It took a French band in Brooklyn, New York to really turn me on to Chicha, the psychedelic Amazonian cumbia that came out of the Peruvian Amazon in the late 1960’s. Cumbias Amazonicas were inspired by Colombian cumbias but added Andean melodies and surf guitars, wah-wah pedals, organs, and synthesizers. Chicha soon spread out from the jungle to the migrant population in Lima and blended even more with popular music in Peru of the time. “Like Jamaican Ska or Congolese Soukous, Chicha is western-influenced indigenous music geared toward the new urban masses who wholly identified with the new hybrid,” according to the Barbés record label in Brooklyn that put out an excellent collection of Chicha music in 2008 called The Roots of Chicha.
The label’s headquarters in Brooklyn’s South Slope, in the bar/club of the same name, is also where the band Chicha Libre
plays. The band was featured in 2008 in the New York Times and had one of their songs featured on an episode of the Showtime hit Weeds (it’s playing when Nancy and Esteban take Ayahuasca).
More from Barbes Records on the history Chicha:
“The first wave of Cumbia bands came from the Amazon – from cities like Pucallpa, Moyobamba, and Iquitos, which were rapidly getting urbanized as a result as of the oil boom. Bands such as Juaneco y Su Combo, Los Mirlos, and Los Tigres de Tarapoto sung about partying, oil (los Mirlos have a song called La Danza del Petrolero), and life in the forest. The goal was to entertain, and the lyrics could be tongue in cheek or even outright funny. Still, a particular sense of regional and ethnic pride runs through all these lyrics; bands refer to it as Poder Verde, or Green Power.
The rhythms didn’t vary much: they were either mid-tempo Cumbias or fast Cumbias called Cumbión. The music, however, retained a strong regional flavor in part by relying heavily on the pentatonic scales associated with Andean folklore. It was at once familiar and exotic, traditional and modern. Because of massive migrations to Lima in the mid-seventies, Cumbias Amazonicas, as they were known, reached a wider audience. Limeño bands started playing Cumbias but adding their own touches; as a result, the music became more urban and open to even more influences. Los Destellos began to draw more from rock and Cuban music, Los Hijos del Sol from Huaynos and Criollo music, and Los Diablos Rojos from Salsa.
The music was so fresh, so exciting, and its appeal so effortlessly universal that it still seems strange that it never managed to find an international audience. The oddly post-modern combination of western psychedelia, Cuban and Colombian rhythms, Andean melodies and idiosyncratic experimentation was close in spirit to the pop syncretism of Brazilian Tropicalia bands such as Os Mutantes.
But unlike Brazilian Tropicalia, Chicha was not an intellectual movement. Its main proponents were working musicians who mostly came from poor backgrounds. Their job was to make people dance. They didn’t travel to London. No discourse was elaborated around the music. It never became popular with the Peruvian middle class. Art students didn’t embrace it. Critics and intellectuals didn’t write about it. As a result, the music was scorned nationally – and largely ignored outside of Peru.”
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.