Perfect Sound Forever


Juaneco y Su Combo

Echoes of the Amazon via Brooklyn
by Amauta Marston-Firmino
(April 2014)

In the Amazonian borderlands, Spanish and Portuguese meld together into an improvised language known locally as Portuñol. Border crossings are as nonchalant as an afternoon stroll. I remember taking a taxi ride in 2009 from Pucallpa in Peru, to Rio Branco in Brazil. It was a twelve-hour drive, through dense jungle scenery that I mostly remember in radio static. As we skirted over muddy roads, the radio picked up echoes of sound, fuzz and then clarity as we approached the odd radio tower, or the border. The driver, singing along, knew as many Peruvian songs as he did Brazilian ones, but his favorite music was "chicha."

"Chicha" is a musical invention from the borderlands, a musical style that is a lot like the people here. It is neither Peruvian nor Brazilian--born in the jungle and yet totally outside of it. It mixes the tropical energy of cumbia, and the Caribbean with the post-industrial malaise of garage rock. The story of chicha begins in Pucallpa, nestled between the jungle and the mountains, where a young mane named Juan Wong Paredes played saxophone for fun and made bricks for a living.

Juan was a young man in the 1960s. Every year brought new waves of migrants, rich businessmen and unskilled workers, some from Peru and some from as far as China, to fill the cheap labor needs created by the booming Amazonian industrial sector. This was the beginning of a new kind of culture, an unplanned and quickly growing hybridity--cosmopolitans in the middle of nowhere.

In Peru, as in most of Latin America, the 1960's also felt the approach of a wave of "tropical music." These fresh imports from Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, and Brazil rode the airwaves through Miami and back. Via the U.S. media machine, South America was soon inundated with the sounds of cumbia, son, charanga, mambo, cha-cha-cha, and rumba, establishing a chain of musical exchange that remains tightly linked today. Juan Wong Paredes and a group of friends, seizing the opportunity, started playing cumbia and mambo together on the weekends calling themselves Juaneco y Su Conjunto. Soon, rock and roll too came down river, and a peculiar musical phenomenon started bubbling up in the tangles of alienated immigrant communities and an urbanized social structure rife with contradictions and imbalances of power. Juaneco y Su Conjunto became the defining sound of an urban, working-class Amazon.

In 1971, Juan Paredes decided to quit the music business after a fatal plane accident killed two of his children. He passed his band down to his only surviving son, Juan Wong Popolizio -- a forward thinking young musician heavily influenced by rock and jazz -- who quickly changed the band's name to Juaneco y Su Combo. He also changed the instrumentation, ditching the accordion and the saxophone for the Farfisa organ and hiring Noe "El Brujo" Fachin, an electric guitarist and fulltime carpenter whose hands were so calloused, it was amazing he could play the guitar at all.

Fachin became the primary composer and arranger, developing the Combo's sound throughout the decade. This sound was a combination of everything that Poplizio had grown up listening to, from Andean folk melodies and cumbia to Brazilian pop and rock and roll.

The band's first big hit was "Mujer Hilandera," a cumbia adaptation of a folk song first recorded in the 1953 Brazilian film, O Cangaceiro. It was recorded in Lima along with an original called "Ya Se Ha Muerto Mi Abuelo." They were the first marketable cuts for InFoPeSa, a young label focused on the then-developing Amazonian sound. These two recordings established Juaneco y Su Combo as the founding fathers of Peruvian cumbia and eventually, as I came to find out, the inspiration behind an obscure tribute band in Brooklyn.

Cumbia proper began as an Afro-Colombian style on the Caribbean coast, where Spanish slave ships dropped off centuries worth of musical history and innovation to comingle with a firmly established indigenous tradition -- a typical New World miscegenation. It eventually became Colombia's largest cultural export, with its simple rhythm played primarily on a scratchboard. It was cheap to play and easy to learn. Colombians will go on about the sexuality implicit in their music, the graceful hip movements and the suggestive dances. Story has it that African men seduced Indigenous women with cumbia dances in the late 19th century. True to legend, the groove pulls you into its hops and slithers, like a polka lost in the tropics. Music journalist and Caribbean scholar Ed Morales describes the lilting optimistic sound as "a fusion between merengue and reggae." Cumbia is without a doubt, dance music; its development demanded crowds on their feet, not audiences in their seats. And originally despised by the Colombian elite, it belonged firmly to the lower classes before becoming, through a familiar turn of the tables, a symbol of folkloric nationalism in the 1940's. The same seemed to be happening almost simultaneously in Brazil with samba, in the Dominican Republic with bachata, and in the United States with jazz. Soon, cumbia was heard everywhere from Northern Mexico to Bolivia with each region adding its own sounds to the template. When cumbia filtered into Lima in the ‘60's, it was devoured by a young urban demographic eager to dance and be seduced.

So by 1971, when "Mujer Hilandera" was recorded, a whole generation of dancers was already awaiting the next tropical dance fad. And this time the fad--chicha -- came from within. The music Juaneco y Su Combo recorded in Lima was marketed first as cumbia-amazonica -- and then, after it became especially popular with the working classes in Lima, it became known as chicha. Chicha is the name of a traditional fermented maize beverage brewed in the highlands of Peru; left to age underground, it develops an off-pink color, a slimy texture, and an aftertaste somewhat like vomit. So in this context it's an insult -- anyone caught drinking chicha in the city is marked as an outsider, a drunken hick. Eventually the people, their houses, their food, their cars, their accents, and the distinctly Peruvian style of cumbia that the highland migrants were brewing in their ghettos all came to be known as "chichacultura." For some it became a term of ethnic pride. For others, the sour taste remained.

This was the urban context that made chicha the "new face" of Peru. Because it was neither tropical nor folkloric, chicha was open to interpretation. It wasn't rural music and yet it had to fight for a space in the city. It was the much like the migrant's children -- born straddling the urban and the rural worlds -- who knew nothing about planting or herding livestock but were still considered hicks on the streets where they grew up. These youth, found in chicha a familiar feeling of displacement, a resonance. For them, chicha was both a musical form and an identity: an attempt to assert themselves in a society that denied them every right of expression. But from the dominant media's perspective, any slum manifestation is ultimately a threat. The stakes were high: chicha was a new battleground, and the war would decide who had control of the city.

Whereas the first wave of Andean migrants brought safe and quaint folklore, chicha was inherently an act of resistance -- an effacement to urban elitism. Radio stations in Lima tried their best to censor chicha. The police shut down chicha parties, connoting the music with violence, drugs and drunkenness. It suffered decades of neglect and contempt as a criminal music for the poor and the peripheral. And in a self-fulfilling prophecy, chicha eventually did become Peru's criminal music, replete with gang references and violent lyrics. The slums, meanwhile, have only gotten bigger and chicha has become a canned sound, shot through with hip-hop, reggaeton and the bubblegum pop explosion of the late 1990's, produced now on computers by just about anybody. Few, if any, of these new cumbia bands use acoustic instruments and all are bursting at the seams with synthesizers. The eclecticism that made this music unique at its onset was no more, leaving only a socially rebellious but dominantly commercial sound.

Almost fifteen years later, in 2007, Brooklyn musician and club owner Olivier Conan released a compilation album entitled Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias From Peru on his own Barbès label. As far from the roots of chicha as Conan was, his musical curiosity may have changed the genre's discourse in Peru. After the release of Conan's compilation of 18 Amazonian chicha classics in the U.S., Europe, and Argentina, the music managed to channel its way back into mainstream Peru, finding itself in the sphere of educated, middle-class urban youth. By 2008, young bands in Lima were jumping on a wave of classic chicha spearheaded by the reggae band Bareto's aptly entitled, Cumbia. Five out of twelve tracks on Cumbia are, no surprise, covers of the selections from Conan's compilation. The cultural taboos were turned on their heads. It was as if upper-middle-class Lima saw something exotic, kitschy and nostalgic about Conan's compilation, despite the fact that all the material Conan had pulled from could be heard on any street corner, and from any market stall. What mattered more, the music itself or the avenue it was traveling on? Did this represent a revival, or a reimagining of the genre? And in this new iteration of chicha, who was really in control?

The journey of this music, its back and forth between Colombia, Peru and the US, exposes the strings being pulled in the creation of popular culture on a transnational level, between and beyond borders. Conan's compilation effectively isolated chicha from its more dangerous, Third World social contexts and captured an exotic, containable and marketable moment in Peruvian cultural history. The identities implicit in the music were now commodities and no longer real. Tag lines like "psychedelic," "Amazon," and "roots" helped to further distance the music from any one market or community, rendering it a more obscure and decontextualized product, as if the album's English titling wasn't enough.

This is not to say that Conan was irresponsible with his compilation, because he did have a critical understanding of the fray he was entering, and frankly, he had good taste. As Conan told me in 2012, "The revival of the music, or rather, its rediscovery by the Peruvian upper classes, applied mostly to the Amazonian style. Amazonian cumbia was perceived as more exotic and in a way, less threatening than the urban version which can still be heard in passing combis [Lima's public buses] and is still the music of the lower classes." In comparison to the mass-produced chicha of today, the music Conan chose was representative of a golden age for the genre. He recognized that his choices were exotic ones informed by and dependant on classism.

It's an old story: the western folklorist in search of obscure music, deciding what's authentic, or good and what's not. In this case, he isn't exactly wrong. His compilation works, the music he dug up gave chicha a much-needed breath of fresh air, and as he said, "a number of music aficionados, writers and musicians were trying to rehabilitate the music, and [Roots of Chicha] proved to be a good opportunity."

The music on Conan's compilation is a peculiar and early chicha sound. All recordings are from the ‘70s, and even though Conan calls them "psychedelic" they're more a form of garage rock; something like guitars and industrial technology on a first date -- a little awkward but full of potential. That doesn't mean that this music wasn't conceptually solid and ahead of its time, because it was. It reached for influences across not just the Peruvian but also the entire Latin-American soundscape, impulsively pushing the boundaries of its context and community. The futuristic sounds of rock in the form of electric guitars, wah-wah pedals, organs and heavy fuzz synths riding a cumbia groove distinctly pronounced on Afro-Cuban instrumentation (including bongos, timbales, and conga drums). There is a heavy dependence on the metallic sounds of cheap drum sets, which in step with incessant, cricket-like shakers, piercing cowbells and the muted slaps of leather-topped percussion blends the new and the old, the natural and the industrial -- very much like the oil-boom Amazon these guys were growing up in. Vocally though, the music is more Andean than anything else. The melodies and the spirit behind the voices all look back to this Andean tradition that chicha has never been able to occult, even behind layers of eclecticism.

Take track 1 of Roots of Chicha, "Sonido Amazonico" by Los Mirlos, for example; a heavy hitting instrumental with seriously effected rhythm backing and a looping, snakey guitar melody sliding through the track. It sounds like a woozy cover of the Misirlou theme from Pulp Fiction with Arabic intonations, a surf-rock groove and a percussion section set on lounge-gear. There's a scratchboard in the front end throughout, keeping the 16th notes relatively stable and meanwhile a medley of bongos and timbales keep you guessing which way to move next. On the upbeat though, a repressive cymbal crash adds just enough drive to make you bob your head, and that's when it hits you -- this insistent cymbal crash is an Andean rhythm, the carnavalito. As polyrhythmic as chicha tries to be, lurking in the background there is bound to be a hint of the Andes. And although reliant on the instrumental groove, chicha is for the most part completely anchored to chorus sections -- a staple of Andean folklore where music making is a community affair. Like on "Linda Muñequita" by Los Hijos Del Sol where there is a minute and a half of dedications, shout-outs and whistling over an instrumental buildup before the song actually begins. Here, there is never a lead-singer, only a unison chorale. Some bands however, like Los Diablos Rojos who were known for their tropical grooves -- fewer effects, more swing, with a bass walking all over the bar lines and a simple 1-4-5 chord structure (ala Ritchie Valens's, "La Bamba") -- relied on the more African call and response chorus sections. On "El Guapo", for example, after a short, self-aggrandizing verse by the lead, the chorus takes over repeating a simple phrase "porque yo soy guapo" ("because I'm handsome") while the singer improvises on top of and in between the chorus hooks. The effect is more energy-packed and Caribbean than in "Sonido Amazonico," something more like Cuban music gone rockabilly.

All this to say that chicha's only template is eclecticism. Juaneco y Su Combo performed in full-on tribal gear, wearing Shipibo textiles, feathered headdresses and facepaint, while other bands like Los Diablos or Los Mirlos performed in matching Hawaiian shirts, sometimes with ruffled sleeves. Some bands hired dancers dressed in loincloths, others in cowboy hats and miniskirts. Chicha had its hands in so many places at once that it is hard to pinpoint exactly where it stands on the global stage. As Conan's liner notes put it, "the sound was modern... straight from North America – but it was also distinctly Latin, not Peruvian. It was pan-Latin..." (2007). Chicha tried its hand at world music, before the concept existed, employing an inherent hybridity, openness and transnationalism. And although The Beatles were experimenting with sitars and tabla drums around the time Juaneco y Su Combo were formulating a sound, chicha was coming from the peripheries -- the middle of nowhere -- and cannibalizing the dominant global culture for its own purposes. Forty years later, it would prove more complex still, wedging itself into the tense social dynamics of Peru and becoming part of New York's global broadcast.

Chicha had always been around, circulating the airwaves of Peru, but in a form that Conan tells me was "the music that the ‘young hip crowd' associates with their maids." While living in Lima for six months, I noticed an emerging interest in chicha amongst this "young hip crowd" who in 2008 were mostly fascinated with either post-punk or electronic dance music -- much like their American counterparts. What I saw take place was the emergence of a rift. This hip crowd in Lima was now so comfortable with chicha that they were creating their own templates, sounds and culture around the music. Working class chicha seems to maintain a strongly tropical/Andean vibe, sounding more like romantic salsa fueled by beer and cheap Yamaha keyboard samples. Middle class chicha on the other hand is about trained and experimental musicians with influences ranging from jazz to ska, powered by marijuana and coffee. To me, slowly but surely, the middle class chicha is losing its dance groove, becoming more sit-down than dance. But is it Conan's fault? He likes to say it was all a "weird accident", nevertheless chicha is global now and the relationship between periphery and center is shifted.

Conan says his album "seemed to have been a catalyst" for the revitalized chicha interest -- "having a foreigner take the music seriously was a great excuse for people to write about it." El Comercio Peru, one of Lima's largest newspapers, published an article on Conan's first concert in Lima in March of 2011, calling the music a mixture of "chicha, cumbia, French and a bit of U.S. capitalism." A few months before, another article in El Comercio announced proudly that American movie star Elijah Wood "knows of and listens to Juaneco y Su Combo". The interview culminates with Mr. Wood offering The Roots of Chicha as his favorite chicha record (El Comercio, 7/03/2011). The media was on the fence, oscillating between skepticism and pride. That Peru now had something of theirs on the global market was good, but once it entered the global fray, ownership and control had to be ceded, and something was fishy.

Three years after his original compilation, Conan released Roots of Chicha Vol. 2 as "an attempt to rectify some of the biases and inaccuracies of the first volume", focusing more on the Urban and "dangerous" manifestations of chicha and less on "the old stuff". His second compilation attempts to dig deeper. Perhaps it was marketable; perhaps it was out of curiosity, or a form of appreciation. "When I released the first volume of Roots of Chicha in September of 2007" writes Conan, "I couldn't have foreseen the kind of impact it would have".

As Conan pursues his journey deeper into the roots of chicha, Peru is rediscovering pieces of itself, opening new avenues of discussion, and regrettably, new routes of subjugation. But it is also producing music that is, in my opinion, and in the opinion of thousands of audience members and in the opinion of Elijah Wood, good music. And while it's striking that now audiences in Brooklyn know what chicha is, what they still don't know is that chicha is not a dying sound, and that chicha can in fact still be heard elsewhere and that what they're listening to ultimately is an echo. In Lima, chicha dances are as prevalent as ever, and Juaneco's old hits are played alongside Daddy Yankee without the slightest bit of irony, while in Conan's Brooklyn bar, only the tall, awkward guy in the corner is dancing.

Also see the Barbès site for Chicha music

Thanks to Robert Christgau for his help with this article.

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