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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 | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Roots of Chicha

What the soundtrack to The Harder They Come was for reggae, what the Nuggets anthology was for garage rock, The Roots of Chicha promises to be for chicha.  Like Australian country music, Japanese salsa or British rock, chicha is a quintessentially urban kind of alchemy, in this case a creation of the oil-boom cities of Peru beginning in the late 60s and continuing throughout the 80s where musicians raised on sounds from south of the border picked up electronic instruments and started mixing in surf music and psychedelic rock. Like bachata in the Dominican Republic or blues here in the US, the ruling classes in Peru scorned it. The radio didn’t play it and it was largely confined to the slums. Where it thrived.

 

The 17 tracks here are hypnotic and incredibly fun. Some of this sounds like scary surf music. Some sounds like salsa played by a psychedelic rock band (think early Santana without the 20-minute jams), with tinny guitars using all kinds of cheap effects. The beat is like ska but slower, and it swings more, but not as much as reggae. The feel is raw, direct and lo-fi; some would call it primitive. A labor of love created by Barbes Records’ Olivier Conan (leader of the sole American chicha band, Chicha Libre, whose intoxicatingly good debut cd just came out this year), this is the anthology that brought chicha out of Peru for the first time. None of the tracks here have ever been released outside the country, which is more surprising than it is tragic because these songs are so delightful. This is party music, after all (chicha is to Peru what malt liquor is here), and you don’t need to speak Spanish to appreciate it.

 

The Roots of Chicha includes song by five of the most pioneering chicha bands from the late 60s and early 70s. Los Mirlos open and close the cd on a similar note with tersely eerie, one-chord jams with the same mood as Egyptian Reggae by the Ventures, but stranger. They also contribute El Milagro Verde (The Green Miracle), another spooky, tinny reverb-guitar instrumental which is sort of the chicha national anthem, along with Muchachita del Oriente (Little Asian Girl), a party song that has nothing remotely Asian about it. Los Hijos del Sol are represented by another bouncing, incisively reverberating instrumental as well as two characteristically minor-key vocal numbers, the guitar taking off with the central catchy hook on the chorus.

 

Juaneco y Su Combo have three songs included here. Vacilando con Ayahuasca (High on Ayahuasca, a native psychedelic) isn’t the long psychedelic suite you’d assume but rather a catchy instrumental punctuated by a woman’s orgasmic sighs! Another faster instrumental sounds like a ripoff of Muchachita del Oriente – or maybe Muchachita del Oriente rips this off. Obviously there was a lot of cross-pollination going on. The third track is remarkably different, with a considerable Afro-Cuban influence.

 

Los Hijos del Sol follow what seems to be an effective and popular formula, verses that come straight out of salsa, with a lot of call-and-response to get the party going, followed by surfy guitar on the choruses. Los Destellos contribute a gorgeously hooky instrumental, A Patricia, that with a little exposure ought to be picked up by surf bands everywhere, as well as a vocal number and the world’s funniest Beethoven cover. Los Diablos Rojos manage to be both the most overtly surfy and most overtly latin of the bands here, equal parts dazzling Dick Dale tremolo guitar and third-generation Cuban son. There’s also a cut by electric banjoist Eusebio y Su Banjo, the defiant Mi Morena Rebelde (My Rebel Girl) which is more of a traditional cumbia than anything else here. Barbes Records continues to mine the rich vein of classic chicha with a brand-new anthology of songs by Juaneco y Su Combo, available for the first time outside Peru.

 

If the concept of seeing this stuff live intrigues you, Chicha Libre includes some of these songs in their set along with their sometimes even wilder originals. They play Barbes pretty much every Monday at 9:45ish, early arrival always a good idea.

October 29, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment