Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

El Grupo del Verano 2008! Chicha Libre Finally Puts Out a CD

This is the cultural artifact of the summer of 2008. It’s the one album released this year that you want to put on if you’re having a party and you want to get everyone’s attention (or impress everybody with your brilliant and eclectic taste): you’ll get plenty of “who’s that?”s. Readers of this space already know plenty about Chicha Libre’s intoxicatingly good live performances at Barbes throughout the past year: now, the party is available for takeout. On their debut cd, Sonido Amazonico, America’s best (and only) chicha band have revived the amazingly danceable, hypnotic, psychedelic sound that was popular in the slums of the Peruvian Andes thirty-five years ago, while adding their own inimitable vision and wit.

Chicha is what resulted when Peruvian bands first heard American surf and psychedelic rock and then added electric instruments, rock arrangements and Caribbean rhythms to their own sound. What Antibalas did with driving, horn-driven African groove music, what Dengue Fever is doing with deliciously psychedelic Cambodian pop, Chicha Libre is doing with chicha. When frontman/cuatro player Olivier Conan first heard the style, he was hooked, to the point where he found himself traveling to South America to track down as many original recordings as he could get his hands on, as well as the elusive musicians who created it. The result was the fascinating anthology The Roots of Chicha, released last year on his label, Barbes Records.

Chicha Libre’s debut mixes instrumentals and vocal numbers, originals as well as deviously crafted cover songs. While in most surf music the guitars carry the melody, in Chicha Libre’s music it’s usually keyboardist Josh Camp’s vintage Hohner Electrovox (a relic from the 70s which is basically an electronic organ with settings that mimic the sound of an accordion) which serves as the lead instrument. In addition to Conan, the rest of the band includes two percussionists, acoustic bass and Barbes co-owner Vincent Douglas playing reverb-drenched, surfy guitar. The result can be haunting, triumphant, celebratory or absolutely mesmerizing, often all in the same song. While just as in surf music, there’s occasional cheese in places, Chicha Libre thankfully tones it down as much as possible. The vocal numbers (in both Spanish and French) are the most overtly humorous songs on the album.

There are so many great songs here. The title track, a hypnotic yet danceable one-chord vamp that builds to a nasty Douglas solo, and Tres Pasajeros, an ominous train-ride theme written by Camp. The amusing Hungry Song plays with the macho posturing found in a lot of latin music. Their cover of the obscure El Borrachito (The Little Drunk Guy) has the narrator asking plaintively in Spanish, “Why are you making fun of me?”

They take the famous Ravel Pavane and chichafy it, breaking it down into dub reggae at one point, then the band starts chanting “pavane, pavane, pavane,” quiet and deadpan in the background while the guitar solos. Indian Summer tips its hat to Serge Gainsbourg in a big way, Conan and las Rubias del Norte frontwoman Allyssa Lamb doing spot-on early 70s ye-ye harmonies over a slinky spy theme. They also cover Hot Butter’s silly synth instrumental hit Popcorn with a sarcastic, punk edge: the Electrovox is out of tune on the highest registers, and there’s a silly bass solo. And then the band adds their own lyrics, a tribute to corn whiskey and weed. The album ends with its best song, a cover of what is probably composer Erik Satie’s signature work, Gnossienne #1 (you’ll recognize it from a million movie soundtracks). As simple as it is macabre, it’s also extremely difficult to play on the piano because Satie deliberately omitted the time signature, leaving the rhythm completely up to whoever’s playing it. Chicha Libre give it a slightly staggered tango pulse, making it as sexy as it is dark. What else is there to say – this is a great album, a must-own if you like psychedelia, right up there with the Vampiros Lesbos soundtrack and Mass in F Minor by the Electric Prunes. Five maduros con queso. The cd is available at better record stores, online and at shows. Chicha Libre play the cd release tonight at Drom at 10; Las Rubias del Norte open the show at 9.

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April 4, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Chicha Libre at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 9/29/07

For lack of a better word, an amazing show. The little back room here became a sea of dancing bodies. Chicha Libre play chicha music, a style that originated in Peru in the 1970s which combines indigenous accordion-driven cumbia with American psychedelia, comparable to what Os Mutantes were doing in Brazil a few years earlier but more rock-oriented. Their long set mixed surfy originals from their cd Sonido Amazonico along with obscure covers, about 50/50 instrumentals and vocal numbers sung in Spanish. Like les Sans Culottes or Gaijin A-Go-Go, they’ve lovingly appropriated a genre that must be as foreign to them as American rock was to the artists whose material they cover. It’s not likely that anyone in the band is a native Spanish speaker, but no matter: they make the genre indelibly their own, and at this point in history, it doesn’t seem that they have much if any competition.

Tonight the band had two percussionists, reverb-drenched electric guitar, upright bass, cuatro (a four-stringed, small-bodied acoustic guitar widely used in Latin music) and their not-so-secret weapon Josh Camp running amok with his vintage Hohner Electrovox (an electrified accordion that he played using several different pedals, including tons of reverb and occasional wah-wah to maximize the psychedelic effect). Strangely (or perhaps not so strangely at all), the contemporary band they most closely resemble is virtuoso Finnish surf rockers Laika and the Cosmonauts, particularly their keyboard-driven material. And the mid-60s Ventures at their most far-out, after they’d discovered guitar effects other than reverb. Or imagine a Joe Meek production done under the influence of really good acid. Like Moisturizer, whose BAM Cafe show we just reviewed, Chicha Libre are as hypnotic as they are danceable, the relentless clatter of the percussion and the wild, soaring tones of the Electrovox trading off harmonies with the guitar: for someone lucky enough to have snagged one of the few chairs at the back of the tiny music room here, it was sometimes hard to figure out who was playing since it was practically impossible to see the band through the crowd. Camp’s solos predictably stole the show, including a loudly atmospheric one he took early in the set, and wild, frenetic one toward the end where he used guitar voicings, and with his volume up just to the point where the signal was starting to break up into distortion, he could have been playing one. The band closed with a silly cover of of the 70s novelty hit Popcorn which segued into another cover whose lyrics were something like “chicha de maiz con ganja” – corn whiskey and weed. Pretty apt for a show like this. The audience screamed for an encore, and somebody hollered “Freebird!” To which the cuatro player replied, “This is kind of the same thing.” Then they launched into a long, psychedelic version of Tequila. After a couple of verses they switched to 7/8 time, as if to see if the dancers could figure it out.

And a little post-show googling brought about an epiphany: why does Barbes book such good bands, day in, day out, month after month? Because the guys who own the place are in Chicha Libre! Now it all makes sense.

October 1, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments