Every Monday at the Brooklyn nightclub Barbes, two Frenchmen and a handful of Americans gather to play chicha, a blend of Native American, Latin, African, and Western 1960s psychedelia that was born in the urban barrios and rural villages of Peru. The band is called Chicha Libre, named after the musical style that inspires it (and the corn liquor that may have inspired that), and if the members are from all over the place, in a sense so is the music they’re playing.
“Chicha is syncretic to a degree to which you can’t really tell where it’s from, even through it’s very specifically from Peru,” says Olivier Conan, who formed the band and now plays cuatro and sings in it. (He’s also a member of Las Rubias del Norte.) “It has elements from Amazon Indian music, but also from the Colombian cumbia. It’s a music that was born authentically, but at the same time sounds artificial. It sounds like it could have come up from the native country, and I love that, because it’s made up of parts from all over the world.”
(barbés; US: 25 Mar 2008; UK: Available as import)
Conan discovered chicha a few years ago, while traveling through Peru. Long fascinated with music that bridged traditional and Western cultures, Conan was originally interested in criolle music, a genre at the intersection of African, native, and European traditions. “But people kept bringing me chicha and playing it for me, and I got really into it,” he explains.
Chicha first emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, about the same time as Tropicália developed in Brazil. The two art forms have some surface similarities, a melding of 1960s amplification with traditional musical forms, yet Conan says they are fundamentally different. “Chicha really was a working class music,” he maintains. Tropicália, with its manifestos and intellectual underpinnings, was really driven by a handful of intellectuals, many of whom had traveled and were aware of foreign genres and traditions. Chicha, by contrast, evolved in small, impoverished towns, individual artists building on what they’d heard, not just from each other, but over the radio, in commercial jingles, and in folk songs.
Chicha is defined by its instrumentation, traditionally guitar, organ, and hand percussion. “The guitar and the organs are very much 1960s instruments, so there’s great Western influence,” Conan explains. “Yet on the other hand, chicha shies away from the rock rhythm section, the drum set and electric bass, so it’s a very Latin, tropical sound.” He adds, “A lot of the hybrids that came out all over the world after the 1960s used the drum kit and electric bass of rock and roll. Chicha didn’t, and it doesn’t sound like a forced genre. The two elements—the Western and the Latin—came together in a very unselfconscious way, which is relatively rare.”
Conan became entranced with chicha, collecting cassette tapes from friends, fellow musicians, and the street vendors in Lima. “I just loved the music, and when I got back to New York, I told a couple of friends, ‘Hey, we should play these tunes. This would be fun to play.’”
Conan turned to Vincent Douglas for guitars (Douglas is Conan’s partner in the nightclub Barbes) and Joshua Camp of the rock band One Ring Zero for keyboards. Camp brought along an electrovox, itself a syncretic blend of two very different instruments. “An electrovox is a vox organ in the body of an accordion,” says Conan. “It comes from the late 1960s, when accordions were considered uncool and accordionists couldn’t get gigs. It didn’t really take off as an instrument, but it’s pretty neat.” Camp found the electrovox years ago, abandoned at a Horn & Hardart automat in New York City.
Bassist Nicholas Cudahy, formerly of Combustible Edison, and two percussionists, Greg Burrows and Timothy Quigley, rounded out the band. Although Chicha Libre has, on occasion, incorporated a drum set, the percussion is mostly hand-drums, congas, bongos, djembes, and the like, giving the music a lighter, more syncopated beat than is typical of Western rock.
The band began playing together at Barbes and soon developed a following—hipsters, world music fans, and, interestingly, a substantial contingent of Peruvians. “At first I’m really nervous, because it’s their culture,” says Conan. “But they all really enjoy this. In some cases, they know the music really well. In other cases, they have not really been listening to it, but they’ve heard about it. It’s something they grew up with.”
In a live setting, Conan says, Chicha Libre’s music stretches out, indulging in longer, more freeform improvisations. “This kind of music lends itself to improvisation… and also to dancing,” he says. “So if people dance, you’ve got to keep playing longer. It’s more of a party element to the live shows than there is on the record.”
One of Chicha’s defining characteristics is syncretism, the willingness to toss every kind of musical inspiration into a blender and have it come out as distinctively chicha. So when the band set out to make a demo, it was only natural that their material would be diverse: Sonido Amazonico!, Chicha Libre’s first recording includes covers of the 1970s synth-pop hit “Popcorn” (here “Popcorn Andino”) and a composition by French composer Maurice Ravel alongside a 1960s chicha song by the Peruvian band Buonachito. (The Barbes label run by Conan and Douglas also put out a compilation of these original chicha songs, The Roots of Chicha, in late 2007.)
“Pretty much any kind of music can go into chicha,” says Conan. “That’s one of the reasons I love the genre so much. People can go into chicha with their own surroundings. If you’re hearing a French classical number, and you think ‘Oh, that’s a good idea,’ the Ravel one, that can be chicha. Or if you hear ‘Popcorn,’ that could work, too.”
Chicha Libre was working on its first official release when we spoke last fall, hoping to record six to seven new songs, plus new versions of some of the cuts from the demo CD. For now, if you want to catch the trippy, surf-y psychedelic sounds of this combo, you’ll have to make the trek to Barbes—but Conan says that they expect to tour in the spring.