Sept. 11--Chicha is a mongrel music that doesn't really make sense on paper because the parts seem so incompatible. Its two key components -- Peruvian cumbia and American psychedelic rock -- are among the most peculiar yin/yang sounds smashed together in the 20th century.
But those contrasts are integral to the music's allure. It's part folk, with the earthiness that entails, drawing also from Andean folk music and the Cuban son. And it's part rock, with the requisite drive and groove. It is at times dreamy, at others crisp and visceral. Chicha had a brief run in Peru in the 1970s, but it quickly moved from the fringes to the far fringes. It never caught the attention of radio. Chicha lacked a certain necessary hipness to keep it in circulation.
Olivier Conan is a Frenchman who owns a bar in Brooklyn, N.Y. He found chicha on the far fringes. Conan was wandering around Lima, Peru, when he heard the antique sound of a guitar playing in a '60s surf-rock style, paired with percussion that lent the music a South American beat. He found the music's contrasts beguiling.
"It's very much the same as Pink Floyd, if you think about it," he says. "It's a perfect example of that, how these things often boil down to simple folk music, and you add layers of psychedelic rock and effects. It's the same process, and it's easy to understand."
He also likens the Peruvian embrace of psych rock to the British embrace of American blues and R&B in the 1960s.
Conan -- who plays the cuatro, a small four-stringed Latin American instrument in the lute family -- bought some bootlegged recordings of the decades-old music. He studied it and eventually began playing it at his bar, making a few alterations, subbing an Electrovox keyboard for the more traditional accordion. He named his new band Chicha Libre.
Chicha -- which takes its name from Andean drinks made from fermented maize -- has received an unlikely second chance. Since Chicha Libre released "Sonido Amazonico!" five years ago, interest in the music has ticked up. While Chicha Libre played Houston on its own five years ago, this weekend the band headlines a chicha summit at the Continental Club with Money Chicha from Austin and Chicha Dust from Tucson, Ariz.
"It's definitely not the esoteric thing it used to be, which is great," Conan says. "Musicians seem to be picking it up all over the world. And some people who grew up with it are embracing it."
Conan says chicha was out of circulation in the regions of South America where it was created. "It was briefly considered OK at dance parties, but it quickly became ghetto music," he says. "Almost every pop-musical genre in the world gets gentrified. That didn't happen with this one.
"There's very little footage of the old performers, too. Which is great. You can just listen to the music free of the mythology that would go with it otherwise."
Chicha Libre also released "Canibalismo" last year. Perhaps more important, for the sake of preservation, is an anthology, "The Roots of Chicha," which Conan painstakingly assembled. It includes songs by some of the most important players of the genre's short run, such as Juaneco y Su Combo, Los Destellos and Los Mirlos.
Music from around the world is available today with a mouse click. Chicha suggests an international cross-pollination before the word globalization had been coined. And the music has a doorway to go forward: Chicha doesn't really have rules. So Chicha Libre can expand the sound or look to odd source material, like a classical music piece or a song by the Clash, to be reinvented in a new old style.
"What's remarkable is it's not the product of any kind of university study or people traveling the world for an academic pursuit," Conan says. "These were curious musicians who grabbed any radio broadcasts they could get their hands on, and they imitated a lot of the music they heard."
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