At first The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru seemed psychedelic only in the mild way that an exposed nipple in the middle of an otherwise blameless movie can be called pornographic. In other words, not very.
The chicha of the title is a Peruvian variation on the usual Colombian cumbia; the genre is an invention of rural Amerindians who moved to the towns and cities, and, trying to find work as musicians, adapted the popular foreign style to suit themselves and their 1960s audience. It’s the snappy cumbia trot that gives this album its character, not so much the dreaminess of the psychedelics. “Their job was to make people dance,” as the compiler points out. Not to gaze mushroom-eyed at their navels. The songs hustle along to the scrit-scratch of the güiro and the regular clonk of the cumbia cowbell.
The first time I listened to the album, that beat was all I heard. After a second and third listen, however, I began to realise just how well the Anglo psyche instruments had been integrated into the basic South American drive of the music, and I had a new respect for the bands. Los Mirlos lead into “El Milagro Verde” with stealthy jellied surf guitars, then cleverly flood the song with cumbia without losing that initial guitar sound. One of the singers hoots, “Woup woup woup woup”. It sounds like a weird new language, half-acidhead, half-jellyfish. The cumbia comes up at us through the buried wangle of the guitars. “Muchachita del Oriente” is something like a fast ballad with psyche wind effects and a spiky electric organ in the background.
There are different organs on other songs, and similar guitars played in different ways. Los Hijos Del Sol make use of the woups, tho’ their music leans lightly on the buried wangling—compared to Los Mirlos, they’re almost straight cumbia, with only some subtle echo effects and a slight air of mystery to uphold their reputation as psychedelic fusionists. Esubio Y Su Banjo don’t even have that much. In fact, if psychedelic innovation were the only consideration for inclusion in this album then they wouldn’t be here at all. Their very Colombian-sounding “Mi Morena Rebelde” scintillates remorselessly as if it doesn’t know whether it wants to make you dance your legs off or just glitter until your eyes rot out.
In Juaneco Y Su Combo’s “Vacilando Con Ayahuesca” the guitar is higher and leaner than it was in the Los Mirlos numbers. It has the lonesome echo that haunts the soundtracks to spaghetti westerns. A woman comes into the song, gasping and groaning and saying words that sound like, “Oh, Juaneco!” The one-sidedness of this sexual come-on gives it overtones of extreme creepiness—is Juaneco just not enjoying himself as much as his girlfriend, or has the shock of fornication stricken him mute?
Los Diablos Rojos’ “Sacalo Sacalo” starts with slow, dramatic twangs that seem to have come from one of those mid-last-century US pop songs about boyfriends who die in car crashes. It turns into something closer to a salsa. There’s a lightness in Roots of Chicha‘s music, a soupçon more falsetto in the vocals, perhaps, than there are in Colombian cumbias, an airiness that might owe something to the Andean origins of some of the musicians. Upon hearing the chorus of men carolling together in Los Hijos Del Sol’s “Cariñito”, my mind leaped to the remembered sight of panpipe-and-poncho buskers out in Bourke Street Mall at lunchtime, trying to drum up an audience near the Pancake Parlour and the doors of HMV.
Like almost any other cumbia compilation, The Roots of Chicha jogs along on a wave of good humour, jaunty male singing, and an overall vibe of pride and pleasure. The jellied guitars are a fillip. The real surprise is not the psychedelica, it’s the fact that these modified cumbias come from Peru, not Colombia. In the popular imagination, Peruvian music, insofar as it is known at all outside South America, takes the shape of Andean buskers warbling down their panpipes like the ones I’ve seen on Bourke Street, or the august, Afro-Peruvian, crop-haired form of Susana Baca, a woman who falls into the same soulful-crooner category as Cesaria Evora. Nothing psychedelic about her, nothing to suggest that she comes from the same country as these happy pioneering chichas. There are chicha websites out there, but The Rough Guide to World Music, usually so full of recommendations, only lists a single chicha album. (It is called simply Chicha, and comes from Grupo de Belén de Tarma, a band not represented on Roots of Chicha, possibly because they’re not the right vintage.) This album, then, is something different.