[26 March 2008]
The cover art—in fetching olive and red, with moustachioed bust of some venerable don—cries pastiche even before the first note sounds, but it still doesn’t hint at the dedication within. You’ve got to hand it to New York-when it comes to recreating a retro-equatorial milieu, no city on Earth does it better, from the mighty Daktaris and their radical offshoot, Antibalas, to this startling invocation of an imaginary Peru. As the Barbès website writes of their other pseudo-Latino collective, Las Rubias Del Norte, “the band…all look back to the Latin motherland they never had”: that pretty much sums up the Brooklyn aesthetic, and provides the key to Chicha Libre’s genius.
These musicians have pored over the climate-warped archives of Latin America, Africa, and beyond with an intensity even the most obsessive native likely couldn’t manage for being too close to the source. Absence makes the groove grow stronger, you could say, especially when it’s the absence of a time and location you never experienced in the first place. It’s all about atmosphere, and this lot have it in great clay-red-earth spadefuls. It’s about an obsessive fidelity to analogue recording; great gurning organ riffs from the back of beyond. This plays as if it could’ve been cut in any backstreet studio from La Paz to Manaus to Mexico City, in any year prior to 1976, the sound of wannabe hombres who—in their own minds at least—actually are.
It’s also about a sense of humour, a wry chuckle for even the most precious world music geek when they hear the familiar robo-squeak of Moog pioneer Gershon Kingsley’s “Popcorn”, reborn as “Popcorn Andino” and timewarped to a heaving palapa in an imaginary riverside shanty, or a mud-smeared pueblo cantina: cuatro part, caballero-stiff harmony and all, so lovingly wrought it’s beyond the deadpan. It’s also about as close as the record comes to novelty, but that’s probably not a word in bandleader/cuatro player/Frenchman-in-NewYork Olivier Conan’s vocabulary. For this is the man behind last year’s acclaimed compilation, The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias, having raked Lima’s street markets to rain musical maize beer upon an unsuspecting world.
Perhaps stung by grumblings in some quarters that it didn’t quite deserve the psychedelic tag, Conan makes sure that his own take on the genre—itself a polyester-shirted confab of Latin and North American, rock and roots styles, raw-cooked ceviche-style in Amazonian sweat—is as otherwordly as an ayahuasca session. This is a man who can sing about the jungle never seeing spring—to, ¡dios mio!, a minor key adaptation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons!—and make it sound like an unfathomable tragedy for the ages. Nor do Satie and Ravel escape the chicha treatment: hear “Gnosienne No.1” and weep into your Inca Kola. The press release calls it “syncretism”; it might more accurately be termed as having pelotas of tropical hardwood.
Rewind to the title track, both opener and mission statement (and originating with Los Mirlos, as heard on the chicha compilation), setting the mesmerisingly unplaceable tone inside the first few bars: sly, wah-wah funk riffs and vibrato arabesques wailing between Istanbul and Dakar, broiled in the humidity of Puerto Maldonado, wooed by the heavy solace of Josh Camp’s Hohner Electravox, drawing, drawing you closer in concentric circles of intrigue. It’s an organ sound more lugubrious and alive—witness the whirling, alegria-frenzied climax of “The Hungry Song”—than you’ll very possibly ever have heard, and it accents the endemic melancholy of the high Andes (as it does the mystery of the Amazon) as uncannily as if it had been unearthed on some archeological dig. Where have you heard “Borrachito” before? Oh yes, those pan-pipers in the plaza… except here those unmistakable, long-suffering scales are measured on chundering organ and surf guitar instead of the zampoña and charango so needlessly reduced to cliché in western cities; so familiar yet so far.
And what of cumbia itself? Fear not, and forget the tinny, digitised earache you might think you know it as; “Cumbia del Zapatero” is the real thing, or at least it’s a gloriously imagined real thing, with added twang. Along with the aforementioned Satie cover, the likes of “Tres Pasajeros” out-Calexicos Calexico without lifting much of a finger, a track which might have been written for the Mephistophelian pisco seller in Mario Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes; and always that organ, sounding its chords as if rolling its eyes in a slow motion fit, a bad moon on the wane.
As the original Peruvian scene was itself a porous, very Latin American hyrid, so Conan and company drift through stylistic strictures which were never there: “Indian Summer"s boy-girl harmony and Paris-via-Havana tristesse is the icing on the empanada, a dynamic as cuttingly bittersweet as the best of Serge Gainsbourg’s film scores. The only time they threaten to lose their chicha is when they treat a Consuelo “Bésame Mucho” Velazquez song to a contrary blitheness; even then, though, the organ grinder leaves you grinning. Conan, in the press release, denies “an acute case of exotic fetishism”, yet ¡Sonido Amazonico!’s sound is exactly the kind of contemporary exotica Gainsbourg might have drank deep from had he still been around.
Is it fetishistic? Not exactly. Alluring, thrilling, yes, and so simple; like the best music of any genre it leaves you wondering about the mystery of it all. It suggests that to find any lasting meaning you have to go backwards to go forwards, and that if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then—swimming against tidal waves of whining, overproduced mediocrity—vintage flattery might just be the new rock and roll. So raise your earthenware bowl to ¡Sonido Amazonico!—as addictive, as evocative, and as knowing a way to lose the modern world as you’ll hear all year.