The Sweltering Sound of Chicha Libre

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 05.24.12 in Spotlights

Two Frenchmen, two Yankees, a Mexican and a Venezuelan walk into a bar…

Amazonian-cumbia specialists Chicha Libre provide the deliriously danceable punch line to that multiculti setup every Monday night in the tiny back room of the Barbès nightclub, located in Brooklyn’s decidedly temperate Park Slope neighborhood. Since 2005, when the group played its first gigs as the promisingly named Cumbia My Lord!, Chicha Libre has evolved from what vocalist, cuatro player and songwriter Olivier Conan calls “just a cover band doing a tribute to a formerly obscure genre” to something a lot more interesting than the latest hipster ethno-quirk. The band’s second album, Canibalismo, transcends its fakeness and returns the weird to the loping, leaping delights of escuela-vieja Peruvian cumbia.

Peruvian cumbia is known as chicha, which Conan heard for the first time in the backseat of a Lima taxi in 2004. “Authentic” chicha, Conan explains over drinks at Barbès, which he opened in 2002 with his friend, fellow countryman, and future Chicha Libre guitarist Vincent Douglas, emerged in Peru around 1968 and was known as Cumbia Amazonica. In the mid ’70s it was known as chicha (after a popular fermented corn beverage), a term set in vinyl when Los Shapis released “Rica Chicha” in 1981.

Chicha has strong class connotations. In 2007, Conan released the first amazing volume of The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias From Peru on his Barbès label. “When I told one artist what I was going to title his compilation, he yelled at me on the phone and said, ‘Are you kidding? Chicha is for thugs!’” Conan’s two compilations mainstreamed chicha somewhat, but not enough to completely quell class biases on either side in its homeland.

In the beginning, Chicha Libre mostly covered Roots of Chicha tracks. “It started as something of a rock band,” Conan says. “We didn’t know much about the specific Latin characteristics of the music we were playing, although we’d all played fake Latin music over the years.”

“The original chicha [was] very rock oriented,” adds Chicha Libre keyboardist Joshua Camp. “They were listening to a lot of surf music and Hendrix.” Half of accordion duo One Ring Zero, Camp plays a Hohner Electrovox in Chicha Libre. He augments this reedless accordion’s pleasingly evocative sound of a ’60s Farfisa organ with wah-wah, ring modulation, delay, and other effects.

Cumbia originated in Colombia, where it embodied a strong African influence. However, there’s almost no African polyrhythms left in Peruvian music. “Over the past two years we acquired musicians who know how to play real Latin music,” says Conan, referring to master percussionists Karina Colis, from Mexico, and Neil Ochoa, from Venezuela. “In the beginning, it was mostly quirky reinterpretations of what we thought were the proper clave or montuno [the fundamental rhythmic structures of Latin music], which were pretty much always wrong. That’s one reason I think our first record, ¡Sonido Amazónico!, is charming. I’m a little worried that the clave being in the right place might work against us.”

“We made a valiant effort to mess with it in the recording process, though,” says Camp. “I’m a big fan of ’70s prog rock, and I love those keyboard sounds, Mellotrons and synths. The most enjoyable part of making the record was playing around with electronic toys, and we did a lot of that.” Chicha Libre recorded Canibalismo during the daytime hours in the back room of Barbès’s. The band recorded 17 tracks and then spent three months taking them apart, keeping only “the percussion and a couple of bass lines,” Conan says.

With its titular allusions both to the “cultural cannibalism” of Brazil’s Tropicalistas and bad Andean horror movies, Canibalismo embodies the Barbès label’s esthetic, which Conan defines as “records that have no sense of authenticity.” Other Barbès releases include Slavic Soul Party, Las Rubias del Norte, and One Ring Zero, whose latest album, The Recipe Project, is a culinary follow-up to the duo’s lit-star lyricked 2004 album, As Smart As We Are. You can hear the Zero and Chicha overlap in Canibalismo‘s “Number 17,” a cumbia meditation on German math genius Carl Friedrich Gauss.

At its best when diving deep into the jungle, Canibalismo seeks its heart of darkness through an increasingly psychedelic Amazonian boogie. “Juaneco en el Cielo” (Juaneco in Heaven) pays homage to chicha legends Juaneco y Su Combo, “L’Age d’Or” (The Golden Age) considers the value of nostalgia, and “Lupita en la Selva y el Doctor” (Lupita in the Jungle and the Doctor) updates the Beatles’ best-known acid opus by imagining Dr. Albert Hoffman going organic with ayahuasca. And while bassist Nick Cudahy’s chicha arrangement of “The Ride of the Valkyries” is Canibalismo‘s sole cover, you can hear Chicha Libre play versions of the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” and Love’s “Along Again Or” most Monday nights in Brooklyn. And I’d strongly suggest you do so.