated it to reflect both the national sensibility and the times. They incorporated elements from English and American music – especially Surf music – and replaced the accordion with the electric guitar.
A similar phenomenon occurred the world over. As radio and television started playing Western programs,, local groups from all countries began to emulate British invasion and American psychedelic bands. Most copied the format, using drum sets, electric bass, and guitars. Malaysian Pop Yeah Yeah, Cambodian rock, Uruguayan Invasion bands – these all started out as imitators, even if their brand of pop eventually developed a specific national character.
In Peru, Chicha was syncretic from the start. Bands used a standard Latin rhythm section of congas, bongos, and timbales, but mixed it up with bass, electric guitars, Moog synthesizers, and Farfisa organs. The sound was modern – the guitars and organs had that modern sound imported straight from North America -- but it was also distinctly Latin, not Peruvian. It was pan-Latin: like the new instruments -- the Farfisa and electric guitar -- the rhythms were borrowed.
The first wave of Cumbia bands came from the Amazon – from cities like Pucallpa, Moyobamba, and Iquitos, which were rapidly getting urbanized as a result as of the oil boom. Bands such as Juaneco y Su Combo, Los Mirlos, and Los Tigres de Tarapoto sung about partying, oil (los Mirlos have a song called La Danza del Petrolero), and life in the forest. The goal was to entertain, and the lyrics could be tongue in cheek or even outright funny. Still, a particular sense of regional and ethnic pride runs through all these lyrics; bands refer to it as Poder Verde, or Green Power.
The rhythms didn’t vary much: they were either mid-tempo Cumbias or fast Cumbias called Cumbión. The music, however, retained a strong regional flavor in part by relying heavily on the pentatonic scales associated with Andean folklore. It was at once familiar and exotic, traditional and modern.
Because of massive migrations to Lima in the mid-seventies, Cumbias Amazonicas, as they were known, reached a wider audience. Limeño bands started playing Cumbias but adding their own touches; as a result, the music became more urban and open to even more influences. Los Destellos began to draw more from rock and Cuban music, Los Hijos del Sol from Huaynos and Criollo music, and Los Diablos Rojos from Salsa.
The music was so fresh, so exciting, and its appeal so effortlessly universal that it still seems strange that it never managed to find an international audience. The oddly post-modern combination of western psychedelia, Cuban and Colombian rhythms, Andean melodies and idiosyncratic experimentation was close in spirit to the pop syncretism of Brazilian Tropicalia bands such as Os Mutantes.
But unlike Brazilian Tropicalia, Chicha was not an intellectual movement. Its main proponents were working musicians who mostly came from poor backgrounds. Their job was to make people dance. They didn’t travel to London. No discourse was elaborated around the music. It never became popular with the Peruvian middle class. Art students didn’t embrace it. Critics and intellectuals didn’t write about it. As a result, the music was scorned nationally – and largely ignored outside of Peru.
Peru has an amazing guitar tradition. The nylon string Spanish guitar is the featured instrument in Musica Criolla (a mixture of Spanish waltzes, polkas, Afro-Peruvian festejos and Andean influences), which is essentially the national music of Peru. In Europe and the U.S. the guitar serves a convivial function. Ever since the folk explosion of the sixties, teenagers have been strumming guitars to accompany their singing and impress their peers. In Peru, however, guitarists don’t usually sing and are mostly measured by their virtuosity. In the 1960s, the influence of Rock & Roll lead a number of them to switch to the electric guitar, but most were schooled in the Criollo guitar tradition, as evidenced by both the style and technique of such guitarists as Danny Jhonston of Los Mirlos; Enrique Delgado of Los Destellos, Jose Carvallo of Los Hijos del Sol (and later on Chacalón y la Nueva Crema), Marino Valencia of Los Diablos Rojos and Noe Fachin of Juaneco y su combo.