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V/A - The Roots of Chicha 2: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru

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Artist: V/A

Album: The Roots of Chicha 2: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru

Label: Barbes

Review date: Oct. 13, 2010

Olivier Conan is alive and well, and we have no reason to think that he won’t remain that way for another few decades. But if, whenever the co-proprietor of the NYC nightclub Barbes and its associated label finally crosses the River Styx, he finds himself sitting at some underworld watering hole with Harry Smith, they’ll have something in common to talk about. Each man can claim that they’ve made their mark on a nation’s culture simply by compiling some of their cherished old records.

In Smith’s case, of course, that would be The Anthology Of American Folk Music, one of the cornerstones of American popular and counterculture for over half a century; in Conan’s more modest case, it’s The Roots Of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias From Peru.

Chicha arose in the late 1960s, when Peruvian country folk moved in droves to slums surrounding the capital city of Lima and Amazonian oil boomtowns like Iquitos. There, as people were doing all over the world, they bought electric guitars and portable organs and started combining their existent popular music with foreign influences like The Shadows and The Beatles. Chicha is decidedly lower class, which means that it has gotten no respect from anyone other than the urban transplants whose daily lives it chronicled. The music has evolved over the decades, but it was the old stuff that so smote Conan during a Peruvian vacation that he decided to put out a collection of the tunes that had hijacked his consciousness.

But in an unintended fluke of timing, Conan’s compilation came out at a time of easing tensions and increased tolerance in Peru. Mainstream newspapers that had used the word “chicha” as a disparaging cultural reference widely reported the phenomenon of some foreigner putting out the country’s old sounds of shame. It was widely bootlegged and helped to rehabilitate the music, which is now appreciated as an artifact from the halcyon days before tens of thousands of peasants and urban poor were killed in the crossfire between the Sendero Luminoso and Peru’s military; now it has become part of the soundtrack of a nation trying to recover from years of bloodthirsty insurgency, decades of governmental monkeyshines and rigid social/economic divisions.

Nowadays Conan fronts a band called Chicha Libre, which plays this stuff in Europe and the U.S., and he’s even begun backing old Chicha performers playing outside Peru. He’s learned a few things about the music since 2007, when the first Roots record came out, and he assembled this volume in part to balance what he now considers to be the first record’s unbalanced portrait of vintage Chicha. Turns out that the first volume was heavy on bands from the country’s Amazonian interior, which tended to be at once more insular and more prone to loopy guitar pyrotechnics.

Volume 2 gives more space to bands from Lima and other coastal city. They seem to have been more broadly aware of musical happenings from the rest of the world; Manzanito Y Su Conjunto, for example, seems very aware of early Santana, and Los Walkers turn in a version of “Siboney” that sounds like Dick Dale on a Cuban vacation. They were also more able to influence it. One of the songs on this set represents the roots of cumbia fandom in Europe; a Colombian re-recording of Los Illusionistas’ “Colegiala” was in an instant coffee commercial that was ubiquitous during the 1970s. Grupo Celeste’s busier, heavier rhythms helped mold the sound of Mexican cumbia.

Overall, this set is a bit less reliant on freaky guitar tones, a tad more cosmopolitan, and definitely not as psychedelic as its predecessor. But the song selection is every bit as solid. I can’t imagine that it’ll have the same cultural import within Peru, and if it can broaden the rest of the world’s knowledge of Peruvian music beyond panpipes, then it’s still fighting the good fight for peace, love and understanding.

By Bill Meyer

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