Various Artists, The Roots of Chicha

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Chicha is the inexpensive fermented corn drink that's been an alcoholic staple of Andean life for millennia. It also signifies Peruvian cumbia, the South American nation's version of an irresistibly upbeat rhythm of infinite adaptability that originated in coastal Colombia (think ska with timbales). And while other regions of Latin American adapted cumbia with little alteration, Peru added low-budget keyboards (usually Farfisa organs), replaced Colombia's accordions with twangy, fuzzy, wah-wahing electric guitars and looked to traditional Andean pipe music for pentatonic inspiration. During its '70s heyday, Chicha combined youthful energy with indigenous pride. In cities such as Pucallpa, Iquitos and Moyobamba, local bands played cumbias amazonicas for oil workers as a display of regional pride or, as Los Mirlos termed it, Poder Verde — Green Power!

Youthful energy, indigenous pride: Green Power!

Chicha is powerful stuff indeed, and Los Mirlos have remained national favorites since their 1973 formation thanks mostly to their shuffling dance rhythms and the haunting, vaguely Middle Eastern sound of their fine guitarist, Danny Jhonstan. There's strangeness to these cumbias you don't hear elsewhere. And so while most "psychedelic" music rarely reflects the actual state of severe enstonement, Juaneco y su Combo's "Vacilando con Ayahuasca" comes close. The album's most original-sounding group, the Shipibo Indian members of Juaneco also contribute its prettiest melody, "Linda Nena." Look to Los Hijos del Sol for the most Andean of sounds, and to Los Destellos for its jazziest moments. Brooklyn musician Olivier Conan (Las Rubias del Norte) is the person responsible for introducing chicha to the rest of the world. Thank him by checking out his own excellent cumbia combo, Chicha Libre.