Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Juaneco y Su Combo – Masters of Chicha Vol. 1

On May 2, 1977 five members of Peruvian chicha band Juaneco y Su Combo died in a plane crash. Compounding the tragedy was the fact that the band were at the time the country’s most popular practitioners of the style, a wildly psychedelic, danceable blend of Colombian cumbia, Brazilian and Latin dance music and American surf rock with reverb guitar and trebly electronic organ. Over 20 years later, small but influential Brooklyn label Barbes Records has made a full album of the group’s work available for the first time ever outside Peru. It’s about time.

 

During its initial heyday in the 70s, chicha – like bachata in the Dominican and jazz here in the US – was strictly the province of the lower classes, scorned by the elite. Because of this, Juaneco y Su Combo were a regional band in the purest sense of the word. They adopted the traditional dress of the Shipibo Indian majority of their native city of Pucallpa and frequently made use of imagery from Shipibo mythology in their lyrics (such as they were – most of their songs were instrumentals). Perhaps what’s most striking about the band’s success is that the various elements of their music were all foreign. The latin rhythm is anchored by traditional Cuban percussion; bandleader Juan Wong Popolizio traded in his accordion for a Farfisa organ, and lead guitarist Noe Fachin – known as El Brujo (The Wizard) was a fan of the Ventures and the Shadows. Like most other bands of the era, another major influence on the group’s music was drugs. Fachin – among those killed in the plane crash –  was a devotee of ayahuasca, a psychedelic common to the region. Perhaps as a result, this is the best high-velocity stoner music you’ll ever hear. As his nickname implies, Fachin had great speed on the fretboard, but his playing can be sloppy and sometimes either he or the band are noticeably out of tune. On much of the material here, all of them sound stoned, which only adds to the band’s woozy mystique. Like a lot of south-of-the-border music from the 70s, the overall sound is tinny, likely because much of this was recorded on the fly using low-budget gear. 

 

The cd’s best songs follow a formula common to salsa, two minor-key chords alternating on the verse and building to a big crescendo on the chorus which Fachin would typically make the max of. Un Shipibo en Espana (famously covered by Chicha Libre, Barbes Records’ owner Olivier Conan’s band and perhaps the best chicha band ever) is a prime example. The single best song on the cd – written by their late bassist Walter Dominguez – is La Patadita, a deviously murky, minor-key blend of surf and salsa. Fachin’s Vacilando con Ayahuasca (High on Ayahuasca) isn’t the hallucinatory sidelong suite you might expect, but a ripoff of the Ventures’ version of Caravan (a Duke Ellington tune: what a fun and unexpected game of telephone this turned out to be!). On the cd’s last cut, Recordando a Fachin (Remembering Fachin), his replacement does an enviable job of emulating his trademark frenetic, hanging-over-the-cliff style. This cd’s closest relative, in spirit anyway, is German film composer Manfred Hubler’s legendary 1969 Vampiros Lesbos soundtrack. Except that you can dance to it.

 

Barbes Records – who have a franchise on chicha music outside Peru – have also played a substantial role in building renewed interest in the style’s originators right where it originated, with the latest version of Juaneco y Su Combo (still fronted by original singer Wilindoro Cacique) currently one of the country’s hottest live acts. It’s probably only a matter of time before these songs start getting picked up by American surf bands (how’s that for irony?) One can only hope for continuing releases in the Masters of Chicha series; for now, several other bands, including Los Mirlos, Los Destellos and Los Diablos Rojos are included on Barbes’ seminal anthology The Roots of Chicha, released last year.

 

 

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November 12, 2008 - Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , ,

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