Chicha can be bundlingly summed up as psychedelic Peruvian surf guitar cumbia. To a listener raised on English-language rock music, listening to this is something like listening to filmi versions of mambo tunes or cowboy songs. In both cases the music is familiar-yet-not. The songs ask for a new attentiveness. Things have been altered. The language is different, but it’s not quite that. The personality of the music has changed.
The original Juaneco was a man named Juan Wong Paredes, an amateur Amazonian part-Chinese saxophonist, who, dying, passed his band on to his son, Juan Wong Popolizio. Popolizio acquired a Farfisa organ and made the acquaintance of Noé Fanchin, schoolteacher, guitar player, and a devotee of the medicinal psychotropic ayahuasca.
Fanchin, along with four other members of the band, died in a plane crash in 1976. By that time, he had introduced the group to the songs of foreign rock bands like the Shadows and the Ventures. You can hear his legacy on this album most clearly in “Vacilando Con Ayahuasca”, its Don Wilsonish guitar joined by the sighs and groans of a woman pretending to be under the influence of the schoolteacher’s favourite drug. “Sss … hhah … oh!” Squeak, moan, languish. It’s the chicha “Dum Maro Dum”.
Radio shows introduced the Combo to cumbia and the music of Brazil. They mixed all of this—ayahuasca, Paredes’ Farfisa, cumbia, Brazil, Fanchin and his stoned Shadows fandom—together with references to the culture of the Amerindians local to their Amazon home town of Pucallpa, a group named the Shipibo. The music that came out of this melange is the music that Barbès has compiled on Masters of Chicha, Vol.1. The cumbia cowbell is there, and the songs are buoyed by a cumbia bounce, and there are familiar cries of “Ay ay ay ay!” and “Woop woop!” but the music leans on the guitar and the organ with an uncumbialike fondness, and the instruments have a delicious, lolling wooze that is alien to traditional cumbia‘s nervy twitch. It sounds springier, floatier, dreamier. This is where the music’s new personality lies, in that druggy floatiness, the Shipibo-Shadows twist.
A different reviewer has suggested that, compared to some other kinds of Latin American music, chicha songs can seem lightweight and samey. It’s true that the music on Masters of Chicha isn’t likely to grab a listener with the forebrain force of, say, tropicalismo or tango, but it has a charm of its own, a persuasive set of tunes, a wobbly joy in the singing, and the ingratiating crepey rills of that Farfisa. Barbès seems set to become chicha‘s primary distributor to the English-speaking world, performing the same useful service for Peruvian bands that Buda has been performing for Ethiopian musicians and that Asphalt-Tango has been performing for the Romanian lautari. This is terrific news. Their website doesn’t yet tell us who the next Masters of Chicha on Vol. 2 are going to be, although my bet would be on Los Mirlos or Hijos del Sol, two groups that made significant contributions to the Roots of Chicha compilation that came out last year. We’ll see.